June is a lovely time in Michigan. The nectar flow is coming on strong, the threat of frost is over, and we have survived another split and swarm season. After a long winter and demanding spring, the bees have settled in to make honey, and all is finally well in the bee world. Until … the calls for queens start coming. “Help! I need a queen!” “Do you have a queen available for IMMEDIATE pick up?” “I need a queen today!”All of these calls are coming from beekeepers who are panicked because they opened their hive during an inspection, expecting to find brood and a queen, only to see no sign of her highness, and no brood in sight. Knowing that a colony needs a queen, they aim to “fix” the hive by getting a queen as quickly as possible, and they start frantically calling around for queens. Many are distressed because they can’t find someone who has single queens available for sale. If they do find one, it will usually be incredibly expensive, approaching $100 with shipping costs.
The worst part is that all the stress and the cost are completely unnecessary. The beekeeper thinks they are taking quick emergency action to save a hive, but in reality, a colony is never “fixed” by just adding a queen. In almost all cases, the colony is either in the process of making a queen (and is totally fine without “help”), or it is so far gone that it needs more than just a queen. While jumping to purchase a queen is a normal reaction for new beekeepers, it isn’t usually the correct solution for a hive that appears broodless. It is also an incredibly unsustainable system for keeping your bees. In this article, I’ll explain why colonies commonly appear queenless during summer, and ways that you can deal with this issue without buying a mated queen.
Situation 1: The colony is in the process of replacing the queen. There are many situations that commonly lead to queenless colonies in early summer: supersedure of old queens, supersedure of packages, and crowded swarms.
Supersedure is the process where the bees replace queens by killing the old queen and raising a new one. Supersedure is common, standard, normal, and expected in colonies. It is a common beginner misconception that the queen will live for years and years, but in reality, most queens are replaced in under two years. In northern states, this replacement often happens right at the end of swarm season during the honey flow. Many experienced beekeepers replace queens after the honey flow every year to avoid this disruption of the honey crop. So, if you aren’t requeening your colonies regularly and you have old queens going into winter, you should be prepared for the bees to replace her mid-summer the following year. Don’t be surprised when your colony with an old queen goes queenless.
After the first big nectar flow is a big time for supersedure of old queens, and also of queens that arrive in packages. Based only off beekeeper phone calls, my experience is that ¼ to ⅓ of packages will supersede the queen mid-summer. While established colonies supersede queens as a normal part of long-term colony health, my guess is that packages supersede because they aren’t normal.
Bees don’t do things randomly — they have cues that guide their behavior. One of their main cues is different ages of bees and brood in the hive, which the bees detect by pheromones. The workers are constantly assessing the queen this way — if a queen was good and laying consistently, then you would have all ages of bees in the hive, in the right proportions. If she was laying inconsistently, then you would have bees of random ages, and a big break in brood laying. In nature, if the bees came across this scenario of random age bees, they would know the queen was failing, and they would replace her. Think about what we get in a package — bees from all different colonies and ages just thrown together, and a queen who just starts laying at a really key time in the season. She doesn’t look that great to her colony, but there is no way to politely remind the workers to give her a chance because they were in a package. The queen starts laying, and they let her go long enough to raise some brood and then replace her to remedy the “problem.” Queens also get replaced if they are sick or are damaged from transport — if your package was heated at all, or she was sick, then the bees may also supersede around the same time. It is really common for packages and overwintered colonies with old queens to supersede in late spring/early summer. It is really important to remind beginner beekeepers that this will happen so they can be prepared for supersedures.
In Michigan, by June we are out of reproductive swarm season, where overwintered colonies build up to split themselves, but we are just getting into crowded swarming season — where any colony swarms because their beekeeper has not provided them with enough space (where space = drawn comb above the brood nest). It is a really common error for beginners to underestimate the honey production of an overwintered hive. They are used to putting on boxes one at a time, as the one below slowly fills. In Michigan, like many northern states with heavy flows, you may need to add two to three honey supers at a time. If not, the bees will start to fill in the brood nest with nectar, the queen has nowhere to lay, and the colony swarms. It is easy to have a colony swarm and not notice it, as you’ll have thousands of bees at this time. If your colony is completely full of nectar, you could have a post-swarm virgin running around.
Something else/you killed her
CBS (Clumsy Beekeeper Syndrome) remains a serious cause of queen injury and death. In the spring, beekeepers are doing a lot of manipulations and splits, and it is easy to roll the queen or crush her when you are tearing apart a hive. It is always a risk that you can hurt or kill the queen in your manipulations such as spring splits, and the bees will need to replace her.
Regardless if the queen was lost to swarming, supersedure, or your deadly hive tool, the bees will work on a replacement if they have young enough larvae. Usually the bees can raise a new queen just fine, and a virgin will hatch out of the cell. Most of the time, she will come back from her mating flight and the colony will be back on track.
Where problems generally arise is when the virgin doesn’t make it back from her mating flight (she gets hit by a car, eaten by a dragonfly, blown off course), and the bees don’t have any more young larvae to make a new queen. In that case the colony is “hopelessly queenless.” To determine if we are just queenless or hopelessly queenless, we need to look at the timing.
Most of the time when a colony goes queenless, it is able to replace the queen just fine. We tend to panic rather than wait patiently because the process often takes longer than we expect. In most of the panicked queen calls I get, the colony is fine, and it is the beekeeper’s expectations that are the problem. Even worse, the colony was on its way to requeening, but the beekeeper messed it up (threw off the virgin or squished a queen cell), because they went digging in there too early. Thankfully, bees are pretty consistent, so we can use basic math to tell us when we should start to freak out about not having a queen in the hive.
First, look for brood. Remember that workers hatch out on day 21, drone brood on day 24. If you only have capped worker brood, then you had a queen 12-21 days ago. If you only have capped drone brood (that was laid by a queen — along the edges and in drone comb) then you had a queen 21-24 days ago. You may even be able to tell how old the capped brood is by the color and amount, or see larvae, giving you even more information.
Day 1 — Queen death — no more laying in the colony.
The bees will raise up a new queen cell, using a young larva. If the colony is swarming or superseding, they will have started the queen cell before the queen dies. In an emergency (e.g., you squished her), they will start the next day.
Day 8-14 — The queen emerges from her cell.
It takes 16 days for a queen to go from laid to emergence. Generally a colony starts with a young larva, so we can expect a new virgin about 2 weeks after the queen is gone. In a swarm, where they don’t leave until she is capped (day 8 after the egg is laid), she will hatch out in just over a week.
One week after emergence (Day 15-20) — The new virgin gets ready for her mating flights.
She needs about a week to just be a virgin, eat up, and harden her wings before she goes out to mate.
We are already 2 -3 weeks out, and the queen may still need 2 weeks to get mated properly. Usually it is quicker than that, but if you have a lot of bad weather (like most Michigan springs), it can be into the second week.
This process can happen quickly (replacement after a swarm in great weather), or it can take weeks and weeks. A handy chart from Beespoke.info (next page), while written as a grafting guide, does a nice job of showing just how long it can be. It is starting to make sense why your mentors and teachers keep harping on you to take good notes, isn’t it?!
Now, she is going to return, the bees will move nectar and polish the cells, and she can start laying. Remember she will only start with a small patch of eggs. If you can’t ….