Everyone’s heard of the queen bee and how important she is. A queen is responsible for laying eggs and maintaining her colony’s population levels. Due to her level of importance, losing a queen is one of the most common ways to lose a colony. Fortunately, there are symptoms you can look out for to catch the problem and help your bees correct it in time. Here are some signs your colony is queen-less and how to fix it.
Lack of Eggs
The queen is the only member of the hive laying fertilized eggs. It’s the most important job in the hive, and only she can do it. When a hive is queen-less, one of the most obvious signs is a lack of eggs and brood. During the spring and summer, a hive’s queen lays eggs every day. This means that, if a healthy queen is present, there should be lots of brood at all different stages of development—from eggs to larvae to pupae. Remember that every day your queen isn’t laying eggs means more and more worker bees dying without young workers to replace them. Every time you inspect your hives, check for fresh eggs. If there are no eggs, but the rest of the brood is there, you might have caught the problem soon enough to prevent a lot of damage.
No eggs or brood, of course, means lower populations. Between predators, an exhausting job, and a short life span, bees don’t live very long. With no young workers emerging to replace the population, a colony soon decreases in size. A colony relies on its numbers to survive. They need plenty of workers to nurse the brood, forage for nectar and pollen, and make and store honey. Unfortunately, a decrease in population is one of the harder symptoms to spot, especially early on. If you notice a significant drop in population, your colony might have already been queen-less for a few weeks.
Because there is no brood to take care of, worker bees who previously acted as nurses to the brood become foraging bees. This means more of the colony is working to make honey and increase food stores. Plus, with no eggs taking up space in the hive, bees devote more of the honeycomb to storing honey. If you see an increase in honey and pollen in your hive, and a decrease in space for the brood, your colony might be queen-less.
Queen Cells or Cups
When a colony loses its queen, they will try to find a replacement among the current brood. Look inside the hive for a queen cell. These are special constructions designed to house the queen while she develops from a larva to a matured queen bee. However, the presence of a queen cell doesn’t necessarily mean that your colony has a new queen. Inspect the queen cell closely to see if it has a larva in it, if it has a cap, or if it hatched. This will help you get an idea of how successful the colony is at raising a new queen.
Be careful not to mistake a queen cell for a queen cup. The latter is just a smaller, empty cell that the bees prepared for a new queen but hasn’t housed a larva. Queen cups might mean that your colony is trying to make a new queen, but they lack the fertilized eggs to do so. Even if you find a successfully hatched queen cell, be sure to keep an eye on your colony over the next several days. While a hatched cell means a new queen has emerged, she might not be laying yet. Worse, she might have died while on her mating flight. This means your bees will have to start the process all over again.
If a colony is without a queen for long enough, some of the worker bees might start laying eggs. However, because they aren’t queens, they won’t be able to do so successfully. Only the queen bee has gone on a mating flight, which means only the queen can lay fertilized eggs. Worker bees, on the other hand, only lay unfertilized eggs. These eggs develop and hatch into male bees, otherwise known as drones. Drones don’t become worker bees and instead exist solely to mate with queens from other hives and spread genetic diversity among bee populations. In other words, laying workers don’t productively boost the hive’s population, which means food production and other necessary processes will go down. You can tell that you have laying workers if you see multiple eggs in each cell. Queens, being experts, know to lay only one egg per cell, but laying workers do not. A colony with laying workers is extremely hard to fix, so it’s important to keep an eye out for other symptoms before your bees get to this stage.
Some of the signs your colony is queen-less aren’t as physically obvious. The attitude of your bees can be a major indicator of their well-being. Bees that don’t have a queen often seem irritated, nervous, or lethargic. Recognizing shifts in temperament requires personal knowledge of your bees, but with enough care and attention, you might be able to catch it. Pay attention to the sound of your colony whenever you open your hive for an inspection. Queen-less bees often make a high-pitched whining noise that is different than their usual humming. This kind of behavior is a sure sign that something isn’t right within the hive.
How to Be Sure
Keep in mind that any of these signs can be a symptom of a different problem. There might not even be a problem at all, and these signs indicate something else altogether. If you’re uncertain, you can test your colony by placing a frame of young brood from a different colony into the hive. If your bees starting building queen cells, they are likely trying to make a replacement.
How to Fix Queen-lessness
When you’re certain your colony is queen-less, you have two main ways of helping them. First, you can let your bees make their own queen naturally. One of the best methods of doing this is to take a frame of eggs or young brood from a healthy colony and let the bees choose a queen from that. Naturally raised queens often have feral genes that make the colony stronger. The other option is to buy and install a queen. Kelley Beekeeping offers queens—along with all other beekeeping equipment you might need—from April to mid-September. This is a quicker method, so it’s better for a colony that has been queen-less for a while. If your colony loses its queen, the most important thing is to read the signs and act as soon as possible. Pay attention every time you inspect your hive and get to know your bees so you can take care of them whenever something goes wrong.