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.
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.
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As Spring progresses, the colony grows in population. Congestion in the hive may promote swarming. 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 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 eggs to try again needs help. But, this is not the only reason a beekeeper may decide to replace a colony’s queen.
Common Reasons for Queen Replacement:
Perhaps there is a problem with the old queen and the beekeeper wants to be proactive before the bees take action. Or, the beekeeper may simply wish to add some new genetics from another type of bee to the apiary. 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
The most common reason for requeening is to replace an older unproductive egg layer. The colony will eventually replace her but you may not want to wait.
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. Eventually, the colony will kill her and produce a new one through supersedure. 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.
As researchers continue to work toward developing mite-resistant bees, some beekeeper 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 is 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.
Requeen a Hive Naturally
The beekeeper may face a situation where the colony needs just a little bit of help. If for any reason a hive does not have the fresh eggs or young larva (tiny) – lend a hand.
By taking a frame containing fresh eggs and/or very young larva from a another hive- and giving this to a queenless colony – they can make a new queen.
This works more often than not and it is a good way to keep a colony going at a time when purchasing one is not possible.
This method does have it’s limitations. The queenless colony must have a large enough population to rear a healthy replacement. And, there must be enough drone bees in the area for proper mating. Otherwise, a mated queen replacement is the best solution.
Requeen with a Mated Queen
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 choose one that is mated and already laying. This ensures the best possible outcome. If you are seeking a new queen during the early part of the warm season, you should not have too much trouble finding one.
How to Order a 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 extras for sale during the season. Otherwise, you must place an order and hope for the best.
Some beekeepers become involved in rearing queen bees for their own hives. This is a lot of work but it lets you control how many extras you have on hand. Unless you do this purely for fun and the experience, buying one if the best option if you only need a few queens.
Why You Must Remove the Old Queen
A honey bee colony normally has only 1 queen at a time. Before you can add a new one, you must remove the old one.
Attempting to add a new queen to a hive with the old one present almost always results in the death of the new one. This is a waste of your money and very unfair to the new queen who never had a chance.
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 hive.
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!
Locating the Current Queen
Finding the queen is often a difficult task for beginner beekeepers. The job gets easier with time. Because her job is egg laying, we know where to look first. She is usually found in the brood nest of the colony.
Start your search in the box that contains concentrated areas of bee brood. You may need to set a couple of boxes aside and work your way down.
Learning how to find the queen bee takes 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.
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, she will be immediately killed. 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.
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 in the Hive-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 needed help.
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.
If the exit hole (candy end) 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 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.
Check 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.
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.
When 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 one. I don’t 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. Requeening a hive is a task that every beekeeper will have to do at some point. It is a good hive management tool for some types of disease (Chalkbrood), hive temperament etc. But, do not jump to this conclusion for every situation facing your bees. Have a good reason to do it.