Queenless hive?

Queenless hive? Don’t panic!  How can you know if your colony is queenless?

After a colony has swarmed, many times beekeepers ‘feel’ that their colony may be queenless because they see no eggs or young larvae.  Before exploring the question of how to tell if a colony is queenless, a review of swarming and the queen rearing process is warranted.    The first indication of swarm preparations that the beekeeper usually detects is the formation of queen cells. The prime swarm, consisting of the hive’s current queen and perhaps 60% of the workers, usually departs shortly after the first queen cell is sealed.  A queen cell is sealed about 8 days after an egg is laid in the queen cup.  Since a queen requires about 16 days to go from egg to adult, the virgin queen will emerge about 8 days after the prime swarm departs.  During this time, all the eggs laid by the previous queen will hatch and most of the worker larvae will be sealed, so that little uncapped brood will be observed.  Once the new queen emerges from her cell, she requires 7 to 8 days to become sexually mature (range 6 to 13 days).  Her mating flights occur over a period of 1 or 2 days.  Following mating, the queen requires several more days before she begins laying eggs.  Dr. Caron observed that only 2% of queens began laying within 1 day of mating and 15% of queens require 5 or more days to commence egg laying activities.  Russian queens may take even longer to begin egg laying.

Thus, following a swarm, there will be a long period during which the beekeeper will see no eggs.  When should eggs be expected?  Let’s add up all the days: 8 days until the queen emerges from her cell, 7 to 8 days until mating, plus 5 days till egg laying, for a total of 20 + days.  Thus, after a swarm you should wait 3 weeks before you consider that your hive is indeed queenless.  Wait even longer if you have Russian bees.  NOTE: never kill sealed swarm queen cells unless you are certain that the old queen is still in the hive.  If you kill swarm queen cells after the swarm has left, there is a strong possibility that your colony will not have young larvae to make additional queen cells.  In that case, your colony will be queenless.  An additional source of a queenless colony is the rare accident of nature in which the queen fails to return to her hive after her mating flight.

Now back to our main question.  A simple test for determining if your colony is queenless, is to place a frame containing eggs and young larvae into your colony.  If the colony is indeed queenless, it can raise a queen from the young larvae.   A few days after you insert the frame of eggs and young larvae, a queenless colony will be building queen cells.  If the colony has a virgin queen or a mated queen that has not yet begun to lay, it will not make queen cells. 

However, things can go wrong so that your colony is actually queenless.  If a colony is queenless for some time after all the brood has emerged, some workers become laying workers.  Laying workers are characterized by laying multiple eggs per cell or eggs that are not at the bottom of the cell.  Additional evidence of laying workers is that the eggs laid in worker comb are capped with the dome shaped caps of drone brood.  Normally, the queen and the brood produce pheromones that reduce egg laying by worker bees.  However, in the absence of a queen and brood, some workers will begin laying eggs and are known as laying workers.  Since workers are physically incapable of mating, all their eggs will be unfertilized, developing into drones.   A colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen because the laying workers begin to produce pheromones characteristic of a queen, preventing the colony from accepting a new queen.  The best thing to do with a colony with laying workers is to combine (newspaper method) the laying worker colony with a strong queen right colony.  If you want to try to rescue the laying worker colony, it is recommended that one or two frames containing eggs and young larvae be placed in the colony at weekly intervals until the colony starts to rear emergency queen cells.  Once queen cells are observed, it is safe to try to introduce a new queen.

In summary, bees generally know how to manage their own affairs.  Following a swarm, a virgin queen emerges from her cell, destroys her sisters, mates and subsequently becomes the new queen mother.  This process takes 3 weeks or longer; during this time no eggs will be seen in the colony.  Bee patient!  If you want to be sure that your colony has a queen or the capacity to produce a queen, add a frame containing eggs at weekly intervals until the new queen begins laying.

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