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The Stress of Requeening Honey Bee Colonies


Requeening a honey bee colony or hive with a purchased, mated queen bee.
To queen or not to queen? If you are a beekeeper or plan on becoming one, this is a question you will undoubtedly come to ask yourself. If you are like me, a contemplator, a worrier, a second-guesser by nature, you will most likely spend countless nights laying awake in bed arguing with yourself over the merits of requeening with a purchased (mated) queen, or letting the bees do what they do and make their own queen. 
Sometimes you have to think like a rancher and ask yourself "What is best for the overall herd?" I am certainly simplifying here but the idea rings true for any animal you are 'managing' whether it be cattle, chickens, bees. If you are going to keep or manage a honey bee colony, you are ultimately in charge of the health of your herd. The decisions you make, impact the whole, not just one or two. 
So, what do you do when you see that a colony is dwindling, or one Spring hive is slower to build up brood than the others? First, you need to determine if the problem is the queen or something else. Let's just say, for arguments sake that you have no varroa or other diseases in your hive, your bees have fields of beautiful yellow dandelions (I wish!) and conditions are prime for brood build up. Can you assume it's the queen?
I think you need to ask yourself a few questions first before jumping to the queen. How old is your queen? How often have you treated for mites in the past? What are you treating with, hard or soft treatments? Has there been any stressors on your hive, e.g., recent robbing or disruptions? Have you experienced a cold snap or a bout of inclement weather that might have impacted or slowed the bees down? Have you recently moved your bees? All of these factors play into the health of a colony and the queen.
If you just moved your bees to a new beeyard, let's say for spring, I'd expect the bees to take a week or two before they are righted and operating at 100% capacity. If you are having to treat for varroa constantly, your queen may be affected or weakened by this and it might be time to replace her. If your bees have been locked up in their hive because the weather was poor, they hopefully know better than to ramp up production and are simply at a stasis. Or maybe, your queen is simply reaching the end of her days and it's just time. 
Sometimes as a beekeeper you have to play God. I don't like this part of beekeeping. It literally pains me to have to go into a hive, find my beautiful queen who has produced so many beautiful bees and then kill her. It seems like such a dishonorable way to end a life. On the other hand, if a queen is superseded by a virgin queen, the bees are going to kill her. I imagine being smothered by your daughters and stung to death is not a fun way to go. 
Nature is that annoying loud-mouthed uncle who says it like it is at Thanksgiving dinner. Either way, it's happening, the queen will eventually expire and eventually you will be faced with the decision to either insert yourself or to walk away and let the bees do what they do. I prefer the latter, always. I really do not like messing with requeening. 
Having said that, sometimes you have no choice but to buy a queen. Here are two scenarios where I have been forced to buy a queen vs. just letting the bees requeen. There are of course a dozen other scenarios one could come up with to justify purchasing a queen.
1. It is late Fall. The worker bees have been actively dragging out the drones for a couple weeks now in preparation for winter. You open your hive and hear the queenless roar. You see no fresh eggs or larva in your hive and no queen. What do you do? I have had this happen to me very late in the Fall, October in fact. I don't know what happened to my queen. Maybe I accidentally pinched her while closing up the hive? Maybe she reached the end of her life and it was just bad timing being so late in the year? I don't know. Either way, I had to do something because there were no more drones flying and winter was approaching. Luckily, I found a beekeeper who had a stash of queens and was willing to mail me a queen in October! At least the temperatures weren't scalding hot in the mail truck. This hive accepted the new queen and made it through the winter and then some. I was lucky, the bees were lucky and this scenario had a happy ending. 
2. It is early Spring. You are opening your hive for the very first time. The weather has been great, there are blooming trees and dandelions on the landscape, i.e., plenty of forage. You have been assuming all of this time that the bees are doing well, as Spring conditions have been optimal. You open your boxes up and see that the brood frames are empty. You observe zero eggs and larva and the bees are scattered around the frames in a helpless manner. You cannot find a queen and upon further investigation you notice that the bees aren't foraging hard or storing a lot of pollen, they seem confused and disorientated. 
If you have only one hive, you are forced to buy a queen in this scenario. If you have multiple hives, you can steal a couple of frames with eggs and give it to this hive and literally walk away, letting them make their own queen. By the time the virgin queen emerges, there should be drones flying for her to mate with. 
Here is a caveat to adding an open brood frame. Bees need young larva to make a queen. If your larva look like the letter 'c', they are too old to make a good queen from (or so I have read!). Look for a frame of eggs (this is the best, if you can see the eggs) or larva that has not grown into the shape of the letter 'c'.
honey bee brood frame
honey bee brood frame

Now walk away and leave the bees alone. Come back in a week and see if they've made a new queen. Look for a peanut shaped cell on the side of one of the brood frames you added. Here is a video of queen cells on a brood frame so you can familiarize yourself with what a queen cell looks like.

I will digress here. Remember the second scenario? In it you have only one box of bees. This scenario is one of many reasons why it is critical as a new beekeeper and old, to have more than one hive. I highly, highly recommend getting no less than two hives as a new beekeeper, four is the better number. Why? So you can compare the successes and failures of the hives against one another. This is not only helpful in managing the hives (you can compare productivity and steal resources from stronger hives) but it is also helpful in building your confidence. If one out of three hives isn't doing well, you can beat yourself up a little less. If you only had one hive, and it was the failing hive (which would be my luck), you'd probably throw in the towel and consider yourself a failure. Do not do that! Buy 2-4 packages of bees and save yourself some worry. Back to queens.

I personally prefer to let the bees make a new queen on their own. I want local genetics. I want the bees to accept their queen and move on with their lives. I do not want to deal with putting a queen in a box, waiting days, sometimes weeks for the bees to accept her and all the work in between acceptance, e.g., like going to the hive, killing a queen, going back to the hive and cutting out all the supersedure cells, etc. It's a royal pain in the keester and it is such a disruption to your bees. Having said that, I have purchased lots of queens through the years, with a varying success rate. This year my success was poor. 

This is what happened to me this Spring. At the start of May I split two very strong hives. I kept the original queens, i.e., half the hive had the original queen and the other half was made to be queenless. I kept my queens as an insurance policy in the event that the new queens arrived dead or the bees did not accept her. My reason for purchasing the queens was to introduce new genetics in the bee yard. A bit of a backstory if you are new here. Last year my family and I moved from Montana to Wyoming. At present, the bees are quite isolated geographically, i.e., we are living in the middle of a sage desert. Yes, I know. Poor choice for beekeeping but the paying job is the priority.

Fortunately we live along a riparian area which provides plenty of forage for the bees. Due to our remoteness, there are no managed bees within flying distance (for the bees) to mingle with. This means that if the bees requeen themselves, they are going to be pretty limited genetically. Since good genetics are one of the key factors in successful queens and therefore colonies, I decided to purchase a couple of them. Now, typically I would buy from a local beekeeper, but my closest queen rearer is three hours away. With the rising price of fuel and the amount of time I'd spend driving back and forth, I decided to order online.

I purchased a carniolan (my favorite species since they are winter hardy) mated queen from Mann Lake, this was my first time using them for queens. I have purchased package bees from them in the past and the bees did fine. Both queens arrived alive but they were delayed by three days. Why? I do not know. Unfortunately this seems to be the common theme with purchased queens. This posed a bit of a problem for me and the bess. Since I split my hives 24 hours before my queens were supposed to arrive, my very strong splits had three whole days to sit and think about their queenless state, and start the process of making their own queens. 

By the time the queens arrived, I was forced to go through each brood frame and scrape out every new queen cell I could find. This takes a lot of time, is very stressful on the bees and the beekeeper, and honestly, it feels a bit futile. I added the queens and returned seven days later. After observing the behavior of the workers toward the caged queen (they were trying to bite and sting her through the cage) I decided I could not in good conscience release her. I again had to go through each frame individually and scrape out the queen cells. See where I am going with this? This is the stressful part of requeening when it doesn't go as planned.

 I left the bees alone for 7 more days before checking them again. By now, the poor queens have been locked up for over two weeks and the bees have no open brood to keep them busy and are pretty ticked off at the whole process. In the end when I released both queens, they were alive. They each crawled out of their cages, onto a brood frame and no one attacked her. I did lightly mist the frames with sugar water mixed with a couple drops of lemongrass and spearmint essential oil. I did not come up with this idea on my own but read about it in my quest for pro tips on requeening on Carolina Honeybees blog.

Essentially when I misted the frames and bees it seemed to throw them off their 'queen killing game' and allowed me to release the queens without them murdering her. They immediately calmed down and were very caught up in cleaning themselves up and smelling the lemongrass. Lemongrass mimics the nasonov pheromones workers give off when they find a new home and want other worker bees to know where it is, this happens when they are moved to a new box or location or when they swarm. Please do not use essential oils willy nilly with your bees. They are very strong! Here is a link to the fine spray mist bottle I used for anyone interested. I got it from Amazon and I love it. I used the 10 oz bottle, filled it with sugar water and added only 3 drops of spearmint and three drops of lemongrass essential oils. The mist is so light and if you are going to attempt to do something like this, you don't want your bees dripping wet.

Let me be clear here! I am not promoting spraying your bees with essential oils or sugar water, ever...ever! I am letting you know that I did this in a desperate act to get the worker bees to accept my very expensive purchased queens. Would I do this again? Maybe. It definitely gave the queens a chance to walk out of their cages and not get brutalized by the workers. If you've ever witnessed a caged queen walk out, only to be murdered by the workers, you might get desperate enough to try something new like this. It has happened to me once and you can say it has left me a little gun shy to release a queen when the worker behavior is questionable. 

Here was the end result of my requeening debacle. I released both queens after lightly misting the brood frames and the bottom and top bars of the frames of each box. One of the queens attempted to take flight and I somehow caught her. It was amazing. I wish someone would have been there to see it. I caught her and did not squish or damage her and placed her back on the brood frame. The other queen walked out without foul. Both queens were alive and moving around the brood frames with the worker bees when I closed them up. None of the workers attempted to kill the queens.

In the end, one hive had acceptance, i.e., fresh eggs. The other hive either killed her, I pinched her when closing up the box or she flew off (this was not the hive that I caught the queen in). I did not notice a dead queen on the bottom board but this isn't saying much because the bees most likely would have dragged her out already. I ended up feeding in a few frames of fresh brood and eggs so they could make their own queen. So was it all worth it?

In my opinion, a 50% success rate is not great, especially when you are paying (today, 5//29/22) $57.00 per queen + $15.00 in shipping from one of the top bee suppliers in the country. That's essentially $72.00 wasted. I'm not saying that you should never requeen. I am sure I will end up doing it again in the future. I am saying that if circumstances allow, in my humble opinion, I think it is best for the overall health of the bees and the beekeeper, to the let the bees do what they will, make their own queen. In the end, it is ultimately up to you.

If I do end up requeening again I am going to try using a push-in cage and or a requeening frame. I will be sure to let you know how it goes. If you have any pro tips on introducing queens to large hives who have had their queen for up to two years, please leave your thoughts below. This seems to be the scenario that continues to play out for me and honestly, my success rate with introducing queens to them has not been great. No matter what you decide to do, I wish you the best of luck! Remember, there are so many options and opinions in beekeeping. Ultimately though, it is entirely up to you!

 

About the author: Alisa is a soapmaker and beekeeper with a background in wildlife biology. She is the owner and maker behind UBU Soap n’ Bees. She lives along the Green River in WY with her husband Colin, and daughter Fin. As a family they enjoy hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors together, along with movie night and trips to the big city for sushi and treats. Moose the yellow lab and Abby the bun-bun are also part of the family, in addition to their small apiary of honey bees.


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