Introducing a queen
Our queens are supplied in cages which have a candy plug and a break-off tab. Within the cage are a few attendants which are there to look after the queen. Some say that the attendants should be removed for more reliable introduction. Some say that it doesn’t matter. However If the queen and her attendants have been in the cage for a long time it may be advantageous to remove the attendants to minimise the risk of passing disease. (Stress in the cage may exacerbate Nosema for example). If you don't want the risk of losing the queen during this process, then leave the worker attendants with her.
Our queens will have been laying for at least 3 weeks in mini-nucs or larger hives so we know that the brood pattern is good, the bees haven’t tried to supercede her and the queen is not a drone layer. They are usually marked with the colour code for the year and may have had a wing clipped depending on request.
When the queen arrives the package should be opened and a drop of water from your finger placed on the cage. This will give the bees something to drink. They will already have received food and some moisture from the candy which they have access to during their journey. Keep them out of bright sunlight and somewhere warm - just indoors is fine.
Placing in the hive
The cage has a loop to attach a piece of string or some means of holding it between the combs of the hive. String, a paperclip or whatever you chose should be attached before the recipient hive is opened.
The recipient hive must be queenless and with no laying workers and no queencells. Open the hive in the usual way using the minimal amount of smoke. Remove the outer frame to allow easy access and slide the frames across to locate one near the centre. The queen in her cage with the plastic tab intact is placed between two brood combs. You can do this in two different ways, either hand the cage a few centimetres down from the top bars or place the cage sideways and push it down to the top is level with the top bars of the frames either side. In this way, the queen and her feet are protected by the top bars at each side however bees in the hive still have access to the queen at what is now, the top and bottom of the cage. You may need to squash some comb to get the cage in. It is not advisable to rely on squashing the comb to keep the cage in place as it may fall down and then the queen will be ignored, however once the cage is in place, the frames can be slid together and the outer frame put back in place.
The safest method is to leave the queen in the cage for 2 or 3 days before removing the plastic tab. Within the hive the bees will get used to the pheromone of the new queen and will look after her – feeding through the cage. If they take a dislike to her, she is safe inside.
Note 1. No method of introduction is 100% reliable.
Note 2. If you have your new queen and realise that there is already a queen in the hive or there are laying workers, the introduced queen will not survive.
Recommendation: If there is no income, a gentle feed will make the bees calmer and keep them busy processing the syrup and may make acceptance more reliable. (Ensure the feeder can't drip on the queen!).
After 3 days the hive can be opened and the plastic tab can be broken off. The hive is closed up again. (However if the cage is surrounded by bees trying to get her, the hive should be closed up and left for another 3 days). Bees will start to eat their way into the cage and so release the queen whilst we are not there annoying them. The colony should be unopened for a week to allow the queen to settle in and start to lay.
Upon the first inspection the cage can be removed – check the queen is not inside. A quick inspection to ensure that she is laying is all that’s required. Hopefully you will see eggs and small larvae. If the candy plug has not been eaten through, a nail or similar can be pushed through the candy and the cage put back in for another 3 days.
It is said that a queen is not fully accepted until she is surrounded by her own offspring so extra-gentle handling of the colony is desirable until some of her own brood has emerged. Varroa treatment should not be started until the queen has been in the hive for at least 2 weeks.
If the queen has been put in to replace the queen due to there being stroppy bees, it will take a couple of months before those bees have died in which case you may find that the temperament of the colony doesn't improve much until then. Other times it improves within a week or so, once her pheromones are transferred through the colony.
The least reliable time to re-queen is in late May and June/July. If queen replacement is being envisaged at this time of the year, placing the queen in a nuc with young bees first is a safer approach; the nuc can be united to the hive by the newspaper method at a later date. Even then, safe uniting cannot be guaranteed. If there is a dearth of nectar, feeding both colonies for a couple of days before uniting and then continuing the feeding for a few days afterwards may help the process along in order to reach a favourable outcome.
Most re-queening is successful but "you can never be sure with bees"!
Requeening a 'hot' hive.
Bees that are bad tempered are no fun. A technique that works is as follows which doesn't require the 'bad' queen to be removed - not initially in any case - so you don't have a period where you have a queenless bad-tempered colony (which can often be even worse). It needs to be done when the bees are flying well.
You will need a couple of frames of stores from a brood box and then other frames of comb or foundation to fill up the space in the hive. There should be no brood at all on these frames as having no brood is the key.
Place the frames in an empty hive and put the queen in her cage between the top bars of the two frames of stores that are in the centre of the brood box. The reason for placing the cage between two frames of stores is that the queen is protected by the sealed stores on the two large sides of the cage - she can keep away from the bees until they realise that they need her.
Move the bad-tempered hive to one side and place the empty hive in it's place.
The flyers will return to the hive site they know. With no brood they have no option to make a queen themselves and they will (usually) accept the queen - after all, it's the only queen they've got. They have no other choice.
Leave for a week and then inspect. The queen should now have been released by the bees and be laying. The bees may not be behaving too well towards you however there won't be too many of them, so they should be manageable.
For the hive that still contains the 'bad tempered' queen, it has lost it's flyers so will be calmer to deal with. At this point you may wish to move a couple of brood frames, with bees shaken off, to your new hive. Sealed brood is best however you may not want to hang around for too long so any brood is fine! The brood will emerge soon enough to get the new colony going quicker. You can now place any supers on top of the 'good queen's' colony over a queen excluder over a sheet of newspaper. The newspaper will give a slower release of bees to the queen which they will not recognise.
Finally, you need to do something with the remaining hive in which has the queen you don't like. It has already lost some bees and brood. You now need to find the queen and remove her. If the bees are stroppy, you can move the hive to the other side of the 'good' hive a couple of days before attempting to look for the queen as this will remove more of the flyers who will finish up in the 'good' hive. Once you find the queen, remove her. The colony now needs to be united to the good queen's colony. Depending on how ratty the bees are and how brave you feel, you can either unite with newspaper in the usual way or alternatively put a queen excluder over newspaper on top of the supers of the good hive and plonk the ratty lot on top. You will need to check for queencells a week later and be sure to remove any and all. Once the bees have emerged - 3 weeks after the queen was taken away - you can remove the brood box entirely.
As mentioned already, a new queen can have an effect on the colony behaviour quite quickly, however it's a couple of summer months or so before the old bees have been replaced by new. Often you'll notice a sudden change from one week to the next as the old bees die off and hey presto! well-behaved bees! :)
Note 1. A new queen is unlikely to swarm so you don't necessarily need to inspect every week. And if the bees are unpleasant, best to do it on a good flying day when they are busy outside.
Note 2. Depending on how good or bad the colony is, you may want to move brood from the top brood chamber down to the lower one at your convenience. The top brood chamber can be placed down with the lower one at some point in time, as you wish, to utilise a double brood chamber hive, although you must be sure there are no queencells present.
Note 3. It is better to take things slowly, step-by-step, in order to get the queen in as you want rather than rush things and find that the queen has not survived the process!