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How to Mark a Queen Bee

One of the most important jobs of a beekeeper is to monitor the status of the queen in a colony. You don’t always need to visually see the queen to know that all is well. However, sometimes you do need to find her. By marking a queen bee, the job of finding her is much easier allowing for faster hive inspections.

Why do Beekeepers Mark Queens?

Queen honey bee marked red on frame with retinue image.

As with all things related to beekeeping, you will find that beekeeper opinions on queen marking vary from one person to another.

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Some experienced beekeepers choose to never mark their bees. But, most hobby or small-scale beekeepers enjoy the benefits of having a marked queen.  

Marked Queens are Easier to Find

For new beekeepers, having a marked queen makes it much easier to actually find her. Of course with experience, everyone gets better at locating her in the hive.

However, even after you get to the stage where you can “almost always” find your queen bee, having her marked still makes the process much faster. 

This helps you conduct hive inspections quickly. Once you know where the she is – her frame can be kept in a safe place. She is less likely to be crushed during a hive inspection if you know her location.

Queen Replacement by the Colony

What does it mean when you find an unmarked queen in a hive that had a marked one previously? There are several possibilities:

  • the paint has rubbed off the old one
  • the colony has swarmed and you are seeing a new one
  • you temporarily have 2 queens in there!

Honey bee swarming is a natural occurrence in healthy colonies.  When inspecting a hive that you know had a marked queen, you may find one that is unmarked. 

On rare occasions, the paint may have been polished away. However, this could be a new replacement from either swarming or supersedure.

While it is normal to have only 1 queen in a hive, sometimes the mother and new daughter will co-exist for a while. I have seen this in my own hives.

The bottom line is that having marked queens in your beehives will let you know (for the most part) when the colony has replaced her.

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This is valuable information for the beekeeper who is working to breed bees with certain characteristics. If you produce a colony with superior varroa mite control it is good to know where the queen in that hive originated.

Queen Bee Colors

If you mark her with a special color for the year, you will always know how old she is.  This can be beneficial in honey bee management.  Why? 

Because, if you have an older queen in a production colony, you know the chances of her failing are greater than that of a young one. Knowing her age allows the beekeeper to plan.

You may choose to leave her in place as long as she is doing a good job – but perhaps you may check her quality a bit more often. If you suspect a need to requeen a hive, this gives some warning.

International Queen Bee Color Chart

Of course, beekeepers can mark the queen honey bee with any color.  However, using the International Queen Bee Color Chart is easier. You do not have to rely on your memory to know which color was used for which year.

Use the color pen that corresponds with the last digit of the year. White 1,6 Yellow 2,7 Red 3,8 Green 4,9 Blue 5,0. So, a queen reared in 2020 would be marked with a blue dot, 2021 – a white dot, etc..

Queen bee color chart for queen colors by year image.

Buying Marked Queen Bees

A beekeeper who buys bees will often be given the choice between receiving an unmarked queen or one marked for the current year-for a few dollars more. The extra cost is to compensate for the extra effort and time required of the producer.

If you buy a queen for your hive, they are almost always mated. Having completed their mating flights, they are already laying eggs.   They arrive in your hive ready to build the colony. 

Safe inside the queen cage with their attendants – they will soon be accepted. They will never leave the hive unless the colony swarms.

Queens that have not yet mated are called virgins. Many bee breeders do not advise the marking of virgin queens. 

The thought is that there is no reason to have them flying around with a colored dot on their back. This makes them more visible to predators.

However, the majority of beekeepers buying packages or nuc colonies are getting queens already mated. So these colorful markings should not be a concern.

When to Mark A Queen Bee

If you receive an unmarked mated queen, the best time to mark her is within the first month

You can mark her during installation of the bee package. However, it is best to wait a couple of weeks. Let the colony bees get to know her – without a big dot on her back.

Once she is accepted and laying eggs-she can be marked while the colony is still small. When I introduce a new queen into a colony, I like to give the bees a few weeks to accept and get to know her.  This increases the chance of acceptance.

Queen Marking Paint

One popular paint used for marking is UNI-POSCA Markers.  These are available online and at major beekeeping supply stores.

Another option for some beekeepers is the use of Testor model paint.  This paint takes a bit longer to dry than using the markers. Though not designated as bee paint – older beekeepers have used it for years.

Do these paints have toxic effects on the bees?  That does not seem to be a problem. Also, we are only putting a small dot on one part of her back. If kept tightly capped, I have have Posca pens last for years.

Steps for Marking Queen Honey Bees

  • Find the queen
  • Contain her – in your fingers or a marking tube, etc
  • Gently apply a dot of paint
  • Let the paint dry a few seconds
  • Return her to the hive

1. Find your queen – she could be anywhere but is mostly likely in the area of the hive with brood. Look carefully for her in that region of the hive.

2. I think one of the most intimidating things about marking queens is holding them. Some beekeepers seem to have no problem with this. But, I always have a bit of angst and fear that I will accidentally crush her, drop her or have other types of bad luck.

When developing a strategy to catch and hold your queen, do what feels comfortable for you. We need to restrain her for a few seconds without harming her.

Beekeepers generally approach marking in one of 2 ways.

  • catch and hold the her with your fingers
  • use a queen marking tube or cage
Beekeeper holding queen honey bee while marking her image.

Holding a Queen Bee With Your Fingers

If you have a steady hand and calm nerves (I do not), you can take the direct approach to catching your queen. Restraining her in this manner takes some skill.

Gently grasp her and hold her body between your thumb and 1st finger of your non-dominate hand.  The second finger provides a place for her feet to sit. 

Move your fingers to expose the top of her thorax this is where you will put a small dot of paint.  If the idea of picking up your queen in this manner makes your blood pressure rise – never fear, there are other options.

Beekeeper using tube to make the queen image.

Using a Queen Marking Kit with Tube

Using a queen marking tube is the easiest method to safely mark your queens.  The beekeeper does not have to hold her but care must still be taken to avoid applying too much pressure.

Find the frame with the queen and gently lay the frame down with that side facing up. Remove the foam-covered plunger from the tube and “corral the queen into the tube”. 

Replace the foam plunger and gently push the her to the end with a mesh covering. The sponge surface will protect her if you are careful.

Continue to slowly nudge her until her back (thorax) is against the mesh.  Do not use too much force – be gentle. Sometimes, gently blowing on her will help to get her to turn over if needed.

Now, mark her with your queen pen marker or paint.  There is also a one-handed queen marking tube on the market to consider.

Queen honey bee captured in a round push in marking cage image.

Round Push in Cage

Another option that appeals to some beekeepers is the use of a small round cage. This push in cage has a mesh top. The beauty of this tool is being able to mark your queen without having to pick her up.

However, it can be difficult to get her in the cage without a lot of other bees. The push in cage works well but you must be careful. Avoid pushing down too hard and damaging your queen.

3. There are several different paints beekeepers use for queen marking. The paint pens by UNI-POSCA are commonly used. If using a paint pen, do a test blob on a nearby piece of wood first. 

Sometimes, the first bit of paint that comes out of the pen is too much. Do not get paint on her wings, antenna or legs.  We only want a small dot of color on her back.

4. Allow the paint to dry for a minute or 2. If you did get a bit too much paint on her – it is usually best to just leave things alone and hope for the best. Trying to clean if off may only damage her further.

5. Release the queen back into the hive. Putting her near the space between two frames seems to work well. She will likely crawl down into the dark area to hide.

On a rare occasion, she may fly off. If this happens don’t panic and stand still – she usually returns to the hive right away.

While some beekeepers feel that marking may cause a colony to reject her, this is not normally the case. Having marked queens helps new beekeepers develop the skill of being able to find her when needed.

Every beekeeper should learn how to mark a queen bee. The skill will come in handy some day. It a provides other valuable hive management information regarding her age, is there a new queen in place, etc.