WHY FIND THE QUEEN BEE?

Posted May 2, 2019
by Hilary

big queen bee

When I tell new beekeepers that it’s not necessary to find the queen bee every time they inspect their hives, their face usually takes on an expression of relief. Finding the queen bee is challenging, even sometimes for experienced beekeepers. And while it’s true that you do not always need to find the queen, there are some instances where it is necessary. Read on to find out when you should make the extra effort to find your queen.

Always Look for Her

Even though you can confirm the presence of your queen in the hive by looking for eggs, you should always scan the frames you are handling for the queen. If you are holding a frame that has the queen on it and you aren’t aware, you could easily harm your queen. She might fall off the frame onto  the ground or you might roll her between frames if when replacing your frame in the box, the fit is too tight.

When Adding a Queen Excluder

When I add a new box to my hive, I usually like to move a few frames up from the boxes below. This encourages the bees to use the new space and reduces crowding below. However, this can get complicated if you are also using a queen excluder. The excluder is designed to keep the queen out of the honey supers. If you move frames up, and you aren’t skilled at spotting your queen, you could end up moving her above the queen excluder and then you’ll end up with brood where you want your honey to be.

Why find the queen bee?

When You Find Swarm Cells

Some beekeepers destroy swarm cells when they find them hoping to prevent swarming, but if the swarms cells are well developed, there is a chance your colony has already swarmed. If this is the case, you will render your colony queenless when you destroy the cells. I always advise new beekeepers to leave these cells alone, unless they find their queen. In this case, eggs are not enough to confirm her presence in the hive. She could have left the day before and there would still be fresh eggs. If you fo find your queen, it means the colony has not swarmed yet and you can destroy the swarm cells or remove them from the hive by making a split.

When Using an Observation Hive

Depending on the style of observation hive and the type of event you are doing you may or may not want to include the queen. I have a small transportable observation hive and typically leave the queen safe in the hive when using it, but some larger semi-permanent observation hives (such as the ones often used at county fairs) are suitable for housing a queen.  Either way, you’ll need to identify your queen  when making this decision.

pointing out queen

When Requeening

The most common reason for needing to find your queen is requeening and when you requeen your colony you actually need to find your queen twice! Once to take her out of the hive so a new queen can be introduced and again a week later to confirm the new queen has been accepted. Many beekeepers skip this second spotting of the queen and end up with daughter of the queen they had before. Some colonies, especially defensive ones, will kill the queen you install in favor of raising another from the eggs of their previous queen. If you have requeened your colony to correct defensive behavior, it is unlikely that this new queen (daughter of the one before) will have a different temperament so it is important to confirm that your new queen was accepted.

Just For Fun 

Another great reason for finding the queen is just for your own delight. I love watching her lay eggs in the cells, a circle of worker bees around her. Other times, I like to find the queen when hosting visitors at my apiary. It’s wonderful to be able to point her out to kids and adults who have never seen the queen bee before.

How To Find the Queen Bee 

Many beekeepers have trouble finding their queens and give up on developing this skill, but with a little effort you can improve your ability to find the queen! First, you should know that the queen looks different from the other bees. She has a long body and comparatively short wings. She is the only bee in the hive whose wings do not reach the end of her abdomen. She also has a bald back and long legs. If these details don’t help, some beekeepers are able to recognize her by a shift in pattern.  Her attendants follow her as she moves quickly across the comb and when she is still they form a circle around her, creating an almost flower-like pattern.

You can read even more about how to find the queen bee and practice doing it, too, in my new book: Queenspotting. After years in the making, my book is finally available! With 48 fold-out Queenspotting photo challenges and tons of tips and tricks for finding the queen bee on and off the page, you’ll be an expert queenspotter in no time. Queenspotting is available on my website, click here to see it!

Queenspotting Book by Hilary Kearney

9 Comments

  1. SHooke

    Awesome post. I had no idea about swarming cells.

    Reply
    • Harith

      Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

      Reply
  2. Jenny Ludmer

    Hi Hilary. I love that you mentioned queen rearing in your hive inspection class. Have you thought about creating a class or writing an article about how a backyard beekeeper might achieve this? I know Bush has mentioned a “walk away” split — is this a viable approach?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Jenny, I wouldn’t call a walkway split queen rearing because in that case the bees do it all. The end result is that you get a queen though! Real queen rearing is very involved and can take years to learn and develop. I have not worked in that arena myself. There are many books on the subject though by others more qualified than I am! I do discuss the basics of it in my book Queenspotting though.

      Reply
  3. keyhan

    Hi Hillary, Thank you. Your site is excellent and informative. I started with four colonies and I started with interest and I am still very beginner, but I hope to succeed in this way, of course with your encouragement.

    Reply
  4. Colby

    Hello, I am a new bee keeper, just received my package in may, everything seemed to be going well, saw the queen a couple times, saw eggs, lots of activity around hive, huge increase in population, etc. Tried not to check too often so as not to disturb the bees. In early Sep I added a super with frames because I was afraid there were so many bees they would swarm. Unfortunately, between working two jobs and rainy weather then an early cold snap, I was not able to do a hive inspection until today (I was off, it was sunny and the temp reached 70). I was surprised to see that while the bottom super still had a lot of bees, almost none in the upper, in fact almost nothing at all, no honey or comb or eggs of any kind. My last inspection I did not see the queen. I checked several of the bottom frames and did not see her or any eggs. I didn’t check every single frame and as the bees started to become agitated I closed everything up and filled the top feeders. Because there was virtually nothing in that top super and roughly 2 months since I put it on, I am wondering if I now have a queen less hive. Any advice or thoughts? Also, if that is the case and we are about to go into winter, can anything be done? I really wish I had checked sooner…

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi, I need to know where you are located to give better advise but in general, bees will not build in fall/winter. Take the super off. Sometimes queen take a break from laying eggs in the winter, but since you did not do a full inspections, its possible she’s still laying and you didn’t see it.

      Reply

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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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