Queenless or clueless?

It happens. You open your hive and you can’t find your queen. Worse, you see no young brood—no larvae, no eggs. Several things are possible:

  • Your queen is dead.
  • Your queen is failing and is being superseded.
  • Your queen has swarmed.
  • You have a queen that hasn’t started laying.
  • You have a virgin queen.

At this point, you wonder what to do. You could buy a queen, but maybe you have a virgin queen or a newly mated queen and you just didn’t see her. Or maybe you can’t find her because she’s out on a mating flight this very minute. You hate the idea of adding a new queen, only to have them duke it out later. So what do you do?

The very best and least risky thing you can do is add a frame or two of mixed brood from another hive. By mixed brood, I mean brood in various stages of development from eggs to larvae to capped pupae. Here’s why:

  • A good supply of eggs and recently hatched larvae means the colony can raise a queen on their own if they need one. And if they don’t need one, no harm is done.
  • Brood, especially larvae, give off pheromones that reduce the likelihood of laying workers even if no queen is present.
  • If a queen needs to be raised, the capped brood and older larvae will supply the colony with new workers in the meantime.

As you can see, the colony—whether queenless or not—has everything to gain and nothing to lose with an infusion of brood. But what about the hive you stole from? Are you running a risk of weakening that colony?

A little judgment is useful when stealing brood. If you steal it from a populous and thriving hive, it won’t make any difference as long as you don’t accidentally take the queen. Shake all the bees from the frames you take to make sure you don’t have her.

If the hive you steal from is of only moderate strength, take frames that contain mostly eggs. The reason is that the donor colony hasn’t spent a lot of time, energy, or resources on a frame of eggs and it won’t take long for the colony to replace it. Larvae and capped brood, on the other hand, have taken a great deal of effort. So, if you are at all concerned about the strength of the donor colony, stick to stealing eggs—it’s like taking pennies instead of dollars.

The beauty of this system is that you don’t have to know whether you have a queen or not, or whether she’s a virgin or not. If they need a queen they can raise one. And if they don’t, you’ve done no harm.

A final thought: whenever I write something like this I realize there are beekeepers with only one hive. I can’t think of anything trickier. If you have only one hive—or if you haven’t yet started beekeeping—consider getting a second colony. It doesn’t just double your options; it multiplies them many times over.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

The queen can quickly replace lost eggs. Flickr photo by steveburt1947.
The queen can quickly replace lost eggs. Flickr photo by steveburt1947.

Comments

Nancy
Reply

Wow! This is exactly what we did last week with one of my friend’s hives that was packed with honey but had no brood. He re-queened because the hive had a mean attitude. Guess they liked their mean queen and didn’t like the nice new one.

But my question is, if I’m checking hives and see the queen, could I mark her? What’s the stuff you use, and how can I keep from doing her or the bees any harm? It would save so much anxiety. Thanks.
Nan

HERB
Reply

RUSTY! You seem to know when I experience a queen loss. Thanks for the Great advice!

Emily
Reply

The only time this doesn’t work is when you transfer the frame over, they produce a new queen and then it rains for three weeks solid. Your lovely new queen can’t get out to mate and becomes a drone layer. You bump her off and try again with another frame, but by this time your hive population has shrunk, you have few nurse bees and the weather’s still wet and cold, so they can’t keep the brood warm enough and the queen cells they produce never hatch out.

Eventually you end up combining your weak queenless hive with the stronger one. Happened to us in London this year; we’ve had the most unbelievably ridiculous weather, including the rainiest April since records began. Even now it’s June the rain and winds aren’t over. In hindsight we’d have been better off buying in a mated queen—but we didn’t know the summer was going to be this useless!

Tricia
Reply

Another reason for no eggs—at least here in the UK—is that you have just put in a treatment for varroa. When I had my first bees and treated as dealer recommended I was quite nonplussed by this. Established beekeepers will know but new ones reading may not. Of course the beauty of your advice (frame of eggs from elsewhere) is that it does no harm, but the new beekeeper may be the one who only has one hive. Great post as usual.

Rusty
Reply

Good point. I hadn’t thought of that possibility.

Charlie
Reply

Good article Rusty! I sent your link to our beginner beeks to absorb.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks so much, Charlie!

Nancy
Reply

So, can I mark my queen?

Dardan
Reply

Hey Rusty, please help me with this problem.

1 ) I have inspected my three bees and i have seen that one of them is full with honey and there is no place for the queen to lay eggs ? ( What should i do ? )

2 ) One of them is not eating sugar syrup like others? And i have not seen the queen there ? Is there any problem ? What should i Do?

3 ) Someone told me that it is not OK to feed my bees with Sugar syrup every Day with a mixture 2:1. ( is that correct ? )

Thanks, i hope you will help me soon so it will not be too late.

With regards Dardan :)

Rusty
Reply

Darden,

1. I don’t know where you are writing from, but if you are going into winter don’t worry about having no room. The queen won’t be laying any eggs for awhile and, by the time she is ready, many cells will be empty.

2. Sometimes real small colonies don’t take the sugar. Check the size; if is real small, combine it with another hive.

3. You can feed 2:1 syrup until they stop taking it. They will stop taking it when it gets colder.

Sharon
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I spend a lot of time flipping through your site and appreciate it so much. As a new beekeeper, I find the information very valuable.

We have 2 hives and are going into a South Ontario winter. The one hive seems to being doing well and the second one has been a wealth of learning. The first queen was unmated. Replaced her and all seemed well until about 3 weeks ago. We noticed a significant amount of drone and very little worker brood. I was concerned so asked a much more experienced keeper to come and look. He agreed that we needed a new queen but told us to wait until next spring. (It was a rainy cool spring here so apparently many queens were poorly mated.) Against my gut feeling we chose to accept this advice.

Yesterday I was out and now I am thinking the hive is toast! So many dead bees. When I smoked, several wasps and lady bugs came out. Most of the syrup is gone but the hive is lighter (robbing must be going on). Many of those drone have emerged and there are very few workers. Some dead brood (perhaps chilled because of the cool nights and not enough workers to keep them warm???). Oh my gosh!

So the question is —do I just let it go and start again next spring a little wiser? Do I try to re-queen now even though there is much doubt they could get in enough stored for the winter? Try and save what I can and add the two hives together if possible (I certainly don’t want all that drone and it may be very difficult to get the rest of the wasps out and I think the brood is dead.) I am feeling a bit overwhelmed!
Any input would be appreciated.

Thank you,
Sharon

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

Okay, where to begin? First piece of advice: always follow your gut. You know your bees better than anyone else. Plus, you know more about beekeeping than you are giving yourself credit for, so next time, run with it.

I can’t imagine why anyone would tell you to hang on to a queen that is laying drones but few workers. I wonder where he thought replacement brood was going to come from throughout the winter months? Or the early spring? It mystifies me.

I agree that the hive is toast. Yellowjackets walking out of a hive is never a good sign, and a hive getting lighter instead of heavier . . . well, you know.

With so little population, and so few stores, it is unlikely a new queen could pull it out now. There just aren’t the workers needed to keep things warm, let alone raise brood. If you want to try to save the workers, you could combine with the help of a queen excluder to delete the drones. But if the hive is full of yellow jackets, I wouldn’t do that either. Although it is sad, it may be best to just let it go.

Sharon
Reply

Thank you Rusty. Hopefully i need never repeat the mistakes I’ve made this first year!

Michael Lowe
Reply

I inspected my three hives two days ago. I found that one was doing very well, one was doing fairly well, and one was not doing well at all. The latter had lots of empty cells, no larvae, no capped brood, no sign of a queen, and one supersedure cell. I hope I have identified why my bees have been very aggressive in my backyard – i.e. the one hive is queenless.

In a similar situation last year I ordered a new queen. I decided not to do that this time. I hope that the one supersedure cell will indeed work. However, just in case, I went to the very good hive and removed one frame of eggs, larva and capped brood, plus some honey. I inserted it into the weak hive. This evening I logged onto your site to see if you had posted anything about this sort of thing. I am gratified to see that I happened upon something that you recommend. Makes me feel a little bit better. Now I wait, with fingers crossed.

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

I use this technique often, and it usually works. Once in a while, if a colony is too weak, they will fail to raise a queen . . . but that is the exception. Let me know if they succeed.

Michele
Reply

Hi, Rusty–

First year beek here, have 2 hives which have been teaching me so much! Namely: that I have so much to learn.

A colony that I started w/ a nuc appears to be queenless. They’d been showing signs of requeening for the last 2 inspections–queen cups, queen cells. I’d been told by a more experienced beekeeper to destroy the queen cells to delay the swarming process and to create more space in the hive, which i did. 2 inspections/weeks ago, I destroyed queen cups & replaced a frame that was full of honey and nectar with one that was empty. 1 inspection/week ago, i destroyed queen cups and cells and added a medium (above the two deeps). in both of these inspections, there were eggs & larvae, capped brood (just a few drone cells), ample nectar, honey & pollen.

this morning, ample honey, nectar, pollen, but very, very little capped brood, no open brood, no eggs that i saw. and several queen cells, most of which were ready to go. i’d been told to destroy them, so i started doing so, but then stopped b/c i realized that… these looked like supercedure cells and i hadn’t seen any new eggs or brood. dammit. only 2 queen cells were left intact. i didn’t see any further eggs, so i’m afraid it comes down to these two as-yet-unhatched queens.

so my questions:
1. how badly have i effed up this colony?
2. if i move a frame of brood over from an adjacent hive, does the colony stand a chance of requeening itself? or should i order a new queen?
3. if i add a new medium atop the deeps and keep the queen excluder ABOVE it/below the honey super that’s already been started, will that help? or should i move the medium i’d started as a honey super down, put the queen excluder above it, and set the new medium up top and use that as the super? or should i just aim to keep the brood to 2 deeps like so many people do?
4. is there a reason, besides the neighbors, to prevent swarming? my hives are being hosted by someone in an urban area; we have been sharing honey with her neighbors, but they’re still not eager to experience swarms, so i’ve been trying to prevent them by destroying queen cells/cups and adding space frame-by-frame, and now by adding mediums.
5. i don’t have the space to split them and start new hives and so i feel a little limited in my options. should i just keep opening up vertical space?

thanks very much for any advice!

Rusty
Reply

Michele,

If they can’t get a queen from one of the two cells, give them a frame of eggs and young larvae. They may succeed in making a queen. Moving all the mediums and deeps up and down isn’t going to affect queen replacement one way or the other. Besides harassing the neighbors, if you lose a swarm you may lose a season of honey production from that hive. I don’t know where you live, but for much of temperate North America, swarm season is pretty much over. At this point, worry more about the health of your queen and colony and less about swarming.

Michele
Reply

thanks, rusty! i was kind of freaked out on friday, but read a lot (so much great help on your site– really, thank you), talked to some more experienced beekeepers on fb & by phone, got some sleep, and then, when i was back with the hives on saturday, took my time observing and decided to do the following:

– move a frame of brood from hive 1 to hive 2 (hive 1 was started from a package this year and hive 2 from a nuc; hive 1 has typically been following a week or two behind in terms of population and frame-filling etc. they’ve been getting more congested in there, so moving brood from 1 to 2 served two purposes: helping out hive 2 by providing SOME eggs/larvae, and helping out hive 1 by relieving some congestion). i know there isn’t full agreement on the best way to import brood from one colony to another, but i decided to import brood only, no adult bees. i also know that many people suggest importing capped brood only, b/c eggs & larvae take much more work to raise, but while i was standing over hive 1 and deciding which brood frame to use as the donor frame, i chose a frame that had only slightly more capped brood than larvae and eggs b/c i wasn’t sure how long it would take to have a new queen laying in there, and i wanted to sort of help out the population a little more broadly. also, b/c the population in hive 2 is still fairly strong (for now), i figured (hoped) that they still had enough number/strength to nurse eggs & larvae. these are guesses i’ll have to follow up on in upcoming weeks (please let me know your thoughts if you’d like, though!).

– hold off on adding another medium to either hive. standing there, i realized they didn’t really need me to do this yet. population in hive 2 is going to take a serious dip in population b/c they’ve been queenless long enough to have 0 eggs/larvae/capped brood for a spell, so congestion is going to drop, and moving brood from hive 1 will help the congestion in that hive, too. and both colonies are still building out the frames in the first medium supers i put up there two weeks ago– they look busy enough using the space that they have. and you’re right– we’re past the time of peak swarming… i’d seen queen cells developing and assumed the bees were making them b/c they wanted to swarm, but i guess they were actually just trying to replace the queen (novice me, i thought they were swarm cells b/c of their location. i didn’t know until this past weekend that sometimes supercedure cells can show up at the edges of frames, too. I’d also seen plenty of larvae at last inspection– I should have been paying more attention to the egg situation as well.).

– requeen. i considered waiting for hive 2 to create a new queen from the larvae in the newly imported brood frame (they may be doing this right this second), but i was also a little concerned about the timeframes involved. on the advice of one of the veterans in my beekeeping group, i decided to order a new queen — expense be damned (ugh. shipping is, like, double the cost of the bee!) — to improve the chances that the colony would be able to rebuild its numbers more quickly. i was concerned about the period of time it would take hive 2 to create a new queen, the odds of a viable one emerging, the odds of that viable queen surviving and returning safely from her mating flight, etc and how long all that might take. the friend who advised me was probably speaking from the perspective of keeping honey harvest up (he makes his living off his bees’ honey); honey harvest is not my priority (this is a learning year for me, and my #1 goal is learning to care for these two colonies & see if i can help them keep themselves alive through a full year), but given the expected population dip and the fact that it’s nearly august, i was concerned about whether they’d have enough bees making enough food to make it through winter. so i just ordered from olivarez this morning and will hopefully be able to install a new, mated queen tomorrow or wednesday, 5 days after discovering the absence of eggs & larvae in that hive.

– prioritize brood, but also keep the honey stores in mind– i think i made a rookie error a few weeks ago when i first discovered all those queen cups & cells. i really thought they were getting ready to swarm b/c the brood nest was becoming honey-bound, so one of the things i did was to remove a honey frame and give them a fresh, empty frame in its place. i gave the honey frame to my bee host for her to enjoy with her family and neighbors. i felt really badly about taking food stores from the brood area (i know you’re not supposed to! i know the honey in the brood area is very, very specifically *theirs*!), but i didn’t know what else to do– i felt it was imperative to make room, and i didn’t think it wise to just hold the frame in a box in the basement (it was about 35-40% uncapped- was concerned about the nectar/uncured honey). it didn’t occur to me– until i was reading more this weekend– that i could remove honey frames and just freeze them for re-installation come fall! durrr! anyway, cleared out a freezer in one of my classroom fridges and have put the last frame i pulled in there, wrapped in plastic wrap. i’ll return it to them at the end of the season, and have told my host not to expect anymore honey apart from what ends up in the supers (she seems amenable).

whenever my new queen gets here (tomorrow? wednesday?), i’ll install her & keep my fingers crossed that she’s accepted & is able to begin laying shortly. all i want is for the colony to be in good shape for fall & winter.

thanks for all your insight and advice– i’ve appreciated your responses to my questions on here, but i also appreciate all i’ve learned from your general posts and your responses to others’ questions as well!

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