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Article 3 - May I Present ............?

Some Notes on Queen Introduction

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Why Requeen?

The reasons for requeening include: Reduced likelihood of swarming in a colony headed by a young queen; production of strong colonies able to resist disease and produce a large honey surplus; selection of desirable colony characteristics; emergency replacement of a queen inadvertently killed - probably as a result of beekeepers' interference.

General Criteria for Queen Introduction

No method of queen introduction is infallible, apart from letting the bees raise their own. However, there are certain general conditions which must be satisfied to maximise success.

  • The colony must be queenless: only in exceptional circumstances will a colony tolerate two queens. The workers will always prefer their own queen and will kill the interloper.
  • There must be no queen cells: workers recognise the presence of these cells, probably by pheromones, and would rather wait for their own queen to emerge than accept a ready-made stranger.  (It helps if the colony is hopelessly queenless: that is, it has no brood young enough to be converted to queens.)
  • There must be no laying workers, whose mandibular glands develop and start producing queen-like pheromones. The other workers accept them as queens and attack any real queen introduced. It is virtually impossible to requeen such a colony. Fortunately, laying workers do not appear until the colony has been queenless for three or four weeks.
  • There must be bees young enough to feed the queen, so the colony must not have been queenless for more than about four weeks.
  • Bees accept a new queen more readily if there is a nectar flow on. Presumably this is because they are engorged with food and are therefore less aggressive. If there is no natural flow, feeding with thin sugar syrup (1lb to a pint) will simulate one.
  • It is preferable that the new queen is as nearly as possible in the same physical condition as the old; healthy, well fed, in full lay, and of the same race. This condition is the most difficult to satisfy. Often queens have been sent through the post, and are certainly not in good condition: and frequently the new queen is deliberately chosen from a different race.

Timing of Introduction

There must be a delay after the removal of the old queen before the introduction of the new.  The workers must have time to realise that they are queenless, which takes about an hour.  How long the delay should be is a matter of debate: anything from a few hours to a week.  If the new queen is introduced after only a few hours then certainly the workers will not have produced queen cells.  But they will still remember the specific pheromone mix of the old queen, and will not be well disposed towards a newcomer.  The new queen will have to be well protected for about 24 hours, until the workers' memories have faded.  She will also have started to acquire the colony odour.  A delay of one to five days means that there will be some queen cells to be removed at the time of introduction.   There will still be some young brood so it is possible, though not very likely, that the workers will continue to raise their own queen.  A delay of more then five days again means that queen cells will have to be removed, but after this the colony is hopelessly queenless, and will have to accept the new queen if it is to survive.

The detailed techniques of queen introduction need to take account of the general principles above, along with the particular circumstances in which the queens are acquired. A few common situations will be discussed.

Home Raised Queens

The home raised queen cells will have been put into mating nuclei to emerge, mate, and start laying.  Provided their performance is satisfactory they can be used for requeening.  If the brood in the nucleus is on just a couple of frames, then direct uniting of nucleus and colony is possible.  Several days before uniting, go through the colony and remove the queen.   On the day itself, again go through and remove all queen cells.  Remove two brood frames, preferably with just stores and no brood.  Push the remaining frames to one side, leaving a two frame space next to the hive side.

Open the nucleus, remove all frames except the two with brood.  Make sure the queen is on them and put them together in the middle of the box, in the light.  In a few minutes the queen will have moved into the dark between these two frames.  Pick them up together, and put them in the space left in the main colony.  During the transfer, spray with sugar-sweetened water the outside surfaces of the frames, and also the bees in the space on the adjacent comb in the colony.  The spray disguises colony odour, and keeps the bees busy clearing up.  There is no fighting.  The queen continues to lay in her own frames and only slowly expands into the rest of the brood box, by which time she has the colony odour and is accepted.  Any frames of brood left over after the introduction can be used to boost other colonies.

If the brood nest in the nucleus has expanded to greater size, then all the frames can be put into a full brood box and united to the queenless colony by the well-known newspaper method.  The success rate of queen introduction from nuclei is very high, and the use of nucleus hives is the basis of queen introduction.

Caged Queens

If the new queens are not home produced, but donated by a neighbouring beekeeper or bought from a commercial queen breeder, they will arrive in some sort of introduction or travelling cage.  An introduction cage is basically a tube, the walls of which are perforated for at least some of their length with holes of about an eighth of an inch square.  One end is closed with either a permanent or tightly fitting plug.  The other end is open but can be closed temporarily with beeswax, or newspaper, etc.

A queen donated by a fellow beekeeper usually arrives with little warning.  While she is on her way, go to the colony to be requeened, and make up from it a small queenless nucleus.  First, find the queen and cage her temporarily to protect her while you select two frames of old and emerging brood and one of stores.  As many as possible of the older bees on the frames, who are likely to be aggressive to a new queen, are removed by giving the frames a light shake over the brood box.  The older flying bees take off, the younger cling on.  Put the frames in a nuc box placed to one side of the colony.  Shake in the younger bees from three or four more frames.  Be generous, because many of the bees will leave the nucleus and go home.  Some bees can be persuaded to stay by lightly blocking the entrance with grass.  By the time the grass has dried out and the workers have cleared it away, they may have decided to adopt their new home.

The nucleus is left for two or three hours so the bees know they are queenless.  If the queen arrives during this time, she can safely be left in her cage.  After a couple of hours, replace the temporary plug at the end of the introduction cage with a single thickness of newspaper held on with an elastic band.  Make one or two pinholes in the newspaper.  Open the nucleus and wedge the cage between two frames adjacent to the brood.  Close up and leave alone.  The workers detect the queen's presence by pheromones, and the holes in the cage allow them to feed and antennate her, but are too small for them to attack her.

The workers release the queen by chewing away the newspaper, and pinholes give their mandibles something to start on.   However, this takes several hours, by which time the queen and workers have become acquainted through the side holes, the queen has acquired the colony odour, and she should be accepted.  After a couple of days, quietly open the nucleus, ease out the introduction cage, confirm the queen has been released, push the frames together, and close up.  Leave well alone until the sight of pollen being taken in indicates the new queen is laying.  The new queen is then put into the full colony as described earlier.  A modification of this method by Roger Morse involves the nucleus being made up on top of the colony.

Travelled Queens

The introduction of travelled queens is similar to that described above for caged queens.  There are, however, one or two differences to be considered.  If the new queens are purchased from a queen supplier, they will have been exposed to the rigours of the postal service for several days.  They arrive in travelling-introduction cages in ordinary envelopes with a few ventilation holes.  There may be no indication of what is enclosed and so they are likely to have been thrown around as is any other piece of mail.  It is a miracle they survive.  Each queen is accompanied by about eight workers, who feed her during the journey.  The travelling cage again has perforated walls for ventilation and worker access during introduction.  It has two compartments, the larger for the bees, and the smaller, to which the bees have access, is filled with candy to sustain them.   There are two external entrances, one through which the queen and her attendants are inserted, and one to the candy compartment.  The latter is closed during transport by a removable plug.

The queens arrive when they are in poor shape both physically and psychologically.  They are off lay, underfed, and above all dehydrated.  Candy has a low water content, and so only metabolic water is available to the bees for diluting the candy and producing food for the queen.  Rest the queens for a few hours in a dark, warm place, and provide water by inserting a few drops now and again through the holes in the cage sides.  Because the queens are in poor shape everything that can be done must be done to aid acceptance.  Fortunately, several days' notice is given of shipment, so the queenless nucleus can be made up in advance and can be hopelessly queenless, or nearly so.

Before placing the cage between brood frames in the nucleus, it is recommended that the attendant workers are removed, to avoid any possibility of aggression which may endanger the queen.  Do this by a closed window in a closed room,, in case the queen flies.  The escort workers are killed.  The plug in the candy compartment is removed, and the cage put into the nucleus.  It takes a day or two for the workers to remove the candy, allowing plenty of time before she is released for the queen to be properly fed and returned to good physical condition.  Again, leave well alone for at least a week apart from easing out the empty queen cage after a few days.

Virgin Queens

The introduction of virgin queens is difficult, with a low success rate: so low as to be zero in most cases.    Fortunately, the situation does not arise often.  Maybe inspections have been delayed, perhaps by bad weather.  By the time the colony is opened it is well supplied with ripe queen cells, containing virgins anxious to emerge and perhaps being held in by the workers.  They take the opportunity of a disturbed colony to pop out, and suddenly the beekeeper has several on his hands.  The only possibility is to make up a small nucleus, with one frame of sealed and emerging brood, one of stores, only young bees, and the virgin in an introduction cage.  It would probably help to take the nucleus to an alternative site, so the bees cannot return home, and must stay with the queen.

The problem with a virgin queen is that for the first few days of life she produces little queen substance, so the workers will not realise she is present and will not feed her.  Some candy or creamed honey in the cage will enable the virgin to feed herself for a while, maybe until the workers find her.  The lack of water to dilute the candy limits the success of this: the queen is reliant on metabolic water.

Odd-Ball Methods

A number of direct methods of queen introduction are described in the literature. Dunking the queen in tepid water for a few seconds then popping her into the queenless colony through the feed hole in the crown board is one. Another is to empty out all the bees in the colony onto a board in front of the hive and sloping up to the entrance, and to drop the queen into the resultant scrum. These sound good fun to try with a home-produced queen, but not with that expensive, bought-in special queen.

Bibliography

All general beekeeping books discuss some method of queen introduction.  Useful information is contained in: Encyclopedia of Beekeeping, Morse and Hooper Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding: Laidlaw and Page

Don't be afraid to put some of Duncan Weaver's ideas and experience into practice.  If you do, whatever the result, we would love to hear about your experiments.

Beryl Smailes


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