Seeking Her Majesty
Being able to find the queen is a thrill, every time. Of course, it is not imperative that beekeepers actually lay eyes on the queen each time they inspect their colonies, since the presence of eggs (and young larvae, to a lesser extent) is confirmation that she is present and doing her job. Sometimes, though, it is important to be able to find her. For instance, when re-queening a colony, it is best to find and remove the old queen before installing a new one. You could just hope that the new ($50) queen finds and kills the old one, but you’ll sleep better without having to wonder who won the battle. One good idea is to remove a good quality older queen to a nuc where she can continue producing quality drones and serve as an insurance policy against unexpected queen loss in the full colony. Old queens can be very valuable in this capacity, especially if they exhibit traits you like. Dewey Caron calls this a resource hive, and having one gives many benefits. Moving the old queen to a nuc rather than killing her feels nicer, too.
Here are some secret methods that will help anyone achieve success when seeking Her Majesty. First, smoke lightly, if at all. Smoke calms the worker bees, but can cause the queen to run on the comb. If smoke is necessary in order to work the colony peacefully, use just a little. With little or no smoke, when the inner cover is removed, often the bees can be seen doing just what they had been doing. Look at the tops of the frames. Sometimes there is a circle of bees, about five inches in diameter, on top of the frames. The queen will be right under this circle. Or, the workers may come up to the top edge of one or two frames, and give you “The Look”. The queen is on one of those two frames, so it is not necessary to look through the entire box.
It is very important not to roll the queen against anything when removing the frame she is on. Thus, removing the frame next to the wall to provide a little extra space before going for the one with the queen is of paramount importance. Next, scoot the remaining frames away from the one suspected of containing the queen, and lift it out. Inspecting this one fairly soon after removing the inner cover helps with early detection, since letting in the light sometimes makes the queen run, as well.
We women have a secret method for finding things that I was warned never to reveal to men, but here it is anyway, just for you guys out there who can never find your queen, or your car keys. When you are looking for something, picture in your mind what that thing looks like. It will usually pop right out at you. It might even be a good idea to go so far as to look at a photo of a queen before going to the apiary. One of my mentor’s secrets for finding the queen is to hold the frame at a down angle, away from your face at about 20 degrees from level. This doesn’t work for me, but he can spot a queen in about two minutes from opening a hive. He has had 55 years of practice, too, which goes to show that our mothers were right again … practice makes perfect. Keep trying.
The number one, best method for finding the queen is to take a child to the apiary with you. They have an amazing affinity for being able to spot her. Show the frame that you think may contain the queen to the child, and describe what she looks like (fatter and longer), and they will usually point her out in a matter of seconds. For adults, what we want to do is to look not for the queen, but at the pattern of bees on the frame. There are too many bees on each frame to look at every bee. First look at the frame from a bird’s eye view, taking a full snapshot with your eyes. Look for the wake behind the queen. The bees don’t part ahead of her as she moves — she pushes through them — but she leaves a wake behind her, like a boat on an algae covered pond. If the queen is stationary, there will be a circle of bees around her, all facing her. These are her attendants, grooming, feeding, and gathering pheromones to pass around the hive. Once you spot an anomaly in the pattern of bees on the frame, narrow your focus to the cause, and hopefully find the queen. If you don’t find her on the first try, turn the frame over and inspect the other side. Move to the next frame and continue until you find her, remembering to hold the frame you are looking at over the hive, in case the queen drops off. It is better to have her fall into the hive than to step on her. That is all there is to it. Find the frame the queen is on, picture her in your mind, look at the pattern of bees on the frame, see the queen.
Now that we have found her, what are we going to do about it? We could just look at her, check the frame to be sure there are eggs, and carefully put her back. Or, we could mark the queen. There are several good reasons for doing this. Most obvious is that it will be much easier to find her in the future. More importantly, marking the queen will give us important information about her. There is an international color code for queen marking. (See code at end of article.) Each year everyone marks their queens with a particular color, and this tells her age. For instance, when the queen begins to fail, laying spotty brood or just not enough brood, and your wife accidentally threw out your beekeeping notebook, with a marked queen you can still tell that the reason for her failure is that she is three years old.
Besides just her age, the mark confirms her identity. Remember at the beginning of this, we were re-queening and couldn’t find the queen? Even with these clues about finding the queen and with practice, sometimes it is just plain ….