Queen Bee Replacement: How to Requeen your Beehive

replacing queen bee

Spring is in the air and soon we'll be surrounded by the wonderful buzz of our most valuable, favorite pollinators; the honey bees!  Whether you're just starting out or you're a veteran beekeeper, you'll recognize that knowledge is essential for our toolkit in having successful dealings with our bees.  And let's face it, sometimes us beekeepers can be rather, umm, opinionated; so, there's no shortage of suggestions on how to accomplish a certain task in the bee world.

After all, it's not surprising to find that this hobby/business can be as complicated as we want to make it with details, facets, factors, circumstances and a whole host of concerns to keep in mind; the more information we have the better in general.

We've got a wide range of beekeeping supplies online here.

But in the end, it's more important that we just jump in and do something, anything even, rather than just sit around experiencing "analysis paralysis".

So in that spirit, let's talk about requeening a sample hive in our apiary under a set of common circumstances.  Hopefully we can cover it as simply as possible, covering details that only help clear the complexity behind "the how" and "the why" this particular technique works.

Requeening a Beehive: Knowing when to Replace your Queen

First, let's play catch up and compare circumstances so we're reading the same sheet of music.  Let's say this sample Hive A is one of your hives that has been just plugging along and the bees have been doing what bees do year after year.

But when you go out to do your inspection this month, you notice something is off.  Maybe the brood pattern isn't as strong as it was before, maybe the marked queen has gone past her useful life, maybe all that sperm storage has been used up and all that's left is more and more unfertilized drones, or maybe it's just your yearly decision to supercede the queen to maintain a stronger hive.

Regardless of how we got here, it's time to replace that existing queen in our sample hive.  So, being so smart and prudent, we've combed through the internet, magazines, or the speed dials in the phone until we've selected a queen supplier of choice, ordered ahead of time, payed for the FAST shipping and here she is on our doorstep, ready to install.

Wasn't that easy and fast?  But now what?  How do we make this work?  How do we get one individual bee in and one out?  Let's walk out to the apiary and I'll walk you through it--

replacement queen bee

Finding the Old Queen in the Hive

First, pick a good, warm day when the bees are flying.  Working them mid-day increases the likelihood that the foragers are out in the field and will reduce the number of bees in the hive to deal with.  You want it warm also because the first thing we need to do is go through the hive until we find the queen.

Be patient, and go frame by frame putting them aside in an empty, "inspected already" box if necessary.  Once you find the old queen you have a decision to make; do you want to keep her or kill her?

You're going to need a smoker and a good hive tool

Many commercial operations just pinch the queen and be done with it there and then.  But hobbyists have the luxury of time and this is the perfect time to make an artificial swarm, AKA split.  Both are viable options to figure out before you get to this step.

Out with the Old in with the New: Taking the Old Queen Out

Rather than make this even more complicated (and a much longer article), we'll assume she is gone whether you reuse her elsewhere or kill her off.  So, now you have a hive that has just lost its queen and will quickly become rather disoriented.

Remember, requeening is basically us humans asking the bees to accept an offered stranger queen to lead the colony.  If we just release a new queen in the hive immediately there is an increased chance that the population will reject the newcomer since the hive thinks it's still queenright until the democracy of the bees realizes they are without their queen.

It'll take several hours for the bees to realize that the queen is gone for good and for her smell to dissipate from the hive.  This is quite an experience, too, to hear the "roar of the hive" as the fanning increases and increases as scent is spread throughout.  If you are familiar with the sound and you expect it, you can use it to know things are working as designed.

requeening-a-beehive-4

What Happens inside the Hive when it goes Queenless?

The idea is to slowly allow the bees to release the queen over a period of time from 24-72 hours allowing the old queen scent to leave, the hive population to compare notes to realize they are under a supercession situation, to introduce a new queen to the population in hopes of acceptability, and to control the ability for the population to reach the replacement queen and kill her before the acceptance point can be attained.

After all, we're saving that population from A LOT of work because the alternative means they kill the offered queen (or she leaves) and instead the hive takes on the task of picking viable queen eggs/larvae, raising as many as they deem necessary, the emerging of the first queen, the fight and elimination of the extras, the risks of the mating flights through predation/weather/drones/act/return/etc, and then (and only then) can a new queen take her place on the throne.

Do you need new beehive components or honey extraction tools?

That's a long time and a lot of effort when they can just short circuit all that by just agreeing to have the queen-in-the-cage take over- even temporarily- they can always make a new one on their terms "later" if she doesn't work out, right?

new queen bees

Without a Queen, the Bees get Desperate

Once the bees figure it out the queen is gone they'll be desperate to find a replacement, this is why many experts will say to leave the hive queenless for a period of time before putting a new queen in.

The scent is dissipated and the bees are eager to find a replacement at this point.  Enter the queencage.  Most queencages have a release hole that either has or can have candy plugging it.

Note: if there is no candy already installed I use mini marshmallows to plug the hole and it has reliably worked for years.

Learn how bees communicate... hint: it comes with a dance.

So we remove the cork and put in our marshmallow or expose the candy as necessary and put the queen cage in the hive.  There are a few technicalities here that will make the difference between success and failure to keep in mind.

Technical Steps to Introducing your Replacement Queen to the Hive

The cage MUST be put in so that the bees have access to that screened part so that the queen can be fed by the bees in the hive thru the "bars" of the jail cell while she waits for the candy to be removed by workers.

This applies even if there are attendants put in the queen cage with her because the candy is not for her.  Which leads us to ensuring that the candy plug is accessible to the hive workers so they can work on releasing the queen by eating through the candy.

A good position I've found is putting the cage into the hive with the following orientation: placed between two brood frames toward the center of the hive with the candy plug down at the bottom, and the screened side to the frames and facing the front or back of the hive in Langstroth or to the sides in Top Bar hives.

Want stronger beehives this spring?

If done this way, when the frames are mushed together the center hole of the candy plug at the bottom is accessible and the screen can be accessed in the middle of the "walls" formed by the frames by a typical beespace of at least 3/8".

replacing the queen in a bee hive

After the Replacement Queen is in... Wait and Check

Once installed in that fashion, the next step is simple: it's walk away and the next check on the hive is at the 3 day mark.  Three days later, we want to open the hive on a nice day and make sure she's released.  Pop the lid, grab the queen cage and close up.

We want to see where the cage is empty, the candy chewed away and we can hope that the released queen is doing what's needed next (some are mated and laying immediately, some are virgin and need mating flights first, so be careful of assuming or relying on seeing eggs/signs at this first point).

This is how bees help advancement bio-mechanic developments... with their eyes.

If she isn't released, now is the best chance she has to be accepted with a fast-release technique, which is simply opening up the cage plug and dropping the queen in.  Sometimes the candy plug is covered, not good candy or the bees just don't figure it out, so we just help by releasing her after a reasonable amount of time elapses.

Replacing Queen Bees, Final Thoughts: Queenright and New Brood

Either way we'll be back at about the 2 week mark then.  At that point we should begin to see signs of a good queen with all stages of eggs, larvae, and pupae being sealed in their cells (drone day 11, females day 9) and the hive is on its way, congratulations!  If there is nothing but drone cells, no sign of brood but a lot of polished cells waiting for something, or lackadaisical behavior by workers it might be a failed introduction.

Of note, I didn't say we have to find the queen in order to verify she's good!  We just need to find evidence of her to establish the queenright hive is good to go.  So don't fret if you don't see her "in-person" at this point, she has a lot on her agenda and is busy establishing the hive; we can find her later on if we need to.  For right now, let the bees be bees and do what they do best.

For the most part the above works far more than it fails for me.  If you're anything like me, the more we learn about the bees, the more fascinating they become.  I wish you good luck as we pursue making the world a better place for our pollinators!

By Brian Rogers, North 40 Outfitters Contributor

"Brian Rogers has been called a modern-day Renaissance man with experience in several space programs, military, beekeeping, house inspection, construction contracting, aquaponics and systems engineering to name a few. Brian, a retired USAF officer, holds an AAS in Electronic Systems Technology and a Bachelor's in Electronics Engineering and is also CEO of Wonder See Properties LLC as a ‘hobby'."

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