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- Your queen is failing and is being superseded.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.