This article was originally published in May 2013, but this issue comes up like clockwork every year…
You think your hive is queenless – you can’t spot the queen, and you don’t see any eggs. What now?
First, don’t panic – unless you have been pretty negligent in your inspections you have plenty of time to address this issue without any real negative effects on the hive. There is at least a 3-1 chance that your hive is not actually queenless, and even if it is you can get it queenright all by yourself if you have at least one other hive. Give the “queenless” hive a frame from another hive that has at least a few eggs or very young brood on it – aren’t you glad you have more than one hive? Mark that frame (a child’s crayon works great for this) and make a note of what you have done and the date. If the hive really is queenless, then it will start queen cells on that frame of brood right away, and they will be easy for even a novice to spot within 3-5 days. The only real exception is that a hive which has been actually queenless for more than about 30 days may be so weak or have so many laying workers already that they won’t start queen cells. By that time though the hive will not only be queenless, but will be completely broodless and probably very weak – many of the foragers will abandon a queenless hive. But if you do inspections at least every other week to confirm that your hives are queenright that will never happen.
If they don’t try to start queen cells on a fresh frame of brood (during Spring through Fall) then they already have a queen – it might be a virgin queen, or a recently mated queen that is not yet laying. If they do already have a queen (of any kind) they WILL NOT accept a new queen – no matter how much you pay for it.
Just about the only ways to be sure that a hive is really and truly queenless is to do the frame-of-brood thing or to actually remove the queen yourself. Looking for the queen doesn’t do it – even an experienced queen spotter can fail when it really matters.
Also, giving an actually queenless hive a frame of open brood will help to prevent it from developing a laying worker, and will help to keep the population demographics healthier.
Any hive will benefit from a donated frame of brood.
There are a few reason why a hive might appear to be queenless when it really isn’t. Brood production is cyclical – a hive can be full of brood one day and have very little only a few days later. This usually involves an influx of nectar that leaves the queen with few places to lay eggs – at which point the hive may appear to be without a queen. Depending on the exact circumstances this may or may not result in the hive issuing a swarm. A hive which has swarmed may be queenless for a few days, and may be broodless for up to 3 weeks or so while it makes a new queen – also appearing to be queenless. Or you could accidentally squish the queen during an inspection. None of these circumstances make a hive hopelessly queenless – they all will make a new queen most of the time without beekeeper intervention. Sometimes (10-30% of the time) something goes wrong though – If a virgin queen fails to return from mating for any reason the hive will then be hopelessly queenless – lacking the resources to make a new queen without help from a beekeeper. While a queenless hive will pretty much always try to make a new queen it takes about 24 days more or less for that new queen to develop, get mated, and start laying eggs. For many people – myself and my 50 yr old eyes included – it will be another week before there is brood which is easy to spot. So about a month between becoming queenless and easily spotting brood. During that time all of the eggs that the previous queen laid will emerge leaving the hive completely broodless after 24 days – all of the worker brood emerges in 21 days leaving only capped Drone brood. This can make you think that you have a laying worker or drone laying queen.
Whenever in doubt – give any possibly queenless hive a frame of open brood. Buying a queen without running this test first is going to be a waste of money about 3 out of 4 times.
Timeline of Queenlessness
No brood of any kind, population weak, laying workers, SHB, robbers, or wax worms taking over – queenless too long to save in my opinion. Shake it out – it’s a lost cause.
No brood of any kind but population strong– hive has been queenless for over three weeks – at least 24 days. If the population is still strong and you can see where they have cleaned out comb for a queen to lay eggs, there is probably a queen that either hasn’t started laying yet or has laid eggs that you are not spotting. Giving it a frame of brood is good luck anyway.
Capped Drone brood only – hive has been queenless for just about 3 weeks.
Lots of capped worker brood, but no open brood at all – queenless for about 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 weeks.
Open larva but no eggs or young brood – Queenless 6-8 days. You should find capped queen cells in a hive like this.
If I Made a hive queenless then I usually try to leave it alone for about 3-4 weeks if I can remember exactly when I did it. I need to keep better records I know. If I find one that looks like it has been queenless for only a couple of weeks or less I look for cells and then leave it alone for a couple of weeks. I always give a hive which has been queenless for over 3 weeks (little if any worker brood) a frame of young brood from another hive to see if it builds new cells or so as to confirm if it is still queenless – and to ward off laying worker.
Remember – it takes a hive about 12 days to raise a queen, but it takes that queen another week to harden up and get mated, and then another week to start laying. Then it might be another week before you can spot any brood. About a whole month from start to finish to produce an easy to find laying queen.
But it only takes a few minutes to give a hive a frame of brood – and avoid disaster.
And by the way – you will not hurt the donating hive by stealing one frame of brood from it – even if you do it every week for a while. Fear of harming a hive by taking brood from it is very common but almost completely baseless. Don’t let this imaginary harm cause you to needlessly lose another hive. If it bothers you then plan back the donation once you get the other hive queenright and healthy again. But most likely you will see then that there is no need to do so because stealing a frame of brood here and there does little to set back a hive.
Shake it out!
Caution – if a hive has really been queenless for a whole month it is only a few days from a total meltdown which often results in the loss (due to wax moths and hive beetles) of all hive resources – including comb. There is a point (little or no brood) when the best thing to do is to shake out the hive (carry it 15 yards away and shake all of the bees off of every frame onto the ground – then remove all of the woodenware from the original spot where it sat) and freeze the frames to kill any hive beetle or wax moth eggs which may be present. If you have to shake out a hive it is not at all a loss, but rather more like a reboot – no bees (except laying workers – all others will beg into other hives) are killed, and no comb, honey, or brood is lost. After you freeze the frames you can redistribute them and start a new nuc in the same spot using resources from your other hives, and many of the old foragers will even return to it.
Do your inspections!