Beginner’s FAQ: My Colony is Queenless

We hear it time and time again from our customers, ‘my colony is queenless, I’d like to buy a queen’. But are you really sure that your colony is queenless? We sell many queens a year and sometimes we get claims that the queen was killed or did not take during introduction. No method of queen introduction is 100% full proof, but a queen being killed in the cage may be an indication that you weren’t queenless to begin with. In this post we’ll look at the signs of a queenless and not so queenless colony.

‘Not a Mated Queen’ Signs

If you’ve read our previous blogpost ‘What Should I do during a Hive Inspection?‘ then you’ll remember that no eggs is not a sure-fire indication that you are queenless. This is because you may have a virgin queen or a queen gone off lay not to mention laying workers or even a drone layer. It is really difficult to know whether or not your queen is a drone layer by looking at the eggs because they will still be perfectly laid in the cell, the only consolation is that it is easier to requeen a drone layer because you can actually find her!

Multiple Eggs and Stunted Capped Drone Brood (Possible Laying Worker)

Laying workers will be laying multiple eggs in the cell and will also be laid in an erratic pattern throughout the frame unlike a mated queen. You can also see that sometimes laying workers may even lay in cells containing pollen. What causes laying workers? The presence of brood inhibits the ovarian development in worker bees, a queenless and broodless colony begins to stimulate the development of the worker’s ovaries to enable them to lay eggs. However, as the worker has not mated, all the eggs laid are haploid, meaning that they will be drones.

Multiple larvae in the cells

In fact, it has been found that around 4% of workers will still be laying eggs even in a queenright colony, but driven by hygienic behaviour their eggs are often removed before pupating*. There is a theory that queen’s possibly label their eggs with a pheromone so the worker’s can identify their eggs as opposed to a laying worker’s egg, but to this day it has not yet been proven to be true.

Newly mated queens or damaged queens can also lay multiple eggs in a cell, best indication is the placement of eggs. The longer abdomen allows mated queens to lay the egg perfectly in the middle of the cell, whilst workers will lay along the cell walls and frankly, all over the place!

When laying worker drones are capped over, they are often stunted in size. Even when the drones hatch they are considerably smaller than a queen’s drone. It is a lot more difficult to requeen a colony with laying workers, we will explore this in further detail in a future blog post.

Open Queen Cells (Possible Virgin)

When inspecting your hive be sure to look carefully at all the edges of the frames, bees tend to make queen cells along the sides, the top and bottom of the frames as it gives them more space without infringing too much on the main brood area.

Seeing an open queen cell will definitely give you an indication that you have a virgin present. Do ensure that the queen cell has been opened naturally and not torn down by workers or a fellow queen, this a very distinct and clear circular hole at the bottom of the cell. It can be hard to spot a virgin so the best thing to do is to check the queenless signs below, and if you believe a virgin is present then leave your colony to it as your intervention can make the honeybees turn against their virgin queen and ball her at this sensitive stage.

Infrequent Eggs (Possible Mated Queen Gone off Lay)

If you’re not seeing much brood but you still see some perfectly laid eggs around the colony then you may have a queen that has gone off lay. Assess the condition of your hive, do they have enough stores? Is there any nectar and pollen being brought in, or do you just have a hive full of honey? One of the main causes of queens going off lay is the lack of forage outside (no matter if they have stores in the hive), this signals to the queen that they should conserve their stores and to slow down her egg production.

Is there enough space for your queen to lay? If you don’t get your supers on at the right time the bees may honeybound your queen – this means that the bees start filling the cells with nectar instead of leaving the space for brood. Bees won’t usually do this if there is space to move into a super, but it can still happen (some bees just won’t move up into the super – try removing the queen excluder for a week (do make sure the queen is in the brood box when you replace the queen excluder!)).

No Brood but Polished Cells (Possible Newly Mated Queen or Virgin)

If you’ve got good eyes you should be able to see whether or not cells are being prepared in anticipation for an egg to be laid inside it. Take out your middle brood frame and assess the middle of the frame where the queen is most likely to lay her eggs.

A polished cell looks exactly as you’d expect, shiny and smooth. This is a lot easier to spot in darker wax than freshly pulled wax. It is also easy to mistake a polished cell for an egg, as a polished cell is very reflective. Just have a good look, and if you really are unsure, then carefully take down the cell wall to see clearer.

Polished cells indicate that there is a queen present, this could be a virgin queen or a newly mated queen.

A frame with honey, pollen and brood from the outside to the inside (queen with a white mark)

Queenless Signs

Bees Aren’t Bringing Much Pollen In

When the colony is expanding and more eggs are being laid, the foraging bees will respond by bringing in a lot of pollen. This will be unmissable when doing a visual check of your hive, there may be some granules that were knocked off when trying to get into the hive. Usually if you are queen less and there are not many eggs and larvae present then they will just concentrate on bringing in nectar.

The bees packing in the Ivy Pollen

Honey in the Middle of the Brood Frames

If your bees start filling all the cells in the brood frames with honey it may be a sign that they don’t have a queen present as they are not leaving any space for a queen (or potential queen) to lay in. A queenless colony can feel a little listless and they have very little else to do but to just collect nectar and pack it into whatever space they can get to.

Remember that this is a sign that needs to be considered with all of the other signs discussed here as previously we talked about how a mated queen may go off lay if she is honey bound.

Population Dropping

You may be able to notice that the amount of bees in your colony is dropping. This will be a result of no eggs being laid, so the lack of new nurse bees which in turn means less bees taking care of the brood. In conjunction with that, check that there is no disease causing a population drop.

Changes in Temperament

Are your bees usually a delight to work with? A sudden change in temperament could indicate that your colony is queenless. However, as always beekeeping is never that simple, behavioural changes can also be a result of the time of the season, is there any dearth or robbing?

Testing Your Colony

The best way to make sure that you have a queenless colony is to place a frame of eggs into your colony then go back to check in a few days, after 6 more days you should have a capped queen cell if you are in fact queenless, but even after a couple of days you should see signs of the bees pulling emergency queen cells on that frame. If you go back to inspect and brood has been sealed normally, chances are you have a normally laying queen or maybe a virgin present.

Again, I cannot express enough that this test must be used with looking carefully at the eggs, as laying worker colonies may not necessarily start pulling queen cells.

In Summary

I feel like every post of our Beginner’s FAQ series that we’re saying that there is a lot to take in, and there is! However, you do need to be sure that you are queenless before purchasing a new queen, you will only throw away your money and more importantly risk the life of the queen you’re introducing.

We do know that for beginners that this can be a difficult and unnerving time as queens can be seen as the heart of the colony and some feel that it is a solution to just introduce a new queen. They only end up being disappointed as they don’t understand the endless reasons of why the queen could have been rejected. The main takeaway we’d like you to have, is to keep an eye on the colony that you believe is queenless, go through the signs and replenish that nuc with a frame of eggs to check for queen cell construction as well as reducing the risk of laying workers.

If however you don’t have access to a frame of eggs from another colony, go though all that we have discussed above and re-evaluate then go with your gut feeling. Do take time into account as if your colony is queenless and they do not have the resources to raise their own queen, leaving in that state will do more damage than good.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC423249/

We do hope to update this post with more photos demonstrating laying worker brood and drone layer brood in the future.

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