Queen honey bees are of vital importance to the colony. Capable of living longer than other members of the hive, even the queen eventually fails. Bees have a plan for making a new queen but it doesn’t always work. The time will come when a beekeeper must learn how to requeen a hive.
While she is only one bee in a family of thousands, the role of the queen bee can not be performed by workers or drones. Having a strong queen is necessary for a good productive colony.
Requeening a Beehive
The honey bee colony has a good system for growing and maintaining the hive. Worker bees only live for a few short weeks during Summer. But, a continuous supply of baby bees is in the works as replacements.
As Spring progresses, the colony grows in population. Congestion in the hive may promote swarming. The colony splits itself and up to half the population leaves.
In this case, the old queen normally accompanies the swarm. The mother colony is able to produce a new queen from fertile eggs left behind in special queen cells.
This is the normal progression of a natural colony that requeens itself. Most of the time everything works out well. But, there will be times that the efforts of the bees fails and the beekeeper needs to step in.
A hive that has failed at queen rearing and has no fresh fertile eggs to try again needs help. But, this is not the only reason a beekeeper may decide to replace a colony’s queen.
Methods of Installing a New Queen
There are 2 common methods of introduction:
If the new queen is released into the hive immediately, this is called “direct release”. This is normally a really bad idea.
Unless the workers are queenless and desperate, the bees will kill the new queen. I do not recommend using this method.
The other method of introduction is indirect. With this method, the new queen is slowly introduced to the colony over several days. This gives the bees time to accept her.
The new queen and a few attendants (bees that came from her hive) are held in a small queen cage.
A white candy plug on one end blocks the exit. If there is a cork over the candy plug, remove the cork. Only remove the cork on the candy end – not the other!
If your new queen comes in a plastic cage, you may find a cap over the candy tube. Remove the plastic cap – allowing the hive bees access to the candy plug.
Over several days, the bees inside and outside the cage, slowly eat through the candy plug. This gives the bees time to get to know the queen.
Poking a Hole in the Candy?
Some resources suggest that you should poke a very small hole in the candy to give the bees a head start. My advice is to gently test the candy plug. If it is pliable, do not punch a hole in the candy.
If the candy plug seems very hard and dry, you may want to use a small nail or toothpick to make a small hole.
Be careful, I can’t tell you how many new beekeepers have killed their queen trying to make a hole in the candy.
All beekeepers have their own way of doing things – find what works for you. Some enjoy using special queen introduction cages.
Installing the Queen Cage for Indirect Release
The colony must have enough bees to maintain hive life during the requeening process. If you have other hives, giving the weaker colony a frame of brood is a good measure.
The old queen is either long gone or you have removed her from the hive. If you happen to see any queen cells, I would tear them out or use them in another hive that needs help.
- Remove the old queen if still present
- install the new caged queen
Place your queen cage between 2 frames in the bee hive. Choose frames in the area with brood or central part of the hive-if no brood is present.
The candy end should point up to prevent any dead bees blocking the exit. If the exit hole (candy end) points down, workers inside the cage might die and block the exit.
However, if you live in a very hot climate that might cause the candy to melt, place the cage horizontally. Within a few days, the candy is eaten away allowing the bees inside to be released.
Fitting a wooden cage into a mature hive can be tricky. I like to push the cage just below the top bars and then gently squeeze the frames together just enough to hold the cage in place.
It is important to be sure that the exit hole is open between the top bars – to allow the bees inside to exit once the candy is gone.
If you twist the cage so that the screen is open to hive workers, they will communicate with the new bees and even feed them.
This temporarily leaves a bigger gap between your frames than normal. That’s okay. You will remove the cage in a few days.
When I am using the plastic cages, I use the same procedure. However, I push the frames close enough together to hold the candy exit tube between the wooden parts of the frames.
Locating the Current Queen
Once you have located the old queen, you can decide how to dispose of her. Some beekeepers squish the old queen and leave her dead on the frames. They feel that this helps the colony to realize that she is gone.
Common Reasons for Queen Replacement:
Beekeepers want strong queens for a productive colony. Here are some common reasons for replacing a queen.
- the colony is queenless
- the current one is over 2 years old
- a bad pattern of worker brood
- introduce new genetics
Missing Queen or One That is Failing
The most common reason for requeening is to replace an older unproductive egg layer. While they can live for several years, it is rare for a queen bee to be productive past the age of 2 years.
As she ages, her pheromone levels begin to drop and egg laying rate is reduced. As this bad brood pattern continues colony population drops.
Still, there will be a lag in new workers emerging – often this in not a big problem. However, if the population decline happens right before the honey flow, you may lose a large portion of this year’s harvest.
Another reason to requeen a hive on your own schedule is to avoid having a drone layer. A colony without a laying queen or brood for a period of time will develop laying workers. This situation spells disaster without beekeeper intervention.
Or, the beekeeper may simply wish to add some new genetics from another type of bee to the apiary.
As researchers continue to work toward developing mite-resistant bees, some beekeepers like to try new queens from different genetic lines.
Requeening is a great way to achieve “different bees” in the yard without having to buy a whole colony.
When to Requeen a Hive
If a colony is in dire need, you can replace the queen during any of the warm months. Sometimes you just can’t wait if the hive is in danger of collapse.
One of the best times of year to requeen is during late Spring into early Summer. At this time of year, a mated replacement should be relatively easy to obtain and purchase.
As you move into early Summer, the Spring rush is over, availability become less sure. By giving them a new queen during Summer, she will have several months to become established before Winter. And if you have problems, you have time to try again.
Natural Requeening or Buy a Mated Queen?
If for any reason a hive does not have the fresh eggs or young bee larvae (tiny) – you may need to lend a hand. They do not have the resources to replace the queen.
By taking a frame containing fresh eggs and/or very young larva from another hive- and giving this to a queenless colony – the bees have what they need to make queen cells.
This works more often than not and it is a good way to keep a colony going at a time when purchasing a new queen is not possible. But, there must be enough drone bees in the area for proper mating.
Mated queen bees are sold by many bee supply companies. Often, you have a choice of several different breeds of bees – you may want to inject some new bee genetics in your colonies.
While it is possible to buy virgin queens, it is best for most beekeepers to purchase a mated queen. This ensures your chances for the best possible outcome.
How to Test for Queen Acceptance
To avoid stressing the colony, wait 7 days after cage placement to check the hive. If you see the new queen walking around on the comb, she has been accepted.
Seeing new eggs that she has laid, means you have been successful at queen bee replacement for your hive. Now, the empty cage can be removed and the frames pushed back together properly.
If you do not see eggs, check again 3 or 4 days later. Sometimes, the new queen needs a little time to settle down and get to work.
It is always a good plan to do another check at the 2-3 week point to make sure she is a fertile queen and is producing worker brood.
The colony recognizes the “scent” or pheromones of the current queen. Hastily installing another will almost always result in death of the new queen. Find and remove the old queen first.
When replacing an existing queen, some beekeepers recommend leaving your hive queenless for 24 hours. I don’t do this as it requires the hive to be opened twice. The choice is yours.
If your bees kill the new caged queen, this normally means that there is already a queen in that hive.
If possible, it is always best to give a weak colony a frame of capped brood from another hive. There must be enough workers to care for any brood produced.
If she is free of the cage and walking around, she is accepted. Sometimes you can get a hint at the attitude of a colony by their reaction to the caged queen. But this is no guarantee and the introduction phase should not be skipped.
Before you do anything to your old queen, you should have a new one “in your hand”. Not on order, or on its way – “in your hand”. Do not kill the old one until you have the new one ready to go!
Consider feeding your bees when you are requeening. Yes, even if a nectar flow is on. I have found my bees to be more receptive to a replacement when food is plentiful.
Requeening can be a good hive management tool. But, do not jump to this conclusion for every situation facing your bees. Have a good reason to do it.