Raising good queens requires a lot of work, specialized equipment, and attention to detail. The finished product — a well-mated queen in a cage with a few attendants — is expensive, so when you buy a queen, you want the introduction to go well. For a successful introduction, the queen is not the most important consideration. In this article about how to introduce a new queen to a hive, we offer tips to help you make sure your colony is receptive to a new queen. First, we cover a "quick and dirty" test, then we examine hive management techniques beekeepers use to ensure the bees are receptive to the queen, and we provide a brief overview of a new queen’s first few weeks.
We can test a hive's receptiveness by laying the new queen in her cage on top of the frames. The bees will come up onto the cage. If the bees are holding on and trying to sting, then the colony is not receptive. When you try to move the bees off the cage by wiping your finger over the cage, the bees will be stuck, and removing them will be like taking Velcro apart. If the bees act like this, take the queen away and try again 12 to 24 hours later, or search the hive for a queen you might have missed before.
If, however, the bees on the queen cage can easily be pushed aside, then the colony appears receptive to the queen and it is safe to put the cage into the hive. The bees will then eat through the candy plug and release her.
Our Head Beekeeper, Anne Frey made a video showing these two reactions to a caged queen.
Most beekeepers know that a hive with a queen is likely to kill a new queen if she is introduced. Therefore, if the hive has a queen, do not just drop in a new replacement queen. You need to check the hive’s status before beginning an introduction. Knowing if a hive has a queen is sometimes easier said than done — and often, telling if a hive is queenright is most difficult in hives that have recently swarmed. Consider this scenario:
Let's assume you had a nice big, fat queen with a blue dot on her thorax. She was easy to find, but now when you open the hive, she's nowhere to be found. You might even wonder if there are fewer bees than last time. You look deep in the brood cells and do not see any eggs. You might jump to the conclusion that the queen is gone — and you are probably right about that big, fat queen with the blue dot on her thorax not being in the hive. The hive sounds like one that swarmed. But, what about her successor?
Usually, the swarm leaves with the old queen — in this example, the one with the blue dot — away sometime between when the new queen's cell is capped and when she is about to emerge. That gives you about a week before a new queen emerges. Prior to the old queen leaving, she loses a third of her body weight from her abdomen. While the queen may continue laying eggs, it happens at a reduced rate. This means that before swarming, there may be very few to no eggs left in the hive. Once the bees do swarm, there won’t be any new eggs until the new queen starts to lay.
The time from when the new queen emerges from her queen cell until she lays her first egg can vary, but is a lot longer than most people think when they first start keeping bees. Because this requeening process takes so long, you must have a lot of patience when the bee season is in full swing (and that patience can be hard to muster when the season is as short as it is in New York).
After the queen emerges, her first task is to find other queen cells and destroy them by stinging the other queens through the sides of the cells. She also searches out and destroys any other queens, so if you happen to insert a queen into the hive while she is doing this, your introduction will not be successful! Next, she will do some orienting flights to test out all of her flight equipment and make sure she knows where home is. These tasks may take her a week to complete.
In her second week of life, the queen will go on mating flights. She will fly far from the hive to find a drone congregation area — a place where queens and drones meet up to mate. Typically, the queens fly further than the drones for more cross-breeding opportunities.
The queen will mate with many drones over the week and will not mate again after this short window at the beginning of her life. She might also be delayed by bad weather — very long stretches of bad weather lead to poorly mated queens that will have short lives with very little stored sperm. It is important that she not be exposed to toxins or high or low temperatures that might lead to the death of the spermatozoa she has stored.
If we make a calendar of all these events after the hive swarms, it could be three weeks before a new queen starts to lay eggs. It could also be about four weeks since the hive has had any new eggs.
How much brood will be left if worker brood all hatches after 21 days and drone brood after 24 days? None! So, if you saw the hive swarm two weeks ago and now you are inspecting and not seeing any eggs, could there be a young queen in the hive that will seek out and kill the new queen we sent to you via overnight FedEx? Certainly. You should likely wait 4 weeks after the swarm to be sure the queen didn’t make it back.
Remember that a new queen goes far away for mating, exposing her to many hazards that may get her killed or lost. When queen breeders count the queens that have mated and returned to their nucs, about 80 percent of queens return from their mating flights — meaning that about 20 percent of the queens are lost. If those one-in-five queenless hives are identified in time, it may be possible to make them queenright, but young, new queens will kill any queens that are added.
If you’re considering requeening your colony, first check to see if the hive is queenright, then proceed accordingly. Explore our How to Be a Beekeeper Guide for more beekeeping information and tips.