The queen is the most important member of the honey bee colony. Without her, the hive cannot survive. There are times when the hive becomes queenless and the beekeeper must step in to provide a new queen. This is called requeening.
What is a Queenless Hive?
A queenless hive is a hive that does not have a queen. On the other hand, a hive that has a queen is called queenright. It is important for a beehive to have a queen at all times because the queen is the only one that is able to lay fertilized eggs.
Sometimes the colony is able to make a new queen on their own by feeding royal jelly to a young worker bee larvae. However, this only works for young larvae. If all of the larvae are too old, they cannot make a queen. In that case, the beekeeper must step in and provide a new queen for the hive.
If a colony is unable to make, or receive a new queen, they will eventually become weak and die off. However, if the beekeeper is able to quickly recognize that the hive has become queenless, he or she can fix this problem.
What Causes a Hive to Become Queenless?
There are a few reasons why a hive may become queenless. Sometimes their own colony will kill them. This usually happens if they colony detects that the queen is under-performing her duties.
Other times, a queen can be killed by another queen. This happens when the colony produces their own queens. The first virgin queen to emerge will find and kill the other queens. However, if 2 queens hatch at the same time, they will fight to the death. It is possible that this fight can kill both queens.
Sometimes the beekeeper will accidentally kill the queen. During hive inspections, it is easy for bees to be smashed if the beekeeper is not careful.
Beekeepers may also choose to remove the old queen and replace her with a new one. This could be because the queen is an unproductive egg layer, or to introduce new genetics the the colony.
Finally, you may find yourself needed to requeen a queenless hive if you loose your queen to disease.
Signs of Queenlessness
- Lack of eggs and brood – Since it is the queen’s job to lay eggs, the first thing you will notice in a queenless hive is that there are less, or even no eggs or brood in the hive.
- Change in temperament – Bees in a queenless hive tend to be nervous or irritable. They also will make a high pitched whining sound, however this can be difficult to catch.
- Less population – It is natural for worker bees to die daily, but without a queen, these bees are not being replaced.
- Queen cups – Workers construct queen cups to make a new queen. If you see any queen cups in your hive, it is important to check what stage the cup is in. They may have succeeded in making a new queen, or they may have tried to make one, but was unable to do so.
- Laying workers – Worker bees are also able to lay eggs, but only unfertilized eggs. These eggs will only become male bees, or drones. If the hive is queenright, worker bees will not lay eggs, however, when no queen is present for a while, workers will start laying eggs. You can tell if you have laying workers if you see multiple eggs in each cell. The queen will only lay one egg per cell.
How to Requeen a Queenless Hive
There are 2 ways to requeen a queenless hive. You can either allow the colony to raise a new queen, or take matters into your own hands and introduce a new queen yourself.
Allow the Colony to Raise a New Queen
The colony will naturally attempt to raise a new queen when they realize that they are queenless. The problem with this, is that making a new queen takes time, and sometimes, they do not have a larvae young enough to be a queen.
This can be a little risky because if the bees fail to raise a new queen quickly, the colony may have already weakened to the point of no return. Another potential issue is that there may not be enough drone bees in the area for proper mating.
That’s why it is important for all beekeepers to learn how to requeen a queenless hive.
Introduce a New Mated Queen
Because of those risks, beekeepers will often opt to introduce a new mated queen to the hive. Mated queens are usually bought from bee supply companies. You can choose from different breeds, and the queen is shipped through the mail with a few of her attendants.
Once you have your queen, it is not recommended to directly release her into the hive. This is called the direct method. Doing so will result in her being immediately killed. Instead, use the indirect method.
For this method, the queen is introduced to the colony slowly, so the other bees have time to accept her. You will receive the queen in a small box called a queen cage. On one end of the cage, it has a hole that is blocked with a candy plug.
Sometimes the candy plug is covered by a cork or plastic cap. If this is the case, remove the covering, being careful to leave the candy plug in the hole.
Then, locate a central area in the hive with brood and place the queen cage between 2 frames. Place the cage just under the top bar of the frame, and gently squeeze the 2 frames together to hold the cage in place. This will leave a larger than usual gap between the frames, but it is only temporary.
Make sure that the end with the candy plug is facing upwards. This ensures that in case the attendant bees inside the cage die, they won’t block the exit.
Within a few days, the bees will eat through the candy plug, releasing the queen from her cage. By then, the colony should be used to the queen’s pheromones and accept her into the hive.
This whole process can be stressful for the colony, so most beekeepers will wait 1 week before checking on the bees again. After 7 days, look for signs of queen acceptance.
You want to see the queen walking around on the comb, as well as new eggs that has been laid. It is possible that the queen has not yet laid eggs. If this is the case, check back in 3 more days. Sometimes it can take a little longer for her to get started.
When to Requeen a Hive
If you hive has suddenly become queenless, you have no choice but the requeen as soon as possible. Leaving a colony queenless for too long could risk collapse.
If you are requeening a hive by choice, the best time is during warm months, from late spring to early summer. This gives the queen time to get established before winter.
Learning how to requeen a queenless hive is something all beekeepers must do. Colonies become queenless due to natural reasons, or the beekeeper may choose to replace her. When introducing a mated queen to the colony, it is best to use the indirect method.