By James C. Bach
Editor’s Note: A few months ago we received some very interesting feedback from an expert about the group of queen pictures we ran in our March issue. We corresponded a bit and are delighted to share some of his knowledge about the importance of the queen’s acceptance in the hive.
I began beekeeping in 1969 when I collected a swarm in a Seattle neighborhood. I became the local four county state seasonal bee inspector for two seasons. I formed a bee supply company that I operated with a partner for four years, and conducted a bee school each year graduating 120 to 150 beekeepers.
The Department of Agriculture’s Chief Apiarist position became available in May of 1977 and I served in that position until 2000, followed by five years as a pesticide incident investigator, then I happily retired. My main interest was in studying thousands of colonies and their diverse behaviors, colony shrinkage in the fall and winter, queen attractiveness as measured by her retinue of workers that formed within two minutes, and of course over-wintering success and colony size in the spring.
I am now serving as the Secretary of the Washington State Beekeepers Association and the Treasurer of the Western Apicultural Society.
Consequently, I have a lot of experience analyzing colony problems, winter losses, management techniques and their impact on colony survival here in Washington.
On this basis I make the following observations, thoughts and analysis of potential causes of what is occurring in the photos in your newsletter.
It’s unclear whether these photos are of the same hive, but the symptoms could be caused by the same phenomena.
Dead bees scattered on top bars: When there are queen pheromone problems bees do not cluster in a dying colony as they should. Scattered bees are seen as a colony is dying for several reasons, and the bees don’t cluster in the typical egg shape. Instead the bees are roaming around in the hive and die from cold and other issues in various areas of the hive.
Small cluster on one end of a deep comb of honey: Often you will find a dead queen in a cluster such as this. The colony shrank over time because of a poor queen and possibly other issues. Sometimes this happens with a two-year-old queen, but I’ve also seen it many times in a queen’s first winter. The colony shrank and became too small to generate heat to survive.
Dead bees on the bottom board: These bees died over time going into winter when the weather was too cold for the bees to remove their dead, and the loss happened too fast for bees to keep up with removal activities. The cause is usually because the queen died in early fall and the colony failed to cluster because of a lack of queen pheromone, so they fell out of the cluster to the bottom board. Sometimes this can also happen even if you were to find the queen in that small cluster in photo 2.
A queen with bees: Note that the bees here are not forming a retinue around the queen. Only four bees are headed toward her. The rest are paying no attention to her. If this photo was taken of a small colony in weather in the 70s F° the photo may have been taken before the retinue formed. That is not usual behavior with an attractive queen.
When locating a queen on a brood comb, the bees should be generally and uniformly scattered over the comb face throughout the hive. At 55 F° they should be close together, making it difficult to find the queen. At warmer temperatures, e.g. 65 F°, the bees would be further apart but uniformly covering the comb. This clustering behavior is due to a response to the queen’s pheromone quantity.
- A queen should have a retinue of 12-15 worker bees when she stops on the comb for a minute or two. Some will antennate her, feed her, groom her, and lick her pheromones so they can be transmitted to the other bees in the colony.
- Queens with 6-10 bees in their retinue are less attractive; their colonies will cluster more loosely at 55 F°, more loosely over the face of the comb, and may even move to the edges of the comb during comb manipulations. Bees in the hive will even move to and over the hive walls and cluster on the outside of the hive at 65 F°. They may not all move back into the hive until evening.These colonies won’t cluster in an egg shape in late fall, often moving into a chimney shape vertically over combs in the bottom and top brood nest boxes. These colonies often demonstrate the symptoms seen in the photos, and usually shrink in colony size during fall and over the winter if they survive. Twenty deep combs covered with bees on November first will be 4-8 combs of bees on March first, even when taken to winter in California in September.
- Queens with 0-6 bees in their retinue will not cluster, and often abscond from the hive when the first hard frost occurs in the fall. I’ve even been told that beekeepers have witnessed this behavior who questioned whether bees will swarm in late September or mid-October.
- I’ve seen queen banks containing a full deep frame of queens that only had workers clustering in small groups on individual queen cages and ignoring the others. I’ve seen nucs that were made of 4-5 combs of bees in May with new queens that reduced to 1-2 combs of bees over 30 days.Several colonies in nucs in the same apiary actually attracted bees from these colonies and became two deeps full of bees in the same time period because they had attractive queens. Several beekeepers have marked nucs receiving unattractive queens in cages, as well as marking nucs with attractive queens and compared their colony behaviors and size over time.Attractive queens formed successful production colonies while the less attractive queens had smaller colonies and were often rejected by the bees in two weeks to six weeks, and some failed in late fall.
- A good visual test is to place a new cage with a queen over the back corner of the hive to which you want to introduce her. See how long it takes for the bees to gather on and over the new queen cage. Often with less attractive queens the bees would rather cluster on open brood than over a new young queen.
- Often the bees with these poor queens with small retinues will make no effort to supercede her 3-4 months after introduction, even if she is their mother, and the colony will go queenless.
- As recent research shows there are other concerns with colony survival, e.g. viruses, comb residues, and mite loads. But from my observation, attractive queens in an operation always head colonies that appear more vibrant and successful, as well as being quiet or less “noisy.” Colony noise of an attractive queen will be 50 decibels (dB) while colonies with unattractive queens (even young ones) will produce 65 to 85 dB of fanning noise, commonly called the “queenless roar.” When manipulating hives with poor queens beekeepers often determine which brood box the queen is in by listening to the fanning noise level.
- And then there is the article I read that indicated that when queens were kept in their mating nucs for three to five weeks post-mating, they were more acceptable to nucs or colonies. This indicates to me that maybe queens need to mature post mating in nucs before they are shipped to the customer. But this would increase the queen cost while apparently increasing attractiveness.
However, I find that few beekeepers pay any attention to these “subtle behaviors” as they are called, because they are not analyzing bee behavior or why large differences occur between colonies headed by queens from the same source. Sister queens are not necessarily the same.
Further recommendations to comments 6 and 7
Colonies with 0-10 bees in the queen retinue formed over two minutes should be requeened. Do this by finding the current queen and killing her by crushing her on the screen of the new queen’s cage. This action alone will increase acceptance of the new queen by 15 to 25%. Drop the current queen remains into the brood nest and insert the new queen’s cage between brood combs with screen and candy end up so dead attendants won’t block the candy exit hole.
If you have spring colonies of 12 to 20 combs of bees, I’d suggest that you requeen your current colony doing a top nuc method using an inner cover with a 10-mesh screen hot glued over the hole in the inner cover. If you use inner covers just turn it deep side up and use it as a queen introduction board under your top nuc. Remove 5/16" x 1.5" wood from the end of the deep side for a bee entrance.
Alternatively, you can make your own queen introduction bottom board with peg board or 1/4" plywood (with 4 saw kerfs cut into the center) dadoed and glued into a 1” x 1” wood rim. Make the board 1.5” longer than a super so it acts as a bee landing board. Glue proper thickness strips under and above the board on the entrance end, leaving a bee entrance of 5/16" to 3/8" x 1.5".
Find the current queen in the parent colony and set her comb aside. Take either 3-4 combs of emerging bees, or older larvae and sealed/emerging brood, with accompanying bees and put it into your top nuc box. (Or, shake bees only to cover 3-4 combs so you can treat them for Varroa using HopGuard.) Also shake bees from two or three more combs into the nuc because some of the bees will return to the parent colony and you want enough bees in the nuc to cover the brood. Insert your new queen’s cage into the top nuc.
Place the current queen and combs with eggs and uncapped brood into the bottom box of the current hive, add combs as needed to the 2nd brood box, place a queen excluder over the two deep (3 western) brood nest boxes so the queen doesn’t go up to lay in the super, add a deep super (1-2 westerns), add the queen introduction board, the top nuc and the hive cover. I add the super(s) so the queens are further separated, which increases acceptance of the top queen.
The reason for using a screened (or peg board or 1/4" ply with saw kerfs) introduction board is to allow heat and queen pheromone to be exchanged between the parent and nuc colonies and a faster build-up of the top nuc. Actually, this colony adequately supered will produce 25% more honey than a single queen colony.
With this top queen configuration you may see field bees from the lower colony move up into the top nuc because the queen is more attractive, doubling its colony size.
Thirty days before the end of the nectar flow in your area, kill the bottom queen and drop her into the brood nest, combine the nuc brood nest with queen into the lower brood nest. Place capped and emerging brood into the center of the first honey super over the excluder, where it will emerge and the bees will then store nectar. When they have six to eight combs of nectar in the first super the excluder can be removed.
Incidentally, I set a wood-wrapped queen excluder back from the front of the hive 1-1/8” so bees can enter the brood nest and honey supers around the end of the excluder. If I use metal-wrapped excluders I also set the first honey super back to create a 3/8" entrance into the brood nest, and around the end of the excluder.