Requeening A Hive Successfully
Alas, bees do not live forever and this is true for every member of the colony. The queen bee is the most vital member of the colony. What happens if she dies? Nature allows a honey bee colony to create a new queen bee or replace a missing one. However, sometimes a beekeeper has to intervene in the process of requeening a hive.
In a normal season a healthy honey bee colony has a good system for growing and maintaining their colonies.
As Spring progresses, the colony grows in population. Under the right conditions this hive may become crowded.
Congestion in the hive promotes swarming-where a portion of the workforce leaves to create a new colony.
The mother colony is able to produce a new queen from fertile eggs left behind. In fact, before the swarm leaves – several queen cells are in the works.
This is the normal progression of a natural colony that requeens itself. Most of the time everything works out well.
However, there are times when the beekeeper needs to consider requeening a hive.
This is a scary idea for many new beekeepers. It is normal to have some apprehension.
But, providing a new queen for your colony is part of honey bee colony management.
Why would you consider this ? Don’t the bees know what is best? Yes, usually they do but there are times when the goals of the bees and the beekeeper are not exactly the same.
And, accidents happen in any colony. You may lose a queen to disease or death.
Also, colonies with older queen bees are more prone to swarming – so that’s another reason for the beekeeper to want young queens in the hives.
Sometimes the bees need a hand. And it is the job of the beekeeper to make sure each colony has its best chance for survival.
Why Replacing a Queen Is a Good Idea
The queen honey bee is the most important bee in the colony. She lays all the eggs for the colony-producing a continuing work force.
The most common reason for requeening is to replace an old queen. The colony will eventually replace her but you may not want to wait.
Queen bees can live for several years. But, it is rare for a queen bee to be productive past the age of 2.
As she ages, her pheromone levels begin to drop and egg laying rate is reduced. This allows the population of worker bees in the colony to drop.
Eventually, the colony will replace a failing queen – we call this Superceedure of the Queen.
However, if the population decline happens right before the honey flow, you may lose a large portion of this year’s harvest.
Also, she may run out of stored semen and become a drone laying queen. This situation spells disaster without beekeeper intervention.
These are the most common reasons a beekeeper may requeen a hive:
- the old queen is over 2 years old
- the colony has lost their queen
- the old queen is not laying a good pattern of worker brood.
When Is the Best Time to Requeen?
If your honey bee colony is in dire need, you can replace the queen during any of the warm months.
The beekeeper may choose to give a colony a frame of fresh eggs and let them make their own queen.
This can be done at any time when drones are present to mate with the new queens.
However, understand that this process takes time. If the population in the hive is low, the colony may fail before a new queen can be produced, mate and have new brood emerging.
When given a choice, I think you will get the best results if you requeen during late Spring – Summer.
At this time of year, mated queens should be relatively easy to obtain and purchase.
And because the Spring rush is over, available queens should be well-mated.
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.
Ordering a New Queen Bee
The first step in requeening is to order your new queen bee. Queens are constantly shipped through the mail.
Most of the time this process works well but be sure that you understand the replacement policy in case she arrives dead!
If you live near a beekeeping supply, they will often have extra queens for sale during the season. Otherwise, you can order a queen bee through the mail.
Replacing the Old Queen Honey Bee
When you want to give your colony a new queen, planning ahead is key. A honey bee colony normally has only 1 queen at a time.
Before you can add a new queen, you must remove the old one.
You may feel bad about replacing (killing) a queen who has worked hard for the colony.
It may sound silly but I feel a little bad too. Still, it must be done for the good of the colony.
Before you do anything to your old queen, you should have a new queen “in your hand”.
Not on order, or on its way – “in your hand”. Do not kill the old queen until you have the new one ready to go!
How to Find the Old Queen
Learning how to find your queen bee is often a difficult task for beginner beekeepers. The job gets easier with time.
When replacing a failing queen you must remove here before inserting the new caged one. Otherwise, the colony will kill her.
Because the queen honey bee’s job is egg laying, we know where to look first. She is usually found in the brood nest of the colony.
Start looking for her in the box that contains the brood nest – concentrated areas of bee brood . This may seem difficult at first but your skill will improve.
Learning how to find the queen bee take practice. Finding her may take a while, this is a job that should not be rushed.
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.
A colony with a failing queen is often a bit more “testy” than normal. Stay calm, move slowly and use your smoker to calm the bees.
Introducing a New Queen to Your Colony
If replacing an existing queen, some beekeepers recommend leaving your hive queenless for 24 hours.
This means you would kill your old queen and wait until the next day to introduce your new queen.
I usually do not do this as it requires the hive to be opened twice. The choice is yours. Again, never dispose of an old queen without her replacement in your hand.
Worker bees are loyal to their own queen. The new queen will “smell” different and is likely to be killed by the colony.
This is why you need a plan to allow the workers to get to know and accept her. And even then, it sometimes takes more than one try.
Queen Release When Requeening
There are 2 common methods of queen release: direct and indirect.
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 new queen will be immediately killed. I do not recommend using this method.
The other method of queen 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 as their queen.
Most often, the new queen and a few attendants (bees that came from her hive) are held in a small cage.
A wooden “queen cage” will have a candy plug on one end. The white candy blocks the exit.
If there is a cork over the candy plug, remove it. 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.
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.
Queen Cage Placement
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 it present.
Exact placement of the queen cage is up to you. But, if the exit hole points down, workers inside the cage might die and block the exit.
The candy end should point up to prevent any dead bees blocking 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 queen 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 – so your queen can leave the cage.
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 is temporarily leave 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 queen 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.
Consider feeding your bees when you are requeening a hive. Yes, even if a nectar flow is on. I have found my bees to be more receptive to a new queen when food is plentiful.
Choose the type of feeder that you prefer to use and give your colony some 1:1 sugar water. This recipe is equal parts of pure cane sugar and water.
Checking 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 giving your bees a new queen.
Now, the queen 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.
Requeening is a necessary beekeeping management practice for those who want to grow productive hives.