The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Classroom

The Classroom – September 2022

- September 1, 2022 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Queen questions

Does the presence of a well mated, good laying queen delay maturation (mating/development) in a virgin queen? Is this perhaps why the mature queen usually leaves with a swarm prior to the virgin queen hatching?

I have created multi-queen colonies using queens of various developmental ages. Each queen has a different medium box that is separated from other medium boxes by queen excluders. I have noticed if the newly hatched young virgin queen is in a super between supers containing mated queens, she does not progress to take her mating flight until the mated queens are no longer present (moved them out of the multi colony).

I currently have a virgin that hatched six weeks ago in a multi-queen colony with three mated queens present. The virgin delayed her mating flight by five weeks, until she was removed from the multi colony with a golf-ball-sized cluster. New comb pulled from the freezer was given to the micro colony. After a few days away from the mated queens, the virgin was observed going on a mating flight, returning with the phallus attached. She returned with an excited softball-sized clump of random bees the second flight the next day, thus increasing her micro-colony population substantially. She is now laying, and her brood appear to be normal workers.

I cannot find any studies done to observe the effect of strong mated queen pheromones on a virgin queen’s development. I understand virgins have QMP (queen mandibular pheromone) too, although a slightly different mix than that of a mated queen.



Thank you for sharing your observations. I have heard other beekeepers mention using multi-queen colonies, but I have never used one myself. It really sounds interesting. Given you were asking about queen honey bees, I took the liberty to pass your question to Dr. David Tarpy from North Carolina State University. He is an expert on honey bee queens. I figured he would know the answer right away, and I was correct. Here is his reply:


There is a well-established literature on the effects of queen pheromones, especially queen mandibular pheromone (QMP), on the inhibition of worker ovary development. There are relatively few published studies on multi-queen colonies, although this is something practiced by many beekeeping operations (especially honey producers, usually by having two queens in separate brood nests and forager entrances that share communal honey supers). I do not know of any study that has actively looked at the effect of QMP on virgin queen ovary development, although it is certainly possible that this has been done. Under normal swarming conditions, the mother queen has long left with the prime swarm before any virgin daughters emerge, so the effect is non-existent. During supersedure, however, mother and daughter queens can often be found in the hive at the same time and even overlap in their egg laying, so if there is an inhibitory effect it might not be absolute. There was a relatively new paper (Berger et al. 2016. Beekeeping practice: effects of Apis mellifera virgin queen management on ovary development. Apidologie, 47: 589-595. that showed that ovary development in caged virgin queens was actually improved in a hive bank (albeit queenless) versus outside of a colony social environment. It is logical that the inhibitory effects of QMP on worker ovary development could have a similar influence on that of virgin queen behavioral development if not ovary development, but that would require additional empirical work to suss out.

Thanks, Dr. Tarpy!


What am I seeing?

 My four hives all have screened bottom boards and the mite boards are kept in place below them. I use the detritus on the mite board to help me assess what is occurring in the colonies between inspections. Cappings, pollen pellets, wax flakes and the occasional bee leg/part are typical and easy to identify. However, from time to time, there are small, white/translucent pieces on these boards (Figure 1). Typically, I only see a small amount of these but occasionally, like now, there is a higher concentration. My guess is that these are chitin.

All colonies appear to be healthy, low/no Varroa counts, etc.

My questions are:


1) Are these in fact chitin and if so, are they from the bees molting or a pest, and is it normal for this level of dropping or is it indicative of some type of colony distress (disease, nutrition deficiency, etc.)?

2) What is the colony’s “mechanism” to discard these pieces (larval shedding, worker bee house cleaning, etc.)?

Spence Wende
New York, July


I was able to zoom in to your picture and I found a lot of bee parts (legs, antennae, etc.) among the white debris. [For the reader: It may be impossible to provide this level of detail in the printed picture. You will just have to trust that I could zoom into the .jpeg version and see many different parts of honey bee pupae.] This gives me confidence to believe that you are seeing parts of bodies from pupae that your bees are aborting. My guess is that these bees are hygienic and are responding to Varroa (or some other hive problem) by aborting the brood. All of these pieces of white are just the little pieces of pupae that are generated in the hygienic removal of the brood. This debris is normally removed from the hive by the cohort of worker bees responsible for keeping the nest clean. They even cannibalize the brood sometimes, leaving behind the indigestible chitin.

You ask if “this is normal.” It does look like a fair amount of pieces to me, but I generally do not get worried unless the colony appears to be suffering in some way. You mentioned not having high Varroa loads so it could just as easily be attributed to another cause. If the colony is strong, has plenty of resources (honey/pollen) and otherwise looks healthy, it should clear up soon and you will not see it any longer. If you continue to see it, this could suggest that the bees have some sort of problem you need to address. Do they have adequate food resources? If not, they will abort brood. Maybe you need to feed them? Are you confident your Varroa loads are low? Was the brood chilled or overheated in some way? Did small hive beetles get into the combs? If your answer is “no” to all of the above, it will likely go away on its own. Nevertheless, I always try to identify a reason that my bees are aborting brood. They are often okay when doing so, but sometimes they will need beekeeper intervention to help them deal with whatever problem they may be encountering.


Q  Euthanizing colonies

 I use monthly mite counts (alcohol wash) to monitor the Varroa populations in the colonies I keep. I want to know whether a colony is managing mites on their own or require some kind of intervention. My question concerns colonies whose mite counts suddenly or dramatically increase, often late in the season, past the point where a miticide would be effective. I opt to eliminate these colonies which are bound to fail, thus avoiding the probable spread of mites throughout my apiary and to favor those colonies which, for whatever reason, seem to have naturally adapted to co-exist with Varroa. What is the best (most humane, least destructive) method of euthanizing a colony? I have tried soapy water which renders the comb useless. Any suggestions?

David Papke
Pennsylvania, August


There are a couple of things to unpack in your questions. First, I am grateful that you monitor your Varroa populations. Many beekeepers do not do that, and then lose colonies to Varroa when they have no idea what their Varroa loads were. The Varroa explosion you notice at the end of the season is actually very normal and consistent with Varroa biology. It is common for their populations to get out of hand very quickly in a short period of time, especially mid-to-late summer and early fall. Dr. Cameron Jack from the University of Florida monitored Varroa populations monthly for almost two years. He did this after he treated colonies with one of the many products labeled for Varroa control. He regularly saw colonies return to pre-treatment levels in a month or two. Given the right conditions, Varroa populations can grow fast!

I understand your logic for eliminating these colonies, though I feel it may be a little drastic. I do not know how you manage the queen stock in your apiary. If, though, you allow colonies to requeen themselves about once yearly, I am not so sure that your bee colonies are unique enough to be displaying completely different responses to Varroa. I guess what I am saying is that killing those colonies with high Varroa loads may help a little, but leaving colonies with lower ones does not mean that you are selecting for bees that can handle Varroa. There are many reasons a colony could have low Varroa loads, unrelated to their ability to handle Varroa. Maybe they swarmed multiple times. Maybe they had been queenless at the very time the Varroa populations were building. I favor the approach in which I attack Varroa directly rather than rely on my bees to develop natural resistance, which can take too much time. If you want to go the resistant stock route (and I am a big proponent of this!), I would suggest you purchase one of the selected stocks rather than rely on the culling process you currently use to produce the bees you want.

I really appreciate the question about how to euthanize colonies humanely (or, insect-anely?). Most beekeepers I know do one of four things. First, they may use soapy water. For this route, you mix about four tablespoons of liquid dishwashing soap with one gallon of water. You can spray this on the bees and it will euthanize them. I would not have guessed that this would have been a problem for the combs. Have you tried rinsing combs with water after using soapy water to euthanize the bees? This should make the combs usable again.

Second, beekeepers may solarize their colonies. This relies on heating the colonies really quickly using the sun. The beekeepers do this by enclosing the entire colony in a large, black, plastic trash bag. They then move the bagged colony into full sun, which usually does the trick quickly.

Third, beekeepers may put the entire hive into a freezer to euthanize the colony. This works, but only slowly, given the bees are capable of clustering to stay alive. It can take a week or longer to euthanize a colony this way.

The final way beekeepers deal with colonies like this is to kill the queen and shake the remaining bees into the apiary. They remove the original hive and the bees are free to join other colonies in the apiary. This keeps you from having to kill the bees, but it does spread the mites the bees carry to other colonies. A modified way of doing this is to shake all the bees from the infested hive into a single package (like the package in which packages of bees are sold). Then, you can treat the adult bees directly, perhaps with oxalic acid or something else. After this, the mite-free bees can be released in the apiary and allowed to combine with other colonies. This allows the bees to live and it gets rid of the mites before the bees move into other colonies. All of these ways of dealing with the bees should allow you to reuse the combs/equipment.


Which queen cell is best?

 In early June, I watched as one of my colonies swarmed. I happen to keep extremely intelligent bees — they always know to cluster five feet higher than my tallest ladder. After the swarm, I made two nucs out of the remnants of the hive, leaving some capped queen cells in the original hive. The nucs both received a frame of mostly-capped brood, a couple of frames with honey and pollen, and a frame of foundation. One of them received a large capped swarm cell, the other an equally large capped supersedure cell. I kick myself for not marking which nuc got which cell, as it would have been fun to observe any differences between them. I am wondering if you have an opinion on how the type of cell — swarm or supersedure — might or might not impact the new colony.

Vermont, July


I like this question as, I believe, this is actually a question of semantics. My guess is that both cells were actually swarm cells. After all, you removed the frames to create the nucs from a colony that had just swarmed. Thus, the colony would have been building swarm cells, not supersedure cells, in preparation for the swarm. But, what is the difference anyway?

Well, we (myself included) generally teach that swarm cells are queen cells constructed on the perimeter of the comb in preparation for a swarm. As you know, the first swam to leave a hive is usually accompanied by the mother/old queen. Before this happens, the worker bees will construct swarm cells in which they rear a pool of queens from which they hope one queen will become the reigning matriarch in the nest. Swarms are planned events and queens will lay eggs into these cells. Thus, they generally occur on the perimeter of the comb rather than in the brood pattern.

On the other hand, we usually teach that supersedure queen cells are constructed within the existing brood pattern, i.e., on the face of the comb. Bees construct supersedure cells when the queen is absent, dead, etc. In these emergency situations, the bees have to go to the youngest available female larvae somewhere within the existing brood pattern. They will take some of the larvae that were otherwise destined to become workers and push them in the direction of becoming a queen. Bees also build supersedure cells when they detect a problem with the queen or otherwise simply want to replace her. As before, these cells tend to be constructed within the existing brood pattern.

Now, I said “generally” a lot in the previous two paragraphs. That is because bees “generally” do these things. However, it is normal enough for supersedure cells to occur on the perimeter of the comb, like swarm cells, and for swarm cells to occur within the brood pattern on the face of the comb, like supersedure cells. So, if the two cells you used both came from combs in the hive that the swarming colony occupied, they are both likely swarm cells, regardless of where they occurred on the comb.

Man, I just rambled a lot to answer a question you did not ask.  On to your question: Is a swarm or supersedure cell better to use to requeen a colony? Truthfully, I have never seen research on this topic. However, I usually see it taught that a swarm cell is best. You have to follow the logic stream here, but let me explain why folks think this. First, as already stated, swarms are planned events. Colonies want to make a new queen because they want to swarm. Thus, they invest in the production of queens from larvae that are the right age. Swarm cells tend to be bigger than supersedure cells, suggesting that the developing larvae received more food and attention, making them likely to be bigger/better queens. The reverse, then, is true for queens developed from supersedure cells. These were made in an emergency or under duress. The bees needed a queen to solve a problem. So, they went to the youngest available female larvae, many of which may have still been too far down the worker path to make good queens. These types of queen cells may be smaller, and the resulting queens smaller, than swarm cells and the queens that emerge from them. Conventional wisdom suggests going with the queens from swarm cells would be better than going with queens from supersedure cells … but someone really needs to study this since conventional wisdom is not always wise.


Why do I have a colony nesting under a hive?

 During a hive visit, I noticed some comb sticking out from under the bottom of a hive. Upon closer inspection I found a clump of bees actively working on several loops of comb located under the bottom screen board. With the help of my daughter, we removed the bottom board and replaced with a new one. The removed bottom board contained several loops of new comb and some scattered capped brood, no eggs, no larvae. The capped brood was indeed workers, not drones. So this tells me at some point there was a queen under the hive. The boxed hive itself is queenless at the moment, but did have an active queen. What would cause a hive to relocate under a boxed hive? And what should I be doing about it? Would this bottom hive queen cause the top boxed hive queen to leave?

Steve Hess
Pennsylvania, July


I think I have an answer (maybe even “the” answer) for your puzzle. I have seen it myself with my own bees many times, and I know exactly what led to it happening with them. I suspect the same is true for your bees. Ok, from the beginning: I clip my queens as a type of swarm insurance. It is not really swarm control, given the bees will still try to swarm with clipped queens. Rather it is swarm insurance in the sense that the queen will land on the ground, and the swarming bees with her, when they try to swarm. I am okay with that, as all I have to do at this point is pick up the cluster and start a new colony with it.

What does this have to do with your situation? Well, I only check my colonies about every seven days during swarm season. There are times when one of my colonies will swarm a few days before I work it. But remember, my queen leaving with the swarm cannot fly. Occasionally, then, the clipped queen will crawl up the hive stand and back into the hive, only to try to swarm again the next day, the day after, and so forth. More often than not, though, she will not go back into the hive, but will instead crawl underneath the hive where the swarming bees will coalesce around her. When I check my hives during swarm season and I think one of my colonies swarmed, I always look underneath the hive to see if the old queen and swarming bees are there. I find them there >90% of the time. For some biological reason, the queen/bees want to go back to the hive after a failed swarm attempt, but they will not go into it.

Your situation sounds nearly exactly like mine. You did not say that you clip your queens, so I cannot be sure. However, my guess is that your colony swarmed but that your queen, for whatever reason, could not fly. Thus, she crawled underneath the existing hive and started a new colony. You said they constructed comb, had a laying queen at one point, etc. I suspect she died shortly after that.

Then, you told me the second piece of key evidence: The full-size hive was queenless! My guess is that the queen underneath the hive was the …