Finding the Queen

Honeybees and brood. Browston Apiary

Have I got a queen?

Some queens seem to present themselves whenever you open a hive. Others are much more elusive!

It is not necessary to find the queen on every inspection. As long as there are eggs in the comb, then you know the queen was there, at the worst, 3 days ago. That’s good enough. I’ve had colonies that have raised a queen where I haven’t seen her for months. It’s not a problem.

If you have been expecting (hoping) for a virgin to start laying, and there are no eggs, then if you see polished cells where the queen would usually be laying (i.e. in a sphere in the centre of the brood area), the cells have been polished in readiness for the queen to lay. She will be there - although virgin queens are not at all easy to find. If that area is filling with nectar, there is a good chance that the queen has gone or didn't return from a mating flight. If the bees are unusually ratty, you may have a queenless colony too. Are the bees quiet or is there a murmur of discontent, indicating there is no queen?

How to test for queenlessness? If you have another colony, a test frame can be given. Shake off the bees from a frame of brood with eggs or young larvae and place it in the suspect hive. If there is a queen, no queencells will be made. If there is no queen, then queencells will be started. If you find that there are no queencells you can always return the frame of brood back to the donor colony if you wish – if it is a weak colony for example.

Norfolk queen with her retinue
Queen surrounded by her retinue. This one was easy to spot.

If you MUST find the queen.

1) Patience is a virtue and gentle patient handling of a colony is the rule and always pays dividends and when searching for the elusive queen, helps even more. If you have an assistant, then 2 pairs of eyes are better than one. My kids, when they help me, seem to be able to find queens much better than me!

A queen is most likely to be in the middle of the brood nest and, after removal of an outside frame and sliding the frames along, it’s surprising how often a queen is found in the middle.

2) However, the best procedure is to start from one side and carefully go through each comb. Look around the edges of a frame first, before she has the chance to walk around to the underside and look carefully, don’t be distracted by anything. You have just one purpose on this mission. She may be under a huddle of bees so a gentle touch with the back of a finger will move the bees along. You may see a difference in the pattern or behaviour of the bees or just the way she walks. Turn over the frame and look on the underside. A favourite place seems to be at the bottom of the comb between the bottom bars and the comb – where is has receded away from the bottom bars on older comb. Once all the frames have been looked through, then go back again. Don’t over-smoke though.

Double Brood Box. If you have a double brood, gently smoke the entrance (a puff or two is enough), then take off the supers and the top brood box. It is most likely that the queen is in the upper brood box as she has moved away from the smoke.

Tip: if you have a big colony, then move the hive 3 feet away and put the super or a box on the old site. The flying bees will return to the old site and therefore keep the numbers down whilst you inspect (This can also work when inspecting a badly behaved colony too).

If you can’t find the queen then take out a couple of frames of stores and pair the brood frames together with gaps in between each pair. Leave for a few minutes with the crown board off and there is a good chance that the queen will be between two brood frames where it is darker and she is more comfortable.

If you really can’t find the queen, then you can do the following:-

With an empty brood chamber on the hive floor, place one frame of brood in it and shake the bees into the box. You do not need to shake the frame to death – you just want to ensure that most of the bees and the queen fall off. Shake frame by frame, then put a queen excluder on the lower brood chamber and the (nearly full) brood chamber over that. Pop on the crown board and leave for a couple of hours. If you have supers on the hive, use a second queen excluder and put the supers on top of that. By this time the bees will have covered the brood and nearly returned to normal. However the drones and the queen will be trapped below the queen excluder. The brood chamber can be lifted off the queen excluder and placed on the upturned roof and the queen excluder can be carefully lifted off - she might be there within a small cluster of bees - or more likely on the single frame of brood.

If you want to do an artificial swarm at this point, then you can put foundation or drawn comb in the lower brood chamber, queen excluder over and supers over that. Put a queen excluder under for a few days (max 1 week) and check that queencells haven't been made in the artificial swarm too. The full brood chamber can be lifted to one side, put on a floor, cut down to 1 queencell and mark the top bar of the queencell frame. (Best queencell is an open cell with the larvae swimming in royal jelly). The flyers will return to mother. Check for additional queencells 5 - 7 days later.

What if you don't have a spare brood chamber? Use an empty super and carry out the above procedure by shaking the bees into it. The queen will be under the queen excluder.

Tip: During inspections, if you want to mark the queen or if you want to ensure that you don’t squash her, always have an empty nuc at hand when inspecting. If you see the queen on a frame, just put the frame in the nuc. She will be safe there whilst you do you inspection. You may:

a) find queencells and decide to do an artificial swarm and therefore need to find her later in the inspection (and if she has been found by chance you know damn well that you’ll not find her so easily next time!).

b) want to mark/clip her and won’t have the marking pen in your pocket at that moment – as you never do!

c) Just want to keep her safe during the inspection.