By: James Tew
Queens – concerns from both my apiary and my wallet.
Spoiler Alert: Long before dawn, I awoke this morning to realize that some of my comments in this piece may irk some queen producers. Certainly, that is not my intention. As a beekeeper with limited time and limited financial resources, I have become more than a bit frustrated about increasingly stringent recommendations concerning queen management and replacement.
In my opinion, and only my opinion, I am reluctant to replace expensive queens with more expensive queens. In recent decades, general queen management procedures have become complicated. Are some of our present queen management recommendations out of date?
I have personal experience producing queens. I understand the labor and frustration of this specialized task. I want good queens, but queens aren’t the only thing that can go wrong in a colony. Queen management is only a part of colony management; hence, my conservative attitude in my personal queen management program. What follows are my evolving thoughts.
Queens and queen management – my personal concerns are crystalizing
Around 14 years of age, I learned to drive using Grandpa’s 1952 Dodge pickup. It sported a flathead six cylinder engine, manual three-speed shifter mounted on the steering column, a floor starter, and a simple heater that was installed after manufacture. The heater had one switch – on and off. Nothing else could be adjusted. If things became too hot, turn the heater off. Cold? Turn the heater on. The truck did not always have good brakes, but at an average of 25 miles per hour, stopping mechanisms were not always critically needed. If you can drive a 1952 Dodge pickup, you can drive anything.
The truck was used for everything, but an important job on the farm was hauling hay. The truck’s hay load was determined by the grandsons’ strength to stack the load. As the grandsons grew and testosterone levels increased, the height of the load approached the ridiculous. At our youthful-hay-load-zenith, as we headed for the barn, weaving along on unleveled ground, the left front truck wheel slowly left the ground. The truck very, very nearly rolled over. We, forever more, cut the load back.1 That was enough.
More and more, I am sensing that our queen introduction and management recommendations have one wheel in the air and are about to roll over. The traditional load of recommendations, requirements, and costs has been stacked about as high as established queen management practicality allows.
Queen production in the first years . . .
Ironically, in the early days of queen production, queens were also expensive. Although I have done no historical reviews, I have heard the story of A.I. Root paying a significant sum of money for an Italian queen – delivered from Italy – that escaped its cage and forever more flew away through an open window. I wonder what Mr. Root said at that moment?
As expertise and efficiency increased, queen costs, when compared to annual income levels, dropped over the years. (I have no numbers to document this previous statement, but I have personally paid $1.25 for queens – queens that amazingly came with a replacement guarantee.)
In my pre-Varroa years, queens lived and produced for two to five years. As a soon-to-be old beekeeper, it pains me to say, and hear other presenters say, that a queen should probably be replaced every year. Present-day queens cost $25-$40 and do not generally come with much of a guarantee. The thought now is that if she was alive when you got her, producer obligations have been met. From that concept, the beekeeper must assume that all purchased queens are high quality, properly mated, healthy, and not affected by the caging and shipping process.
JTew opinion: In a perfect bee world, the health and vitality of a package queen should be confirmed before leaving the package supplier. Otherwise, the beekeeper – experienced or inexperienced – drives all the way home only to then discover a dead queen in the queen cage within the package. When releasing packages, time is dear. A dead package queen requires the beekeeper – experienced or in experienced – to develop a quick plan to get a queen replacement. Could the package and queen come separately? Does anyone know of studies indicating how critical it is to have the queen in the package for the few days of shipping? Does a queen in the shipping package help settle the agitated package bees? If so, could shipping cages, especially the new-styled plastic cages, be modified to allow the queen to be viewed before accepting the package?
Then the problem really starts – how to introduce her into a colony that is behaviorally designed to destroy any foreign queens. Researchers have conjectured that the colony is trying to prevent being “coo cooed” by having a strange queen become the reigning colony monarch.2 Whatever the fundamental reasons, queen introduction is now as tricky as it was in the very earliest days of queen production. Presently, mistakes and bad luck are much more costly – especially if a new beekeeper is installing an expensive package on foundation.
A deep hole . . .
No doubt, I am digging a deep, complex hole with this “queen-thing” line of thought. I am not always comfortable with the clean, specific recommendations of today.
I presently have 17 colonies. Right off the bat, two are not going to survive the Winter. These small, undeveloped colonies are headed by new queens, which cost $35 each. Both colonies have European foulbrood. I know. I know. I have mentioned this before. As I reported last month, antibiotics are not readily available to me any longer, but more importantly, why would I even want this genetic strain in my apiary? I don’t. These two colonies are going to die, and I am out $70 plus time and travel expenses. As it were, that stings.
In reality, I now have 15 colonies that have a chance to survive the upcoming Winter season. To check the brood nest, I will need to move 25 full deeps of honey weighing about 90# each (just over a ton). I am 69 years old and work alone. Fellow aging beekeepers, let’s not rush into a foolhardy plan. I will check the queens and colony conditions when I pull honey. That needs to happen now, but I am involved in bee meetings and other pressing responsibilities; therefore, it cannot happen for several weeks. Meanwhile, the honey crop also blocks me from most forms of mite treatment. Honestly, I expect the present fifteen queens in my colonies will get a chance at successfully passing the winter. Fall queen replacements will not be coming their way.
More complex . . .
The complexity evolves. Mentally (and financially), I am just a bit more than reluctant to add either Spring or Fall requeening to the list that I should be routinely doing – and I admit that I should be requeening (in a perfect apiarian world).
But this is what I really feel. Replacement queen costs will be about $450 plus labor and travel to procure queens – without any guarantee that they will be even good queens – never mind great queens. Yet, I will hypothetically be removing functional – but old – queens in order to avoid future supersedure or swarming events (new queens help reduce both of these issues). Please give me an apiary moment to get my arms around this costly recommendation that requires a challenging introduction procedure. Good queen stock is only one aspect of good colony management. A great queen in an otherwise unmanaged colony is wasted money.
Swarming cannot be ignored . . .
If swarming behaviors are not adequately controlled, dearly purchased queen stock simply fly away. Honey bee swarms are a topic and an issue within itself, but not for today. The behavior is difficult to completely prevent or stop once started. It has been frequently stated that a lost swarm represents a lost honey crop. Well, maybe. There are many more factors in play in garnering a honey crop other than swarm control procedures.
But when my colony swarms3 – and it is not something that I want to happen – at least I get a new queen, and I get a brood cycle disruption that temporarily confounds Varroa mites. This queen replacement process does require valuable extra time. The question is begged, “Do I truly want to pay $35 for a queen that will be able to produce more bees than I can dependably control or alternatively, be a dud queen without purchase recourse?”
Good grief – what are you trying to say??
I’m not finished. I still have about 800 words left in this piece but this is a synopsis of what I have tried to say so far.
- The cost of queens.
- Replacement queen availability for new queen failure
- The expense for yet another queen if the first fails.
- Consideration of all other colony management demands that are made on modern beekeepers and their bees.
- The number of new beekeepers, who are trying to do this queen procedure correctly.
These are some of the issues that have overloaded time-proven recommendations of queen management and replacement.
Queen cells as requeening options…
Why are ripe queen cells not more of an option for economical queen replacement?4 They once were. Beekeepers had cell guards (cell protectors) to protect them from being destroyed by workers. The procedure was reasonably common. Should more beekeepers be taught to produce their own cells rather than to produce or purchase mated queens? Seems sensible to me.
Buying cells is dramatically cheaper, but with issues. It takes longer to get a functional queen to the monarchial position – maybe about 50% longer. Current technology would preclude shipping ripe cells, but I’m sure procedures could be developed. Yet, a single emerged virgin queen cannot be ignored. If cells were in a common shipping container and a single queen emerged, you know what would happen. You have one live queen and a bunch of dead cells.
Many, many years ago, a commercial beekeeper, whose name I have long forgotten, told me that each time he opened a colony, he pressed two ripe queen cells into combs as far from the brood nest as possible – usually in upper supers. The queens quietly emerged in that remote part of the colony and gradually worked their way to the brood nest area. At worst, the cells were destroyed, but he estimated that he requeened about 60% of his colonies without ever finding or evaluating the old queen. Keep in mind; this story was based on personal observations and estimations. However, the beekeeper was insistent that it worked for him.
Candling virgin queens while in mature cells
A ripe cell can be held in front of a bright light to determine if the queen is alive and mobile. Being alive is about all that can be determined. However, the procedure is quick and will prevent wasting time trying to introduce dead queens. Several years ago I posted a YouTube video showing the slight movement of a live queen while still confined in her queen cell. It is posted at: https://youtu.be/LwlosPG7gn0 on my channel5.
Queen cell protectors…
To prevent cells from being destroyed, queen cell protecting devices are still available from bee supply companies. These devices are inexpensive but rarely used. Ironically, I still have one of the old metal ones. The one pictured is only one of many designs that have come and gone.
Requeening with unmated queens…
I don’t have a lot of experience introducing unmated queens. In the bee literature, virgin queens are known to be more difficult to introduce, but procedures and success stories abound on the Internet. After all, virgins emerge within the colony, fight amongst themselves, and ultimately one becomes the colony ruler. Is the odor of the foreign unmated queen the factor making her difficult to introduce?
Decades ago, I successfully installed unmated queens by shaking a pound or so of nurse bees from a healthy colony into an improvised cage where I dropped a typical queen cage containing an unmated queen. Secondly, I made up a nuc from the same colony and let it sit for a day or so. Into this nucleus colony, I released the caged bees with the unmated queen. Depending on the bees’ behavior toward her, sometimes I left the queen caged longer or sometimes I released her immediately. This short period with the caged bees gave the queen time to acquire the nuc’s odor. The few times I tried this, it worked.
At the time, I was producing queens I had extra unmated queens that had no colony and no future. Essentially, they were available and free of cost to me. That made it a worthwhile procedure for me. Using a nuc to introduce queens, either mated or unmated, is a good idea.
- Due to price and availability, packages and queen introduction are more demanding than it has been in many, many years.
- Yes, our queens and possibly our drones do not seem as vibrant as they were 30 years ago. Reasons are unclear.
- Old techniques of requeening with mature cells or even free-flight unmated queens are possibilities for simplified beekeeper-produced queens.
- The apiary’s colonies should be headed by premier queens. How many and from what producer is still the individual beekeeper’s decision.
- If the beekeeper produces cells or virgins, the grafting stock would come from these high quality queens. The resulting beekeeper-grown queen would potentially result in a good, homegrown utility queen. Maybe excellent or maybe a bummer, but either way, less costly and more readily available.
- Explore buying queens or cells from local queen-producing specialists. They require less labor but they are more costly.
- Alternatively, do practically nothing for queen management. Depend on natural swarming, splits, spring packages, and occasional purchased queens to keep most of the colonies headed by “youngish” queens.
- Lastly and realistically, an option is to pay the price for quality queens, hope they are successful, complain when they are not, but when they become boomer colonies – boast of your achievement. You’re out the money, but you could save quite a bit of time.
Odds and Ends
We should remember this – keeping bees is a remarkably simple procedure. To actually keep bees, one needs a bee colony (swarm) with a queen, proper hive equipment with frames, a smoker, and some kind of hive tool. Control colony pests. That’s it. Everything else in the supply catalog is acquired because the beekeeper wants it.
Queen production is not much different. You need very young larvae, a sized stick to make queen cups, a bit of beeswax, a smaller stick to transfer larvae, and a strong queenless colony to grow the larvae for transfer. Good vision helps. Boom – queen cells.
But the beekeeper must commit time and scheduling. To many, it becomes convenient just to buy queens. Your call. But beekeepers do have other options. I wish we talked about these alternative choices more often.
And to be perfectly fair, sometimes a good queen is asked to live in poor housing, taken care of by a, well, let’s just say inexperienced beekeeper, and things go south from there. But this is a discussion for another time.
Okay – let me have it. Light up my world.
1My brother restored the truck and has it to this day. It’s still hard to drive.
2What’s going on here? Would a colony rather have no queen and pass into oblivion rather than accept a queen unknown to the colony? Is this a genetic defense? Would this hypothetical colony rather die and depend on the progeny of its successful swarms and drones to perpetuate their genetic line? I am far beyond my expertise and know of no science that addresses my thoughts. These comments are only a conversation between you and me, but anthropomorphically, it seems strange that a colony would hostilely reject a new queen that could save their colony. But, bees always have their reasons.
3Should queen-managing beekeepers revisit the mutilation process of clipping one of the queen’s long wings by about one/fifth of its length to prevent long swarm flights? Beekeepers have gotten away from this procedure. Clipping too much could cause supersedure. However, if a $35 queen’s wing was clipped just enough to prevent her from soaring far away, I could possibly be talked into it – again.
4Cost and time investment would be the primary two reasons for using cells rather than mated queens.
Shortened url: http://tinyurl.com/Candled-Queen
Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University; Emeritus Faculty, The Ohio State University. Tewbee2@gmail.com; http://www.onetew.com; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (www.onetew.com/feed/); http://www.facebook.com/tewbee2; @onetewbee Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/onetewbee/videos