Bee Culture: The mysterious case of the disappearing queen

What an apt name for the perceived leader of the honey bee colony – the queen. Just like human royalty, the queen gets credit for all that’s good in the hive but also gets blamed for all that’s bad. But this past spring season has been one of the worst ever for blaming queens. While most beekeepers are totally happy with the development of their package bees this past season, a significant number of you have not been happy with your queens. The range of discontented comments has been wide. I don’t have anything but generalizations, but it appears that many of the complaints came from the Mid-west, New England, and the upper South, while the comments from California were mixed. Many beekeepers in Alabama and Florida were a bit happier with the development of their packages this year. I have communicated with a number of state apiarists across the country as well as beekeepers and bee inspectors. I have included some of their comments for your review and comparison. Please understand that these are not my personal comments but rather those of respected apiculturists and beekeepers across the country.

Comment “We have had many complaints from beekeepers about suppliers in Georgia, California, Mississippi, and Tennessee about queens. After discussing it with other beekeepers, we feel that the cold, wet spring was detrimental to queen mating. We feel that some of these producers were sending virgins. The cold, wet weather prevented virgins from mating once they were released from the cages – resulting in poor queen performance.

“Queen producers could not keep up with the demand and rushed the process. The mites have caused enough damage industry-wide to affect the demand for quality queen and packages.”

Comment “I personally experienced problems with queens this past spring. I suspect the late spring put the queen producers in a bind – one of my orders was two weeks late and I don’t think some of the queens were properly mated. I had about 15% drone layers. I don’t see this as good news for the queen producing industry. The producer was stalling for time, but offered no good explanation for the delay. A little communication goes a long way, as will as backing up your product.”

Comment Queen failure has been rampant in Michigan. I talked to one beekeeper, during the long cold spell after packages were started, and he remarked that we will have lots of queen supersedures (past) spring! He installed packages for many, many years and thus has had the experiences with cold, rainy weather after the bees are released. That could be one reason. We have also had a lot of failures, after the weather became somewhat better. These failures appeared to be typical Nosema problems – that is about 3 – 4 weeks after the packages were installed. I don’t know if the earlier conditions helped contribute to this, or that package producers have stopped using Fumidil-B. This should be checked.”

Comment “I think I am seeing a trend in package bee queens failing based on how quickly Apistan Strips were installed. It’s difficult to say, but often beekeepers are putting in strips on package bees that have no drawn comb of brood. Are we somehow over-exposing new queens to the wrong levels of fluvalinate?”

Comment (From the West Coast of the U.S.). “Yes, recently I have heard more about beekeeper disappointments with queens, both in packages and for requeening. But, interestingly, other customers of the same supplier say that things are just fine. I think that there are more problems at both ends of this spectrum than we imagine. The mites but stress on colony populations that impact the production of the hive. Production can be measured in brood produced, colony populations, honey production. Down stream, the mites could negatively influence even a good, healthy package queen, as shipped by the producer (like Nosema).

“There is little doubt that our bees aren’t doing as will as they used to. If you are a top notch beekeeper, you are having problems but you can overcome them enough to have reasonable bees. If you are less expert in your management, then all these stresses gang up to culminate in weak, non-productive, useless bees. It didn’t used to be that way, so experienced keepers are likely to place the blame somewhere other than at their own feet. This adds up to discontentment and someone has to be blamed. Everyone is having at least some of these problems and the solution is to find answers, not to place blame (at least on other people).”

Have queen producers heard comments such as these? Absolutely! Ate they concerned? More than you can imagine. After speaking with several queen and package producers this past season, a different view of “The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Queen” came to light.

Many parts of the Southern U.S. were hit with March freezes and general cold weather. Those of us living in cold climates know how bees react to cold weather. They cluster, they may break brood rearing cycles, and they are much more difficult to manipulate. The producers to whom I spoke adamantly argue that they did not intentionally overbook. When the season started, it appeared that it would be great one for the package and the queen industry. The demand was high – weather was good. Then it turned cold and ugly. One producer said that he turned away around $90,000 in business that they knew they could not fill. Now that the 2011 season is history, many producers only had an average year at best. Frequently, due to the cold weather, they had to purchase extra syrup and work 85 hours per week in order to stay on as much of the schedule as they were able to keep.

Ironically, the following advertisement was published in a national beekeeping magazine in May, 1947 – nearly 65 years ago.

“We regret the delay in shipping packages. This is caused by conditions beyond our control. The season is three to four weeks late and in addition, there was a loss of a cycle of brood in March due to cold weather and a shortage of pollen. All orders will be shipped as they are listed just as soon as bees are available either by purchase of production. We have not taken new orders since it became apparent there would be a shortage.”

This advertisement summarizes much of what happened to some of your orders this past season. But weather was not the only variable. Both Varroa and Tracheal mites are a serious concern for commercial package and queen producers. They, too, must have ambitious chemical control programs. One producer said, “Any queen producer who doesn’t control mites cannot ship queens very long – they’re going to be out of business.”

The fact is that developing queens are being exposed to more of everything. Once they get to you and are installed, they continue to challenge to be exposed to more of everything. I have been challenging and will continue to challenge beekeepers to be better hive managers. It’s more important than ever. But … In quieter moments, I have wondered how all those manipulations will affect the colony. Is the constant stress of manipulations, exposure to pesticides, and low-level mite infestations causing more queen problems than we have seen in past seasons? How about the stress of shipment? What are the hypothetical effects of riding in a mail truck for hours – or even days – on a young queen? What was the general the general conclusions of producers? Yes, there were some problems, but they found customer to be more upset over delayed shipping date rather than queen loss. Cold weather caused shipping dates disruptions. As many of you know already, many orders were turned away.

For reputable producers, it has never been policy to ship virgin queens (unless specified) – no matter how difficult the production season. Producers consistently pointed out that loyal customers are the backbone of the commercial package and queen industry and they would do all they could do to keep them loyal.

The Problem-Queen Colony

So where does all this leave you – the beekeeper with a queen-problem colony, or a drone layer, or with a disappointing queen in general? It could be a totally different situation. You may just want to perform annual requeening in the fall rather than the spring. For whatever reason, you want to replace your queen. The question frequently looks like this, “My county bee inspector checked my hives this past weekend and advised me to requeen one of my failing hives as it is very weak – especially when compared to my other hives. When is the best time to requeen? Now – so she can build up the colony for overwintering, or early fall, to take advantage of the fall flow??
The fact is that this hive is not doing me much good right now anyway.”

Does the colony need requeening

In established colonies look for spotty brood patterns, weak (small) adult populations, listless adults, or non-existent honey crops (or consistently small honey crops). Also, requeen if the colony is overly aggressive and you find that to be a problem. Even packages that were only installed a few months ago should now be good colonies that are filling a single deep – maybe even two deeps.

The need for requeening, due to queen failure, is a relative thing – it’s a feeling you have that something is just not quite right in this colony. This feeling comes with experience. Get help from a bee inspector or ask a beekeeping friend to have a look.

Here’s a point. If you can easily tell that a colony needs to have it’s queen replaced, it’s probably already weak and lethargic. It may be too late to save it. Depending on the time of the year, you must decide if there is enough time in the season for requeening. Allow enough time for the new queen to become established and to produce, at least, one brood cycle. The more the better. If the colony is already weak and cold weather is just a few weeks away, I expect you’re wasting your time requeening that particular hive.

Be absolutely certain that your hive does not have American Foulbrood. Requeening or any other manipulation on an AFB infested colony will only result in increased problems and disease spread.

Fall Requeening

Through many beekeepers prefer replacing queens in the spring, colonies can readily be requeened in autumn. If the colony is still populous, finding the queen can be a real trip. Queen excluders are useful in limiting the queen’s travel within the hive and reduces the amount of equipment that must be searched. After putting the excluder on the colony (put between the two deeps of the brood chamber), wait about three days and then look for eggs. The deep having eggs is the deep housing the queen. There is no easy way to find queens, even then. Work slowly and methodically. Don’t use any more time than they expected “huntin’ queens”. One way or the other, you must find her. It may take two or three tries over a couple of days. If the colony gets too riled up, call it a day and try again.

Where Can I Get a Replacement

Buying one from a reputable queen producer is the best and quickest way. Check with other beekeepers or in bee magazines for addresses of queen producers. Beekeepers frequently let the colony “raise its own queen”. Certainly a colony can do that, too, but not as easily as you may think. It will take nearly two months for the new queen to be producing adult replacement bees in the colony. It could very well be winter by then.

Procedure

There are many different quirks to replace queens. Though entire books have been written on the process, it is not really complicated. Hostility to foreign queens is probably a reaction by the hives attempt to avoid parasitism. For whatever reason, it is a fact that colonies do not accept new queens, no matter how dire their condition, without a formal introduction period. A timed-release queen cage allows the hive bees time to accept the new queen’s odor and allows the queen to emerge from the cage under quiet, calm conditions. Both wood and plastic cages are in use today. Either one will have a candy plug. Should more candy be needed for a short time, just a piece of a marshmallow.

Order your queen to arrive a day or so before you plan to requeen. Keep her warm, dark and supply water to the caged bees. If you have trouble locating the original queen, you may need to keep the new one a few days. Don’t forget food and water. Put the cage near emerging brood. Nurse bees and other young bees are not aggressive toward new queens and the brood nest will incite the queen to begin egg production as quickly as possible. If there is no brood (or very little brood) in the colony, add a frame of open brood from another colony. After putting the cage in place, I suggest feeding sugar syrup and staying out of the hive for three – four days.

Then quietly, open the colony – again with minimal smoke and disturbance, (1) remove the cage, (2) quietly pull out a frame, and (3) look for eggs, or ideally, the queen.

Either way, don’t stay in the colony very long and don’t cause any more confusion than necessary. If the queen still within the cage after three days and if the bees are not acting aggressively, quietly release her onto the brood comb. Keep in mind that the bees will react toward the cage the same way they will react toward the queen. If they are holding tightly to the cage and you can’t easily scrape them away, then they are not going to be happy with the new queen.

Alternatively, if the bees easily move away when you bush them on the cage, your chances for success are good.
Another easy point. For the next few days after the queen has been released, take an afternoon walk in front of the hive and look for a dead queen on the landing board or on the ground in from of the hive. It’s bad news if you find her, but at least you know the requeening process didn’t work.

Finally, give the colony anything it needs – just like a convalescing patient. Feed it with both sugar and protein if necessary. Shade it, don’t mow around it, keep skunks away from it. Do anything to help it but don’t move it. Give the queen a chance to become truly established. By the time you see capped brood, you and your queen are both home free.

Its Always a Risk

When speaking of chances for success, you must realize that queen replacement is always a risk. It’s as though you’re a hive surgeon and you’re operating an a patient. Sometimes, even if you do everything right, things just don’t go the way you had hoped. If it doesn’t work, combine the colony with another and try for an early spring split. Either way, we all must become more adept at queen management – for that matter – we must all become more adept at hive management in general. Be able be to recognize queen problems and have some plan for correcting those problems. Mites have required us to get to know our queens much better, but yet not get overly attached to them.

What you have in your mind?