Living in an Africanized honey bee zone can be a challenge. Africanized bees have some advantages and are not usually as terrible as the media makes them out to be (i.e. “killer bees”), but sometimes you end up with a colony deserving of that name. The solution is to requeen them, but in these situations it’s often easier said than done! Read on for tips and tricks for safely and successfully requeening a defensive colony.
Learning to requeen your hive is something most beekeepers will need to do at some point. If you aren’t familiar with this process, check out my instructional video on the subject. Not sure if your bees are defensive or not? Read this post to help evaluate your colonies temperament.
If you think you have an Africanized colony, make sure you consider the safety of your situation before you proceed. This scenario is often where new beekeepers panic and lose control of the situation. It can be dangerous to yourself or your neighbors. If you are inexperienced, it might be best to seek help from someone who has done this before. If you are in San Diego, California you can make use of my mentoring services and I will help you figure out a safe way to requeen your bees.
Requeening is an invasive process. If your bees pitch a fit just over you weeding near the hive, expect the requeening process to be an all out war. You should make sure your bee suit is actually bee-proof and this might mean adding some additional duct tape over the weak points. When working with mean bees, I often get stung through my gloves and it is sometimes necessary to wear two pairs! I recommend wearing a leather pair with nitrile gloves over them as a second barrier. Similarly, you might want to wear long pants and a shirt with long sleeves under your suit.
Consider your Setting
Before attempting to requeen your defensive colony, consider your setting. How close are you to neighbors and helpless bystanders? If you think you have neighbors in the “sting zone” you should prepare for this by talking to them beforehand. Make sure they will be inside or not home when you attempt to requeen your bees. Alternatively and depending on just how extreme your colonie’s defensive reaction is you may want to arrange to have your hive moved to a remote location for the requeening process. In tight backyard spaces, I sometimes move colonies to rural outyards so I don’t even have to worry about angry bees attacking anyone.
A Creative Solution
I was once in a situation where I had not one, but two colonies of very defensive bees on the roof of a residential home. These bees had made a habit of sending out roaming, angry guards to sting anyone in a 50ft radius after inspections. They had reccently rendered one passing neighbor half blind for three days with a swollen eye. I felt it was no longer safe to open them when they were so close to potential bystanders, but I did not have an outyard that I could move them to for the requeening process. So, as I lay my head down on the pillow that night, fretting about what to do, I was struck with sudden genius. What if all the guard bees were enclosed in a netted bug tent while I requeened them? Like most great ideas, I wasn’t sure if it was totally idiocy or ingenuity worthy of Macgyver, but I decided to try it and see. The result is an event that I like to call “Cage Match”.
We took a screened mosquito tent and erected it over the hives. The tent was tied down and weighted with rocks to keep it from catching the wind and tipping over while we worked. Inside the tent was pandemonium, but it worked! None of the angry guard bees could escape to attack innocents on the sidewalk. They were all locked inside the tent with us! The returning foragers were confused and flew around quite a lot, not to mention, gathering all over the outside of the screen, but they did not behave aggressively. After we successfully killed the queen and installed the new one, we closed the hive, but left the tent up for another hour before taking it down. By that time, the guards cared less about attacking people and much more about restoring that natural order of the flight pattern. We were able to shake most of the bees off the tent, collapse it and leave the rest to figure it out. By nightfall everything was back to normal, except for the an angry buzz for anyone getting too near them in our yard the following day.
Finding the Queen Bee
One of the biggest challenges of requeening is finding the original queen. You must find her and kill her before you install your new queen bee or your new queen will not be accepted. Queenspotting is not a skill all beekeepers possess, if that description applies to you, you may want to check out my Instagram account. I periodically post photo challenges that allow you to practice this particular skill and many have said that it helped them. Search #queenspotting to play! Aside from practice, there are fortunately a few other methods that can help you find your queen.
Don’t Use Smoke
Smoke often send the queen into hiding. When I want to find my queen, I use little to no smoke, and operate as quickly as possible. I often remove the honey supers to get to the brood nest and pull up a center frame first.
Use a Queen Excluder
I know I just said don’t use smoke, but with this method, you will use a queen excluder and A LOT of smoke! The idea is to swift your bees through a queen excluder box by box. Smoke is used to drive the bees down through the excluder and into the hive boxes below. Place the queen excluder under the first box that your queen has access to (if you already had an excluder on, remove and set to the side all of the boxes above it). Then you should heavily smoke this box so that the bees evacuate from it. Most will run down. After you have driven most of your bees down, lift the box off and look for the queen on top of the excluder. If she was in that box, she would have run down like the rest of the bees, but she won’t be able to get through the excluder. If she’s not there, move the excluder below the next box and repeat. When you get to the bottom box, you should place and empty box or one you’ve already shifted through below it so, your bees have somewhere to go when you smoke them. This process is extremely invasive. I only do it as a last resort. If you have a large hive and several weeks, you can also use queen excluders to reduce the number of boxes you needed to search for the queen. Place some excluders, wait week or two and then find the box that has the fresh brood in it and you know she is somewhere in that box.
Check the Walls
In defensive colonies I usually find that the queen has run off the comb and is instead running around on the walls of the hive box. If you can’t find her on the combs, try bringing an empty box with you. As you check each frame place it in box your brought. Once you have removed all the frames, search the walls of the original box for your queen. She’s often in the corners.
Techniques That Increase Acceptance
In addition to the stress of dealing with thousands of bees trying to kill you and the struggle that comes with finding the queen in that environment, aggressive colonies often refuse to accept new queens. It is common to find the empty cage, with no eggs or queen in sight. I have even found her dead body discarded 5 feet away, the sun gleaming on her painted back. This prospect is disheartening considering all the trouble and expense you will take in your attempt to requeen, but there are some techniques that can help.
Splitting the Hive
The phrase divide and conquer is definitely true of bees. Splitting an aggressive colony before requeening has many advantages. It usually calms the bees down. Smaller colonies are less defensive because they have less to defend! It also means you will have less bess to search through when you go to find the queen and kill her. Another splitting tactic involves making a catch hive (a box set up in the original location of the hive that is empty except for one or two frames of older brood and/or honey) in order to separate the young bees from the older foraging bees. The theory here is the younger bees are more likely to accept a new queen than the older ones. Move your colony to another location in your yard, leaving just a catch hive in it’s place: most of the foragers will stay with the catch hive while all the flightless, young bees will remain in the original hive. Come back a few days later to requeen the original hive. You can leave the catch hive to live out their days making honey or you can try to get them queenright as an experiment. Some even like to combine the catch hive back with their original hive after it has accepted the new queen.
Cage the Queen Longer
Sometimes leaving your queen caged for a little longer can aid her acceptance in an aggressive hive. Try using duct tape over the candy plug to delay her release. I normally leave her in the cage with the tape for a week, then go back in to remove the tape and wait another week.
A push in cage is a stiff metal cage that pushes into the comb itself. Once you’ve made your cage, place your queen under it, wait 4 days and then release her. This style cage allows her to begin laying eggs straight away, but protects her from the worker bees that might harm her. Normally queens are accepted once they have begun to lay eggs.
Utilizing the Dead Queen
After you’ve killed your original queen, you can run her dead body on the cage of the new queen. The idea is that her smell makes the bees more receptive to the new queen.
Using a Local Queen
I have found that locally mated queen are more readily accepted by my hives. Especially with angry bees. I am not sure if this is because the bees bred in the area have some portion of Africanized genes that makes them more appealing to they Africanized colony I am trying to requeen or if it has to do with the smell of local nectar sources.
In extreme cases, Africanized bees will not accept a new queen under any of the above circumstances. They would rather die out it seems, but I have found they will accept a queen that they hatch out themselves. Often it does not make sense to let them raise a queen from their own brood (why would they be any gentler?), but you can render them queenless, destroy their emergency queen cells and then give them brood from another colony. You can also graft your own queens and give them the unhatched cells. With some lucky timing, I have also cut out swarm cells from docile hives and given it to aggressive colonies I was attempting to requeen.
Whatever methods you decide to try, be safe and good luck! If you have some tips you’d like to share, leave a comment below!
Title photo by Derikk Chinn.