Queen Introduction

The new season will soon be with us and hopefully the weather will be kind and new queens will be mated well and ready for introducing to replace old queens or head new colonies. Bernhard Mӧbus, Senior Beekeeping Advisor at Craibstone (Scottish Agricultural Colleges), wrote a series of excellent articles in the journal of the beekeeping advisory service. These abstracts are from the ‘Winter 89 No.11’ edition and are reproduced with the permission Graeme Sharpe, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Bernhard strongly advocated the use of locally bred queens and bees and did much to support Scottish beekeepers by rearing queens from suitable native colonies in Aberdeenshire. This article has been selected and adapted for the Scottish Native Honey Bee Society newsletter by John Durkacz.

…. ‘It is difficult to say how many imported queens actually survive the first hurdle, that of introduction to their new colonies. Many of them are lost annually, they are killed by the worker bees or are superseded shortly afterwards. Craibstone too gets reports about Maud queens that have been killed or superseded. Only too often the loss will have been due to the recipient colony not being in the right mood, had queen cells, a virgin, or a laying queen. Sometimes ejection is due to the wrong approach, the wrong time of the year or day.

Snelgrove wrote one whole book on the subject and most bee books contain some advice on the matter of introduction. Yet many (including Snelgrove’s) were written before the discovery of queen substance and its important role in controlling and determining the behaviour of bees. This year I had one panicky enquiry that a Maud queen had been balled after introduction and seemed near lifeless when rescued from the mass of surrounding bees. The method of introduction, colony dequeened with travelling caged introduced after 24 hrs delay, had kept the colony queenless for too long. After missing the old queen the bees first made frantic searching runs throughout the hive as well as outside it. Finally, hours before the new queen was introduced, they had started raising queen cells. Once determined to have a queen of their own clan the new queen and her attendants appeared as enemies and a threat to survival. On being released she was attacked, balled and injured. The instruction, to delay introduction for a full day, had been gleaned from an old book.

In another case the queen was introduced by the ‘well tried’ method of the matchbox with only a tiny slit for feeding by a passing bee. That queen suffered a similar fate after laying a few eggs. In this case her confinement, probably half-starved and with little bodily contact, had occasioned the same cell raising impetus. She was tolerated for a while but when cells under construction were completed the new queen was ignored and then finally killed.

So, what is my advice? Well, it is a bad habit of mine to delve more deeply into the subject. Anyone wanting a simple answer should stop reading now.’ ……. ‘the behaviour of bees, their queen or a new one is influenced by the colony condition, environment, the time of day and by the season. In many subtle ways, bee behaviour differs between night and day and this is of greater importance when insect enemies are flying freely. Another very important factor is queen quality as expressed through her pheromones.

Seasonal Aspects

So let us look at the seasonal aspects first. In mid-winter a queen may be removed from her cluster and be replaced by a new one. Bees are clustered and rarely in contact with the queen and are less dependent on queen substance. They are raising no brood at the time and need no daily supply of the magic potion. (Please do not experiment like this! Not to be taken literally.)

In early spring the transfer of the queen to another colony is also easy. Uniting weak queenless colonies to neighbouring queenright ones can be done with little fear of loss or balling of the only queen. Place the queenright stock above the other. Often the newspaper is not required as it is a barrier.

…….’Colonies are more suspicious and on the alert if there are robbing bees or wasps on the prowl towards the end of the summer. Seasonally dependent problems over uniting of nucs or the introduction of queens are therefore simply another pattern of normal, natural bee behaviour. We have to accept this and be aware. We should learn a trick or two to overcome the difficulties.

Pheromone – Queen Substance

……. ‘Dr Colin Butler is the scientist who must be credited with the discovery and identification of the pheromone and its importance. He showed that minute quantities of chemicals make bees aware of the queen’s presence and thatthe same chemicals when circulating in adequate quantity suppress the raising of queen cells. 

……. ‘After the loss of a queen her absence is noticed by the bees within ½ hour to 2 hours when her pheromone is suddenly reduced and lost. The behaviour of the bees now changes and they will search all over, inside and outside the hive, frantically scenting with their Nassanoff glands at the entrance and on exposed frames. Some bees even make random short search flights near the hive and any smoke will set up a disconcerted and intense response of loud humming. Observant beekeepers cannot help but notice this panicky behaviour.

Six to ten hours after the loss of the queen the bees settle down again and prepare to replace the queen with a new one. From that point onward the colony becomes more determined to do without a stranger in their midst and is less likely to accept a queen, even the old one. Introduction then becomes more difficult and the best period for introducing the new queen has been missed. If the colony has been queenless too long it is far better to wait until all queen cells built have been sealed. Under normal circumstances that means a full 9 day waiting period and then the second safe period for introduction starts within a few hours after ALL queen cells have been destroyed.

…… ‘When your precious queen arrives in the mail it is best to check at once that she is alive and well and that some candy is left over. Make sure the cage is not in too warm a place, just a comfortable temperature and not in bright sunlight. Brush a droplet of water over the screen of the mailing cage as soon as it arrives. The accompanying workers will be seen to extend their tongues and lick it up. Make sure the colony is in a ‘happy frame of mind’ by feeding it if nectar is not flowing freely, a day or two before introduction. Plan to introduce a new queen as late in the day as possible. Towards evening, the behaviour of bees changes and they are less suspicious of attacks or intrusions by strangers of any kind.

Removing the attendants and isolating queens is best done in the shed or a small room where the queen cannot escape and get lost. (This was written 30 years ago and many sources now say it is not necessary to introduce the queen alone – JD).Remove the small cork of the mailing cage and hold it upright. Worker bees will come out of the hole and take their bearings. When the queen comes out, she may fly towards the window where she is easily caught and clipped and marked. (Bernhard seemed to favour the Butler cage for actual introduction, but there are others and mailing cages can be used making sure there is candy in the entrance compartment. The plastic introduction cages with sliding lids are now commonly used and have removable tabs protecting the candy compartment. It is probably safer to leave this in place for 24 hrs until you are sure the bees have settled and if all looks well then remove the tab to allow the bees to eat the candy and so release the queen).

……. ‘After guiding the queen into the open end of the Butler cage this is then closed with candy or a piece of newspaper and rubber band to hold it in place. Put the cage in a warm pocket and go to the colony to be requeened. Find the old queen and remove her and place the Butler cage with the new queen at once between two combs where the bees ‘would expect to find her’. Place her where most of the young and peaceful bees are between frames of emerging brood and eggs. She will be safest here on her release. Close the hive up quietly. Nurse bees will soon make contact and obtain and obtain the new queen’s pheromone and nibble away the candy or paper. In some cases, the colony will not even ‘notice’ the change of queens. Should some bees discover the loss of the old queen, they will find the new one while searching and will feed and lick her BEFORE they raise any queen cells.

In the difficult period of high summer, the following procedure is better. It makes sure that the bees know they are hopelessly queenless and that the new one, caged as above, is their only chance for survival. The old queen is removed and can be placed in a nuc temporarily until you decide what to do with her. If large queen cells are present, they are cut out. The colony is left alone for NINE DAYS. All queen cells appearing must then be removed by shaking bees off every frame. Even a small scrub cell left can lead to failure of the new queen introduction. The introduction cage properly prepared with the new queen is placed hanging between brood frames in the centre of the nest. Bees will discover the loss of all cells within the hour and usually the new queen will be accepted ‘nae bother’.

Special breeder queens bought for dear money should never be introduced to strong, honey producing colonies full of old foragers. In any case you should aim at testing not the breeder queen herself for honey production but to test her off-spring for that quality. Such queens can be introduced with greater reliability to colonies or nuclei which have lost all older flying bees. Surrounded by young bees she is less likely to mauled, bitten, stung or balled. This not very difficult to achieve. For example, the ‘parent stock’ of an artificial swarm is far better for this than the original colony itself. Equally a nucleus with many young bees and little brood can be made a few hours before the caged queen is introduced. Discovering their queenlessness, the older bees search and return home to the original location. Only young bees will be left to welcome and release her majesty. Contrary to the advice given for direct introduction to full- strength colonies, we should therefore make divisions or nuclei to be requeened around mid-day of a fine day with excellent flying conditions.

Bees do not always accept the queen as a fully fledged paid-up member of the society as soon as she is released. She is a stranger still for some time and for several days we should not inspect, smoke or examine a stock with a recently introduced queen. After a week she may have settled down from her ordeal of caging, isolation and release and that is when we should make a first check that eggs are present. There is no need to see the lady, just take along your reading glasses and look for eggs. That is all we need to see, she may be hiding but eggs are proof positive of her existence and activity.

Virgin queens are another matter. Introduction is more difficult still and it is best that no attempt is made until all brood is sealed. In a way we should try to think like bees: when they have a mated queen, they expect a mated queen to carry on. When they have much open brood and no sealed queen cells, they do not expect, nr will tolerate a virgin queen. When ripe, sealed queen cells have been cut out, then the appearance of a virgin queen in the hive would be a natural event. Make sure the colony has not been in a swarming mood when the original queen had been removed, as when a virgin is introduced too soon, the swarmy bees may accompany her on her mating flight – never to return.

Postscript: The introduction of new queens is an important issue and things do go wrong! If in doubt, then forming a nuc and introducing a queen to this is the safest way to go during the active season especially with stronger colonies. An excellent additional read is to be found in the BBKA News, Special Issue Series on Queen Rearing where there are articles by Marin Anastasov and Tony Harris. (JD)