August 2000

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

What do you know about QUEENS

I just always assumed that beekeepers knew “all about Queens” until I got heavily involved reading the questions, answers, comments, and advice given on the Internet Bee-L. Then, I started to pay more attention to questions and answers of Maryland and other beekeepers, and to my surprise and alarm, I learned that most people are seriously lacking much needed knowledge about the queen bee. Further, I found that many people are reluctant to READ the books or writings of bee scientists or bee researchers in fear that the text might contain unfamiliar words or that the findings might be based on an unfamiliar theory, or frankly, the writing is just too difficult to understand. Even though I am a scientist myself, I have worked with the “so-called average man” long enough, I think I can “speak his language”; and with that in mind, I want to tell you much about the queen bee that obviously has confused many people.

How many remember one of my favorite words: ANTHROPOMORPHIC? It means ascribing human characteristics to non-human things, like bees. Unlike humans, bees, including the queen bee, have very little, if any, ability to learn anything. They are “born” with all the information that they will ever have to know, and never require any boss, teacher, instruction, condemnation or praise. If you understand that a worker bee can build comb without instruction, fly-out to forage for either pollen, nectar, or water as needed without instruction, raise a new queen when needed without instruction, and gather nectar in May to make honey for winter feed when they will be dead by July, then you might have a better chance of understanding the many things that are so important about a queen bee. This can only make you a BETTER BEEKEEPER and enable you to partake in the REAL JOYS OF BEEKEEPING as I have known for 68 years.

WHERE DO QUEENS COME FROM: A queen lays a fertilized egg that would normally become a worker bee. When that egg is 3 days old, it hatches into a larva. During the four and half day uncapped larval period, the larva is fed 100’s of times each day a rich food of royal jelly, a secretion manufactured in the hypophyrngeal glands of young worker bees. This specialized larval diet fully develops the female reproductive organs, making the body larger including the wings, and develops the queen’s ability to manufacture and disperse the queen PHEROMONE, or queen substance which is that odor that identifies her as the queen as well as exercising control over her progeny. To paraphrase all of that, let’s just say that: When a normal worker bee larva is fed a total diet of royal jelly, this transforms the regular underdeveloped female worker bee into a fully developed female that can mate and then reproduce bees. ANY worker bee larva can become a queen bee if fed the royal jelly diet for its entire 4+ day uncapped larval period.

DOES A QUEEN HAVE LEADERSHIP OR RULE OVER HER COLONY? No! (surprise?) A queen bee is much like the queen of England: She reigns but does NOT rule. The English parliament makes decisions and rules. In a bee colony, it is the worker bees that make decisions and control the queen by how much and how often they feed the queen. For example, when a colony is crowded for brood space or nectar space and decides to swarm, the workers stop feeding the queen so she ceases egg laying and reduces weight so she can fly, but the worker bees literally have to force her away from the hive to the initial swarm congregating location. If she joins the swarm, scout bees go out to find a new permanent home and off they disappear.

WHAT DOES A QUEEN DO? Up until about 20 years ago, we knew little more than the queen was an egg laying machine capable of laying 2000 eggs per day one at a time or about one egg every 43 seconds during the peak of the brood year, generally May. She lays various quantities of eggs almost every day for about 10 months of the year, but rests from about Thanksgiving until mid January. It has been estimated that she might lay 200,000 eggs each year. By the way, she only breeds basically one day of her life, usually when she is about 6 days old; and she breeds with about a dozen or more different drones who deposit about 4-5 million sperm in her spermatheca gland where she keeps them alive for her entire life and releases one sperm to fertilize an egg as she lays it which will result in a worker bee. This is pretty interesting “stuff”, but not as interesting as the researcher’s findings during the past 20 years about the queen PHEROMONE, or queen substance. A queen bee has the ability to produce a scent or an odor that acts as a glue to bind perhaps 40,000-50,000 bees together as one functioning working unit rather that splitting up by swarming. Further, the pheromone suppresses the sexually immature worker bees from laying eggs, as well as suppressing the natural worker bee aggression to other bees to a feeling of cohesion with the queen, and finally, the pheromone is a stabilizing influence within a swarm that provides the worker bees the justification for swarming. It is thought by some that the function of the queen PHEROMONE is more important than the laying ability of a queen because of swarm prevention. Unfortunately, it has been proven that the ability of a queen to produce this pheromone is at it’s height on her mating flight and diminishes a little each day for the rest of her life. Hence, a real young queen can prevent swarming better than a 1 year old queen, and much better than a two year old queen. This is one of the reasons why present day commercial beekeepers, highly dependent on honey production, requeen annually and rarely let a queen live a second season.

WHAT IS THE LIFESPAN OF A QUEEN? THE USEFUL SPAN? There has been reports of queens living as much as 5 years, and many cases of queens lasting 3 years. If one is not upset by swarming, keeping a queen for 2 years is not unusual. However, if you are desirous of high honey production, your colony has to have a high population and not given to swarming, and both of these requirements need the services of a very young queen, only a few months old.

WHY HAVE A MARKED QUEEN? Unlike humans, dogs, or cats, queen bees are more like robins, rabbits, or bass fish in that “they all look alike” unless they are of different races. After 68 years of beekeeping, I still don’t know whether to think of a beekeeper who tells me that he knows his unmarked queen is 3 years old and still going strong, is a genius or a liar. Several times in my life, for requeening, I have purchased 50 queens from two different queen breeders, and as I examined them, I could not tell one from any other – they were all pretty much identical. If one of my colonies swarms, I want to know it. If one supersedes the queen, I want to know it. If one group of colonies all headed by queens from one breeder produces more honey or becomes infected with some disease more than some other group of colonies with queens from a different breeder, I want to know that. I want each of queens to have a “social security” number, so I have nothing but MARKED QUEENS and every good beekeeper should do likewise. Not only is a marked queen much easier to locate in a colony, but the color of her mark tells you her age, or the breeder who produced her. When I catch a wild swarm, I mark the queen SILVER (light GRAY) so I know she is not a known “pedigreed” queen, and I use her in a comb building hive or in an observation hive at my honey sales booth or school demonstrations. I mark my own queens, but you can buy marked queens by paying just $1 more. When I constantly hear people say they “can’t find their queen”, or people say they lost their honey crop because the bees swarmed, I wonder how important that $1 must be to them. Even worse, when most queens cost about $10-$12, I just don’t understand why anyone would take a chance on losing a several hundred dollar honey crop rather than pay $10-$12 for a new, young queen. MARK YOUR QUEENS!

WHAT IS A SUPERSEDURE QUEEN? WHAT HAPPENED TO HER MOTHER? WHY? Maybe the “average life span” of a human is about 75 years, and the average life span of a queen bee is perhaps 3-4 years, but some humans never see 50 or even 20, and some queen bees never reach 2 or even 1. Hence, just because you bought a new queen last April, why are you so surprised to find a NEW UNmarked queen in your colony this April. Where did she come from? Is she any good? Will she still be there next April? Queens die primarily from any of several reasons: accidentally injured or crushed by the beekeeper, disease, poorly bred and not doing an adequate laying job so the workers initiate supersedure, or lost on her mating flight. When a colony has become successful enough to be overly populated and short of space, they “look forward” to swarming and plan ahead to leave a WELL NURTURED virgin queen behind to take over the parent colony; therefore, building large swarm cells and STUFFING ROYAL JELLY into these cells as soon as an EGG is laid in one. The egg hatches 3 days later into a larva and this new larva enjoys “feasting” on an abundant supply of royal jelly for the next 4.5 days until the cell is capped and even has enough royal jelly to continue feasting for another day in the newly capped cell before it commences its pupal life and emerges about 7 days later as a virgin queen. The prenatal history of a supersedure queen is not well orchestrated nor planned ahead. When a colony suddenly finds itself queenLESS, regardless of the reason, the worker bees so badly want a queen mother that they RUSH against time to develop a queen who will restore colony morale. Hence, they select a worker egg or even a 2 day old larva on the face of a brood comb, build a wax cup around that egg or larva, deposit royal jelly in the cell and “hope.” It is obvious that this underdeveloped larva does not get the full ration of royal jelly that occurs in a swarm cell, and hence the resulting queen may be inferior. Note that I did not say “is” inferior, but I said “may be” inferior. So you have a supersedure queen – is she any good? It will take you the best part of a year to find out, which may mean the loss of honey production, pollination, or enjoyment for that year. Although almost EVERY bee researcher, honey bee scientist, and commercial honey producers requeen EVERY year, there are still the “old timers”, the hobbyist, and the beeHAVERS who still think requeening every two years is adequate and/or that by not having marked queens and hence allowing colonies to requeen themselves is OK, even possibly getting inferior superseded queens. Well, suit yourself, but I don’t start a vacation drive to the beach with smooth tires, old crankcase oil, short of freon in my air conditioning, and a torn wiper blade. Dr. Basil Furgala, the very famous bee researcher from Univ. of Minnesota wrote: Having old queens in colonies during the fall and winter too often brings about:

  1. A supersedure in the fall, too late for the virgin queen to be mated, resulting in a drone layer.
  2. A failing old queen in the late winter or early spring resulting in a void in egg laying occurring when accelerated brood production is a necessity for proper development of the colony.
  3. The death of the old queen during the winter, leaving the colony queenless.

Does a QUEEN Bee sting? Another Bee? Another Queen? A Human? Of course, a queen bee can sting, but unlike a worker bee, the stinger is smooth and does not have any barbs on it so that it be used more than once. Like the old adage that “two women in the same house means trouble”, if two queens suddenly meet in the same colony, one will fatally sting the other within a few minutes. As for worker bees or a human, there is no reason for a queen to sting a worker bee of her own colony whose job it is to protect their queen; and, although their have been a very few cases of a virgin queen stinging a human, there is almost no record of a human being stung by a queen bee. That is why one should not hesitate to pick up a queen with your bare hand avoiding her abdomen and carefully hold her by the thorax to mark her, or put her in a queen cage.

Time elapse between the queen laying a worker egg and a foraging bee? Too many beekeepers lose much of their honey crop because their queen started laying brood too late in the spring. A worker bee does NOT become a nectar forager for honey production until FORTY DAYS after the egg was layed. Hence, if black locust bloomed on April 15th, a foraging bee egg had to have been layed before March 6th. Never forget that 40 days!

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE IN RACES? Since the genetic differences of each race is determined by the breeding of the queen bee, each race has certain good points as well as negative points, and YOU should choose your race based in the most important good points and the least important bad points based on YOUR ABILITY in beekeeping. The only races that I will mention are Carniolan, Caucasian, Italian which are the only three that are “somewhat pure” in the U. S. today. All the other well known names are MAN PRODUCED hybrids that can NOT reproduce themselves, such as Buckfast, Midnite, Starline, and the new Russian and all of these can only be replaced by buying a new queen from a queen breeder who produces that hybrid. In general, all hybrids get nasty and more nasty if they allowed to reproduce on-their-own. Of course, one can not define the good or the bad qualities of Aunt Eva’s bees, Uncle Tom’s bees, or anyone else who allows their bees to reproduce themselves resulting in sort of a League of Nations bee, because nobody knows who were the many Daddys and Granddaddy’s over recent years. Just some of the more important good points to be considered are: gentleness, disease resistance, honey production, wintering ability, comb building, etc. Some of the important bad points to be considered are: excessive swarming, robbing, excessive use of propolis, poor wax cappings, and disease proneness. The Carniolan is noted for its unusual gentleness, wintering ability, and maybe disease resistance; but it is also known to have a high propensity to swarm. The Caucasian is known to be gentle, good wintering ability; but is also well known for an over abundant use of propolis which makes hive management difficult and is subject to Nosema disease more than most other bees. The Italian is mostly known as a “pretty” 3 striped yellow bee, moderately gentle, good honey production, good comb builder; but is also known as “the King of Robber Bees” and over production of brood resulting in heavy use of honey stores. One should never select a race because “George said it was the best” or because “most of the local club members use the xyz race” or because “queen breeder Joe Jones impressed me”. Far better is you reading the myriad number of good and bad points of bees written by bee scientists and researchers, and select the race based upon what is most important to you and fits in with your ability to manage your bees properly.

How to Requeen? When?

Many beekeepers LOSE their new $10 queen, because their colony is NOT queenless or they are trying to requeen a colony during a lousy nectar flow that has a lot of unhappy foraging aged bees. The almost sure way to determine whether a colony is truly queenless is to insert a frame of EGGS OR 1 DAY OLD LARVAE IN IT and see if the bees try and develop a supersedure queen cell. If they do, the colony is queenless; but if no supersedure cell is built, there is some bee in that colony that the other bees recognize as a queen, and any new queen you try to introduce will be killed. It could be a virgin queen or a laying worker. It is always easy to add a queen to a nuc of young nurse bees with few foragers. After this new queen is accepted and laying well in the nuc, you kill the old queen in the parent colony and unite the parent colony with the nuc. Most people like to requeen in the spring, when the colonies are still small and the bees gentle because of a nectar flow. Because I don’t want to interfere with my Maryland nectar flow of April and May, plus the fact that it is very difficult to get well bred queens in March, I prefer fall requeening. While it is true that late summer and early fall is a tougher time to requeen than spring because the colonies are bigger and harder to handle, queen breeders can get better queen breeding in the summer and they can ship to me on an exact date with no guesswork. My IMIRIE ALMOST FOOLPROOF REQUEENING method, shown below, allows me to approve the new queen before I kill the old queen plus having two queens laying in the same colony for about 6 weeks prior to winter provides many young bees for winter and warm early brood in late winter to gain a large population of foragers for the April-May nectar flow.


Select an exact date for your new queen to arrive and make it known to your queen breeder, and get a MARKED QUEEN. TEN days before the new queen is to arrive, insert queen excluders in between any two boxes where your old queen can go. When your new queen arrives, water her and store her in a cool dark place until needed. Gather up a double screen board, an empty hive body, 10 drawn combs, and a feeder with a gallon of 1:1 sugar syrup. Find the OLD queen (which ever brood box has larva is where the queen will be found) in the colony you want to requeen. Set her ASIDE away from the colony, so that you free to manipulate all the other frames in the colony. Select 3 frames of brood: 1 capped and 2 of eggs and larva, all with the covering nurse bees. Place these in the center of the empty hive body. Now add 6 more frames, as follows:

  • 2 empty drawn comb, (one on each side of the brood frames)
  • 2 frames of pollen and honey, (one on each side of the drawn comb)
  • then 2 more empty drawn comb, (one on each side of the honey-pollen frames).

This totals 9 frames leaving space for the queen cage. Now take several frames of brood …remaining in the old colony…and shake the nurse bees into the new 9 frame nuc. Cover the nuc and set it aside for a while. Return the frame with the OLD queen to her home hive and replace the 5 frames you removed (3 of brood + 2 of honey-pollen) with empty drawn frames.

Now put the double screen board on top of the old colony so that its entrance faces to the rear of the parent colony. Set the new 9 frame nuc on top and install the new queen (make sure you remove the cork from the candy end). Start feeding the new nuc immediately. After about 3-5 days, check the queen cage very quickly using little or no smoke to see if the queen has been released. If she has not, you release her from the cage. Do NOT disturb for another 5-7 days and then check with as little disturbance and smoke as possible tooking for eggs and larva. Add the 10th frame and remove the queen cage. During the next few weeks (I like about 5-6) check the brood pattern of the new queen. If you like it and want to accept that new queen, find the old queen down below the double screen, kill her, and remove the double screen board. This method has a couple of advantages:

  1. if something is wrong with the new queen, you kill her and the colony has a backup with the old queen; and you requeen the colony at a later date, and
  2. for about 5-6 weeks, you have 2 queens laying eggs that increase the number of bees which will make the hive stronger for winter and reduce the stresses of Winter.

Note: If you don’t have a Double Screen Board – You should. If you are not sure how it is made, imagine a wooden queen excluder frame without the metal wires, covered on both sides by 8 mesh wire – A DOUBLE SCREEN BOARD.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

Scroll to Top