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. Next, if at all possible give the hive a frame of young open brood or eggs from another hive – aren’t you glad you have more than one? If the hive really is queenless, then it will start queen cells on the frame of brood right away, and they will be easy for even a novice to spot within 3 days.
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. If they do already have a queen 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 – I think I already said that, but still…
Any hive will benefit from a donated frame of brood.
The reason that you might think that a hive is queenless when it really isn’t is that 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 almost 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.
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 in 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. If it bothers you then plan to pay it back once you get the other hive queenright and healthy again.