If you have a honey bee colony without a queen, this is called a “queenless hive“. Unless the colony is in transition mode to replace her, the beekeeper must step in and take action in hopes of saving the colony. Successful beekeeping means being able to recognize the signals of a queenless colony and knowing what to do to help.
A hive can not maintain proper population and strength without a mated queen bee fulfilling her role as egg layer. As beekeepers, we need to be able to recognize problems that may arise.
The Queenless Roar
As you spend more time with your bees, you become familiar with the many sounds made by a colony. In a hive without a queen bee you may hear what has become known as the queenless roar.
This is an intense buzz or high pitched whine you hear upon opening the hive. It is a different sound than normal colony buzzing.
Once you learn to recognize the sound, it become easier to discern in the future. But, not every hive without a queen will do the queenless roar.
Jittery Bees on the Comb
I think one of the most fascinating things about honey bees is the way they continue to work on the comb.
Even when the beekeeper is manipulating a frame, the bees continue go about their jobs. If you tried that with a yellow jacket nest you would quickly realize the difference between bees and wasps – LOL.
A queenless colony will often be fussy or jittery on the comb. Workers are more inclined to run around on the comb. You may notice much more fanning activity than normal too. The bees seem nervous.
Many hives without a queen become more defensive. Honey bees seem more aggressive (or defensive in times of stress.
When the colony is not “queenright”, the bees realize the threat. And, they do not welcome more interference as they attempt to become queenright again.
But, this is not true for every beehive. In some colonies, subdued docile behavior continues even without a queen. So this signal of a queenless hive is not 100% reliable either.
During the warm season, you should find worker and drone brood in the bee brood box of your hive. While the brood pattern may not always be ideal, a complete lack of worker brood is cause for concern.
The queen may be failing, in which case the colony of bees will eventually kill the queen and try to replace her.
Or, other conditions may be responsible for a lack of brood: new queen not laying yet, extreme nectar dearth and no food coming in, etc.
However, an absence of worker brood is one of the most common signs of a queenless hive and should be investigated.
Evidence of Laying Workers
Finding multiple eggs laid in cells is often a sign of laying workers. (Though a new queen may do this at first too. She will get things right in a few days.)
Workers are female and can lay eggs. But, because they are not able to mate, they produce unfertilized eggs that develop into drones (male bees.)
Overabundance of Drones
Seeing more drones in the hive is common during late Spring/Summer. But, be sure to check the brood nest of any colony with a high percentage of drones to ensure that worker brood is being produced. If not, your queen may be failing.
Or, are bees storing honey in the brood nest because there is no brood to care for. Either situation is cause for concern.
What to do With Your Queenless Colony
If you catch the problem in the early stages, it is possible to save a queenless hive. There are several techniques used to help the colony. But first, decide if they really need help.
Let the Bees Make a New Queen
If the queen bee dies or fails, the bees know it way before you do. If they have fresh eggs (or very young female larvae), they will have already started with process of building queen cells to replace her.
The beekeeper needs only to check back in a couple of weeks to ensure the bees’ efforts were successful. However, sometimes – by the time we see the problem, the colony has already tried and failed with no fresh resources to try again.
Give the Queenless Hive Fresh Eggs
If the population of the queenless hive is still sustainable, you can let them try again to rear a queen with fresh resources. You must have other hives to do this – or a friend with one.
In a colony that has it to spare, remove a brood frame with some fresh bee eggs and tiny larvae and give it to the hive in trouble.
Check back in a week or so. Be very careful moving frames. Hopefully, the bees have build queen cells and are on track to replace their queen.
Give the Colony a New Mated Queen
Requeening with a new queen (purchased from a bee supplier) is a fast way to get the bees back on track.
If you can, give the queenless hive a frame or two of brood (even capped brood) when installing the new queen. This helps to calm the colony and makes acceptance more likely.
Combine with a Queenright Hive – Temporarily
And, one of the easiest ways to help a queenless hive is to combine them with a queenright hive.
As long as the population of the colony with a queen is strong, they will sort out the problem and deal with any laying workers.
You can always split the beehives back apart at a later date or when a good queen becomes available for purchase.
The honey bee colony has a magnificent system for maintain a good queen in the hive. But in nature things don’t always work.
Monitor Queen Status
Newer beekeepers often struggle when trying to find their queen bee. And honestly, even experienced beekeepers are not always successful in a large colony with thousands of bees.
This is why I often tell students in my online beekeeping class – you don’t always have to find her. Look for signs that a queen is present.
In the brood area if you see eggs – one per cell, adhered to the bottom of the cell – a queen has been present within the last 3 days.
Always closely monitor hives that have been queenless until you know they are back on track.
How long a colony can survive without a queen bee depends on the condition of the colony at the time of loss. Population slowly dwindles are no new workers emerge. Even a strong colony will not survive more that a couple of months without a queen.
If you find that you hive is queenless, you can give them the resources (fresh eggs, tiny larvae) so they can make a new queen if the population is still good. Otherwise, your best chance is to either requeen the hive with a purchased queen or combine the colony with a queen right hive.
Though not always the case, it is common for a queenless hive to be more aggressive or defensive.
A Final Word
Thankfully, most colonies can replace a missing queen given the right resources. But, even this remarkable system can sometimes fail.
Learn how to recognize the signs of a hive struggling in a queenless state and help them (if needed) to resolve the problem. This is best done through consistent routine hive inspections during the warm season.