Beekeeping Basics

The Queenless Conundrum

- October 1, 2019 - Tina Sebestyen - (excerpt)

searching for queen in colony of bees

Here is a common scenario … you open your colony expecting to see your new queen getting started after a split or supersedure, and you see … nothing; no eggs, no larvae, no hope. All of the capped brood has emerged, and the frames are bare except for the bees walking around on them. The beekeeper’s first impulse is to find a new queen, and get her here pronto.

But, do you really need a new queen? One of the best ways to find out is to ask the bees. The way to ask them is to give them a frame of open brood and eggs from another hive. If they need a queen, they will (usually) start raising one. If they do, you can assess the strength of the colony, time of year, and the amount of honey in the hive and decide whether to allow them to try raising another one, or to go ahead and buy a mated queen. Most often, after a colony fails to re-queen, I choose to give them a mated queen, since losing two full brood cycles is tough on the ability of that colony to store enough honey and bee bread for winter, for one thing.

For another thing, a honey bee colony needs the full complement of pheromones in it. Installing a mated queen right after the frame of brood immediately restores the correct pheromone balance to the hive. Queen substance and brood pheromone are both required to keep the workers’ ovaries from developing. The longer either queen substance or brood pheromone is missing from the hive, the harder it will be to successfully introduce a new queen; the sooner after a failed queen-rearing event that the pheromone balance is restored, the better. That does not mean that buying a mated queen is always the best first response to queenlessness. If you have a colony that exhibits traits you appreciate, such as keeping mite counts low, good productivity, or frugal use of honey during winter, among others, raising your own new queen will result in the best quality queen.

Let’s review some facts and our bee math to determine when you need to worry about queenlessness. If you know when they lost their queen, you can calculate when you should see eggs and larvae from the new queen. One mistake many beekeepers make is to do their bee math using the minimum amounts of time for each step in the process, when, in reality, most of these events take the maximum amount of time estimated and often even more.

Bee math — estimated amounts of time for these steps:

Queen rearing from egg hatching to emergence 12½ days, 3-6 days to harden before she can fly, 1 day for orientation flights, 1-3 days to fly and mate, 3-6 more days before she begins to lay eggs. Minimum time from queenlessness to new eggs: 13 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 3 = 21 days. Maximum estimated time to new eggs: 13 + 6 + 1 + 3 + 6 = 29. That is a difference of one whole week, thus the usual answer to the question, “Do I need a new queen?” is, “Wait one more week.” I usually give them 5 full weeks from when they lost their queen, to get going, so I don’t have to look in every cell for that first egg.

The tricky part of this whole thing is that the colony could go to laying workers fairly soon after the 5 weeks are up, and sometimes even sooner. When queen substance, or a developing queen cell, and/or brood pheromone are missing from the hive, workers’ ovaries can develop, resulting in laying workers. This can be delayed by restoring at least brood pheromone to the hive. Worker bees emerge in 21 days, and drones emerge in 24 days, long before the 30 days that the queen needed to even start laying eggs. Adding open brood right before the queen is due to emerge gives us 21 more days with brood pheromone in the hive. The reason we add this frame before the queen emerges is that often when you open a colony with a young or virgin queen in it, the bees ball and kill her. Just to be safe, plan to leave the hive alone between the day the new queen emerges and until she has been laying eggs for at least a few days. The average for this is 11 days, but plan for a full two weeks.

Let’s go back to our broodless scenario … you introduce a frame with eggs and open larvae, and the bees don’t start raising a queen, does that definitely mean that they don’t need one? Unfortunately, no, they might still need one. The reason is that once workers’ ovaries begin to develop, and especially once they actually start laying eggs, they think they are the queens, and they don’t particularly want a new one. If you give a frame of eggs and open brood to a colony that already shows signs of laying workers — eggs on the sides or edges of cells, and multiple eggs in cells — the first thing that will happen is that they stop laying eggs. That first frame of open brood is needed to change their attitudes and hormones, and the pheromones of the hive. Then, after they are more receptive, you give them another frame of eggs and open brood, and they might start trying to raise a new queen. A mated queen would probably be better for the colony’s strength and survival, but if mated queens are not available, adding brood twice, or even three times, might be the answer to save your hive.

An even better answer might be to combine the laying worker hive with your queen-right colony. It has the right pheromones, and your confused bees can be productive in this new home. If you really want to keep your number of colonies the same, two weeks after combining, you can split a nuc out of your strong hive. I have spent plenty of time wrestling with laying worker colonies, trying to get them to accept a new queen. I have finally concluded that the best thing a beekeeper gets ….