Queenlessness is one of the most common ways for new beekeepers to lose their colony. There are many ways a colony can end up without a queen and likewise there are various methods of correcting the problem. Read on to learn the signs of a queenless colony and what to do when it happens to you!
First, I want to get a little vocabulary and basic beekeeping information out of the way. A hive with a queen is called “queenright”, a hive without a queen is called “queenless”. Queen bees are vital to a colony because the are the only bee capable of laying fertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs may become either a worker bee or a queen bee depending on what they are fed. Worker bee larvae are fed royal jelly for the first few days of their life and then switched to a pollen and honey diet. Queen bees, however, are only ever fed royal jelly. This means that worker bees are able to convert any young worker bee larvae to a queen should they need to (an emergency queen). Young is the operative word here. The worker bees have only a short window of time to convert one of the last of their dead queen’s larvae into a new queen before all the larvae have aged beyond the point of conversion. This is a precarious position for a colony to be in. Many colonies succeed in making a new queen and go on, but many other fail. These colonies are now unable to make a new queen, because all the larvae laid by their old queen are now too old. So what happens to those colonies? In the wild they will gradually weaken and then perish, but in a managed hive a beekeeper can step in and reverse the colony’s fate! Unfortunately, when the queen is missing it’s not always obvious to the novice beekeeper. The bees do not all instantly perish as some imagine, however there are many tell-tale signs.
Symptoms of a Queenless Hive
- 1. Lack of Eggs & Brood- The queen bee is the only bee in the hive who can lay fertilized worker bee eggs. So, a queenless colony’s first symptom will be a lack of eggs (shown below) followed by a lack of young brood (shown above) and then finally the absence of brood entirely. Students of mine know this is the reason why they must always check for fresh eggs during inspections. If you catch a queenless colony early, you can get them queenright before too much damage is done. *It should also be noted that you can have this symptom and still have a queen. Your queen may have stopped laying because she’s no longer fertile or she is taking what is called a “brood break” which is one way bees attempt to control the spread of brood disease. An infertile queen will need to be replaced, while a queen taking a brood break should resume laying shortly.*
2. A Drop in Population- Worker bees die every day of natural or unnatural causes, but in a queenless colony they cannot be replaced! This means the population will start to drop. Normally, by the time this symptom is noticeable the colony has been queenless for many weeks.
- 3. An Increase in Honey & Pollen- Worker bees who were previously occupied with the task of caring for brood will soon be out of the job because there will be no more brood. This creates a job imbalance in the hive and may result in increased foraging and food stores. *Note that something similar to this can occur in queenright hives during a strong nectar flow when the colony needs more space. It’s called a “honey bound” hive. The bees will prioritize storing food and crowd out the queen’s brood nest, leaving her no comb to lay eggs in. A beekeeper can resolve this by adding another super (or more top bars) and then moving 2-4 honey frames out of the brood nest to make room for new comb to be drawn out for the queen to lay in.*
4. A Change in Temperament- There are also some more subtle signs of queenlessness that arise in the form of temperament. Queenless bees are often irritated or nervous. They make a high pitched whine combined with a low roar, but even experienced beekeepers cannot always identify the sound. I have also heard from an old timer that the foragers of a queenless colony will spread their wings in K formation and walk around a bit near the entrance before flying off to forage, while foragers in queenright hives, keep their wings folded in and take off straight away. I haven’t tested this thoroughly though yet.
5. Queen Cells/Cups- A queenless colony often attempts to make a replacement queen. It can be tricky figuring out exactly what is going on in your hive, but queen cells and cups will provide useful clues. When you see a queen cell, check to see what stage it is in. Is there a larva in it? Is it capped? Did it hatch or is it just an empty queen cup (shown above)? Sometimes, the bees succeed in making a new queen, but that queen fails. If this is the case you will see hatched queen cells, but no other signs of a queen. Hatched queen cells will have a jagged edge around the hole of the cell, no larva inside and may even still have a cap hanging. Think: edge of an opened can. *Be careful if you see hatched queen cells and no other signs of a queen, your colony could actually have a virgin queen who is not yet laying. Virgins are hard to spot because they move quickly and are much smaller.* More often queenless colonies will have only empty queen cups, which shows that your colony lost it’s queen and wants to make a replacement, but doesn’t have the fertilized eggs available to do so.
6. Laying Workers- If your colony is queenless for too long, they may develop laying workers. Although the queen bee is the only bee in the hive capable of laying fertilized eggs, worker bees are female and therefore in possession of ovaries, meaning they can lay eggs. The hitch is they can only lay unfertilized eggs. Remember: worker bees never went on a mating flight. Unfertilized eggs do develop and hatch, but they do not become worker bees, they become male bees or drones. Normally worker bees do not lay eggs. Fertilized brood laid by a queen produces a pheromone that suppresses workers from laying. However, if a queen is absent from the hive for too long, the worker bees will begin to lay eggs. Once this starts, it is very difficult to get the colony queenright again. I intend to write a separate post in the future on how to deal with laying workers so stay tuned. A colony with laying workers will have eggs and brood in the hive, but you will see multiple eggs per cell (shown above). A queen typically lays just one egg per cell. You will also see only drone brood and usually also an increase in the adult drone population. So how long does a colony have before the workers start laying? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question. It is different with every hive. That is why it is imperative that you catch queenlessness early and correct it right away. One way of buying yourself a little time is to put open brood from a queenright colony into your queenless colony. The bees may even be able to make a new queen from that brood and correct the problem altogether.
*None of these symptoms by themselves will absolutely indicate that your colony is without its queen. Many of them could mean something else entirely. I have tried to mention some of these easily confused scenarios above with an asterisk, but have not listed them all. A queenless colony will usually have more than one of the above signs present, if you see just one, you may want to try one of the below tests to confirm or debunk your suspicions.
How to Test for Queenlessness
- Give your bees a frame of open brood from a queenright colony. Wait 2-5 days and then check to see if they are attempting to make emergency queens on that frame. It’s a good idea to mark the top of this frame in some way, so you don’t have to go through the whole colony searching for the frame that may or may not have queen cells. If you see emergency queen cells, then your colony is queenless. If you don’t see any queen cells, you might have misdiagnosed the situation.
Place a caged queen on the tops of the frames and study the reaction. If your colony is queenless, they will stream towards the caged queen, sometimes fanning or flitting their wings. If your colony is queenright, they will react aggressively towards the caged queen. They will bite and sting the cage. You will have a hard time getting the bees off the cage, they won’t want to let go. On several occasions I have mistakenly thought a queenright colony to be queenless. Each time it was a colony that had a new virgin queen that was not yet laying. This is one of the reasons I always study the reaction of the bees when installing a new queen. If you place a new queen in a queenright colony while the other queen is still alive, the bees will kill the caged queen.
Getting Your Colony Queenright
There are several variations on techniques getting your queenless colony queenright again, but they break down into two basic choices: Installing an adult queen that you bought or allowing the bees to make their own queen from young brood taken from a queenright colony. Choosing the best method for your hive, will likely depend on how long that colony has been queenless. To determine this, you will need to utilize some bee math! It takes 21 days to go from fertilized egg to worker bee. Therefore a colony with no brood has been queenless for more than 21 days because all the queen’s brood has all hatched. If you see no eggs, but you see very small larvae then you’ve caught the problem early! An egg only stays an egg for 3 days and larvae only stays uncapped for about 8 days. If you see only capped larvae, then you likely lost your queen somewhere between 11 and 20 days before. Make sense? Check out the bee math ruler above for more calculations.
Installing a queen is usually the fastest and surest way to get your colony queenright again. If your colony has been queenless for awhile, you may opt for this method. The longer a colony goes without a queen, the more likely they are to develop laying workers and the greater the negative impact on the population there will be. A queen can be purchased for $20-50 plus the cost overnight shipping. You will receive your queen in a small cage containing the queen and usually several worker bees. The cage is meant to delay the queen’s release into the colony and to protect her while the colony gets used to her smell. One end of the cage will have a candy plug. Over a period of 2-5 days the bees will chew away the candy allowing for the queen to escape the cage. The idea is that by the time the candy is gone, the bees have adjusted to the new queen’s smell and will readily accept her. Make sure you install the queen cage in a populous part of the hive and that the screen is accessible to the worker bees. That way they can feed her. Generally speaking this means the queen should be placed in the center of the hive. From the point of release, it may take anywhere from 0-7 days for the queen to start laying eggs. Your queen should already be mated, but it may take her a few days to adjust to her new environment and start laying eggs. In a situation where a colony is queenless, the bees are desperate for a new queen and aren’t too choosy about her. So, with this knowledge, some beekeepers may even choose to skip the delayed release altogether and just let the queen out of her cage right away. There is a small risk that the bees will kill the queen instead of accepting her, but the advantage is that you will not have to wait the typical 3-5 days for delayed release. Either way, installing a queen will typically get your hive queenright again in less than a week.
Allowing the bees to make their own queen can take much longer. It will take bees a minimum of 15 days to raise a new queen from brood and at least another 5 days for that queen to mate and start laying. Remember with each passing day, bees are dying and not being replaced so, if your colony is small, you may want to buy a queen instead. There is also the added risk that the bees will not succeed in making a new queen or that the queen they make will perish during her mating flight and you will have to start over again. Depending on the time of year, it may not even be viable for a new queen to mate since drones can be scarce during the fall and winter months. So in what situations should you let your bees make their own queen? What are the advantages? 1. A naturally bred queen will have the advantage of feral genes which may make for a stronger, healthier colony and will also preserve genetic diversity amongst your apiary. You might also increase the chance of this effect by taking brood from one of your best colonies. Please note that in areas with Africanized bees, feral genes can also result in bees that are more defensive. 2. It’s a simpler way to fix the problem that costs no money and requires less work from the beekeeper. If you suspect your colony is queenless, you can take a frame of eggs from a neighboring queenright colony right then, check in 3 days to see if they are making a queen cell, then check back in 15-20 days to see if the queen is laying. If you install a queen you have to open your hive at least four times and you have to find a queen for sale, order it etc. 3. Another advantage is if it’s late in the season and no one is selling queens anymore, you can try this method: you might succeed.
To sum this all up. Making sure your colony has a queen should be a priority during inspections. Catching queenlessness early is vital to the survival of your colony. A good way to stay on top of this is to take notes! Keep a record of what you see in your hive every time you inspect. If you use a template like the one I created below for my hive inspection notebook (available in my shop), it can also serve as a guideline for your inspections. That way, you won’t forget to check for eggs! If you discover that your colony is queenless weigh your options and decide whether you’d rather buy a queen or let them make their own then, get busy! Queenless is a problem that you should not sit on.
If you find that you are quite sure what your doing in your hives, you might want to check out my new online Introduction to Beekeeping class! You can stream it from anywhere in the world and watch it as many times as you’d like! Even intermediate level beekeepers have benefitted from this class, which is offered in person by yours truly in San Diego, California every month. The online version is a combination of fascinating footage and still images with interactive narration throughout. It’s not your typical Introductory class which often only covers the kind of equipment you need to buy with a brief synopsis of the honey bee lifecycle. This class is packed with absolutely everything you need to know to get started with bees! Plus, it focuses on natural, bee-centric, sustainable beekeeping practices.