honey bee management how to queen bees

How to keep queen bees in reserve

Every spring I re-queen my strongest hives in order to reduce swarming. A colony is less likely to swarm when the queen’s pheromones are strong, and the pheromones are strongest in a first-year queen. In fact, according to most sources, a new queen is the single best deterrent to swarming.

However, it seems ridiculous to take your very best queens, kill them, and replace them with others. And if the new queen is rejected, you are left with nothing.

So a few years ago I started keeping those queens instead of killing them. To do this, I remove the queen along with a frame of brood and a frame of honey and put them in a two-frame nuc. Then I introduce the new queen into the hive. If anything goes wrong with the new queen, I can always re-introduce the old one . . . or I can keep her “in reserve” for some other purpose.

For example, one of the swarms I caught last week appeared to be queenless. The swarm built comb in which it stored only honey, and when I sifted the bees through a queen excluder, I found nothing. So I took one of my reserve queens and introduced her. Once she starts laying the colony will probably supersede her, but without her to get things started, the whole swarm would die.

When I first started saving queens, I wondered what I would do when the two-frame nucs got too populous. But I found that these small colonies tend to expand to fill the available space and then remain constant. When you think about it, they aren’t big enough to swarm or even to abscond. So they just stay small. In the past I’ve kept these “reserve” queens all summer long.

Sometimes I just put a swarm cell, brood, and honey in the small nucs. It seems to take forever, but the bees eventually produce a laying queen and I just leave her there . . . in case. If one doesn’t succeed, I just start another. Since I’m using her only as a backup, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes.



  • Hi Rusty,

    This idea is very interesting, thanks. What happens to the reserve queens and nuc bees at the end of the summer, would you kill the queen and recombine the bees into a strong colony?

  • I have a question about keeping a nuc with a queen in it. What do you do with it over the winter months? Second, how can I ask you questions about other things . . . just post them in the comment box or is there a better way? I’m seeing things I’ve never read or heard about in my hive and and I would like your opinion on them.

    • Jason,

      I tried to answer your first question in today’s post, “How to over-winter a nuc.”

      As for other questions, you can put them in the comment box, or you can click on the “Contact Me” tab (above the header photo on the right) to send an e-mail. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

  • Last year I bread some queens to re-queen my hives that all went ok. I was left with some queens but I gave them away. This year I want to breed again but how do i keep the leftover queens for sale in the hives? Do I make two frame nucs, place the sealed queen cell into each one, and do it that way? Look forward to hear from you.

    • Paul,

      Small nucs are the best way to keep queens for long periods. Queens can be kept in banking frames for short periods, perhaps up to three weeks. A banking frame holds several individual queen cages. The queens are put in the cages without attendants, then the frame is put into a queenless hive or a queenright hive above an excluder. The queens will be cared for by young workers. If the bank is put in a queenless colony, you must add new frames of brood every week so there will be a constant supply of emerging bees to care for the queens. I’ll take a picture of a banking frame this weekend and post it (I hope) within a day or two.

  • Hi Rusty, I’m new to beekeeping and computer. Is their a place to join your blog or whatever it’s called? I enjoy and also need to read every thing possible about bees. Thanks, Ted

    • Hi Ted,

      No, there’s nothing to join, you can just “drop by” anytime you want. If you prefer, you can get the daily posts delivered by e-mail. The sign-up is on the the left side of your screen.

      Other than that, just feel free to comment or ask questions. If I can’t answer your questions, there are a lot of beekeepers reading this site who probably can.

      Congratulations on becoming a beekeeper. You will love it.

  • This is probably a very stupid question, but is it possible to keep a swarm cell on hold until you need it?

    • Susan,

      You can put it in a nuc with a frame of bees and hold it that way. Once the queen hatches, she will need attendants.

  • Not sure if my post made it through. Just wanted to know how long we can keep a split hive closed while waiting for a queen delivery.


    • Remember that bees are routinely closed up, put on trucks, and moved long distances over the course of many days. As long as they have food, water, and good ventilation they will be fine. I can’t put an exact number on it because there are too many variables, but I’m wondering why you have to keep the splits closed up? After a few days, nearly everyone will stay put–with a queen or without. And if a few foragers go back home, it doesn’t make much difference.

  • I installed 7 packaged bees this year. The last package was without a queen. I had to reorder another queen for the hive. The question is how do you store the queen until I can get to the site to install her?
    Would it be OK to put her in a nuc box with other bees from another hive and confine it until I get to the location?
    Could I just raise a small colony in the nuc box?

      • Just Tim again. Thanks for the advice. I will tell you my plan; let me know what you think. I built a five-frame nuc box to add two frames from two hives, total of 4 frames, mainly to just have the bees from the hives to add to the nuc box. Now I will have a small nuc then introduce the queen via slow release using the candy that is in the queen cage. Close up the nuc box with a feeder in the top, to keep them confined for about four days or so.

        My hope is to get them established, then check the hive that I suspect is queenless. If no eggs are present in a few weeks I would then use the paper method to combine the nuc and the hive.

        What do you think? Do you have a different way?

        • Tim,

          When you establish the nuc, use brood frames that are entirely coated with bees. These nurse bees will not leave the brood, so you do not have to close up the hive. Only the foragers will return to the parent hive and that isn’t a problem. As the nurses become foragers, they will orient themselves to the new hive. Since they’ve never been outside before, they won’t become confused about where they live.

          Don’t wait too long to correct the queenless hive, the longer you wait, the greater the chance of laying workers and the harder to correct. To prevent laying workers, you can put a frame of open brood in there right now.

  • My husband bought two nucs this year. We put them into the hives and all was well…at first. Then one of the hives began to wane. Robber bees played havoc on that hive. We made the entrance smaller, gave them a hand with the robbers and they began to regroup. Then he tells me they are in trouble again. After checking them, twice, and combing through the bees several times I found that they had no queen. We ordered a queen but she couldn’t be shipped right away. When she finally arrived the bees were gone and moths had taken their place. We tried unsuccessfully to create a hive but they killed her workers, but left her alive then ran back home. She was weak when found, but is now moving about. I cannot stand the thought of losing her. Help!

    • Charlotte,

      I don’t understand what you mean by “they killed her workers?” Who killed them? Robbers? You need to split your existing hive in two, equalizing the stores and the brood and the nurse bees, and then slowly introduce the new queen. Keep the entrance very, very tiny so the bees can defend it, or better yet, install a robbing screen.

  • Hello Rusty,

    I’m new to beekeeping but have noticed that my hive seems to be getting weaker. It is spring in Aust so I am able to inspect the hive each week. I have never spotted the queen, but today saw pollen and a few larvae plus at least two frames of honey. I understand that the queen is two years old, but she doesn’t seem to be producing a strong brood pattern. Would your advice be to buy another queen? Many thanks Rusty.


    • Julia,

      You should be seeing lots of larvae right now. I would definitely replace the queen if the bees aren’t doing it themselves.

  • Hi Rusty

    Does a 2 frame nuc really not swarm/abscond? That is amazing… I would have thought it was ok for a few weeks but when they fill the nuc they’d leave?

    Sounds really handy to raise queens to re queen every September.

    • Dan,

      I’m not saying it would never happen, but so far I haven’t seen it happen. Maybe they can never get a large enough population to chance leaving. I don’t know.

      • Thanks for that (and editing out my mistake)
        Sounds really handy, I could split my 5 frame nuc box into 2 2’s

  • Question? I’m a 3rd year beekeeper and seem to have lost an abundance of queens this season. I had 13 hives and have replaced 9 queens, 3 different times and am getting ready to order another 1 today. 2 of the queens were from packages that had bad queens and 3 were from nucs I got about a month ago. is this the norm? 1 of the guys I bought queens from said a lot of others in the area are having queen problems? What am I doing wrong?

    • Darwin,

      Your are certainly not the only one with this problem, and you are probably doing nothing wrong. There is much speculation regarding weak queens and I don’t think anyone knows the real issues. The questions raised often center around weak genetics, poor forage in queen rearing establishments, pesticide exposure, even handling practices. Whether it is any of these or all of them, who knows?

      Over the last 6 or 7 years, I have had extremely poor results from purchased queens. The only queens that thrive and give me strong colonies are those that my colonies raised themselves. Why this is so is unclear. It may be because they are adjusted to the local environment, perhaps they are mating with feral drones or at least drones from a variety of sources, they self-select in the hive rather than being protected by human interference. Again, who knows?

      If there is any way of avoiding a purchased queen, I go for it. This year, because of a bunch of commitments that kept me from working my bees, I actually bought three expensive queens from a reputable establishment. I did it because I felt pinched for time and it just seemed easier. One of the three made it. The others were immediately superseded by their colonies.

  • Any suggestion for the equivalent of your 3 2-deep-frame nucs with medium frames? And if someone were to sell nucs in medium frames, what would be the best configuration? Thanks!

    • Kim,

      Honestly, I have little experience with medium nucs. I keep all my brood in deeps, so I don’t have any decent advice.

  • Hi Rusty…can you clarify please? Do you use custom-made nuc boxes that hold only 2 frames, or are you putting 2 frames into a 5 frame nuc? If the latter, do you ever add additional frames? Do you feed these nucs? I wouldn’t have thought that 2 frames worth of bees would be enough to sustain a colony. As always, your site is a great source for info. Thanks.

    • I use a two-frame nuc box purchased from BetterBee. It has a feeder on one end and an entrance on the other, and it is only wide enough for two frames. The Queen Castle is from Brushy Mountain and is a standard-size deep that is divided into four two-frame sections, each with an entrance on a different side of the box.

      I do not add additional frames because there is no room for them. I feed each with a frame of honey from somewhere else, so one frame of brood and one frame of honey goes in each.

      You can’t sustain a colony forever in such a small container, but up to 6 or 8 weeks is certainly doable. When the nuc begins to fill out, I move the frames to a five-frame deep nuc box.

  • Hi I just wondered if someone could advise me. I had a hive with a virgin queen who couldn’t get out due to bad weather to mate and started laying drone. I sadly had to locate her and kill her. I bought a new queen who was accepted by the hive but unfortunately the worker bees were old and diminishing in numbers. She appears to have laid some brood, not much but it seems to not being brought to producing new bees and the hive numbers are now very small. The queen is fine but she’s losing all her aging workers who are not drawing out comb so she can lay. There’s a lot of stores but no real evidence of successful brood. Any advice? Thanks

    • Heather,

      It sounds like you have just one hive? What you need is a frame of two of brood to boost your supply of nurse bees. Do you know someone who could supply some?

  • Rusty,

    Maybe you can help me. I think I’m out of luck for this year with this one hive but ill try to keep it going until the bitter end. This is my first year beekeeping, and I think I have had almost every problem you can think of with queens in a matter of 2 months. Today I just walked up to my newly re-queened hive of 5 days and all looked fine. Then to my wildest surprise a queen, (I’m not sure it was the marked one I just installed because I didn’t notice the white marking on it, I was to bewildered at the time to react), just walked out of the entrance circled the flight board with some workers took off and did a 6 circle flight around the hive and flew off into Neverland as I stood there yelling NO< NO <NO there goes another $35.00 plus shipping. That's the second re-queening for that hive, they killed the first one after 5 days. Do you think she will come back? Do you think that might have been a virgin queen they produced that I missed upon inspection. I hate to open up the hive again so soon to check. Five days ago I re-queened with a push in cage, yesterday I needed to add a frame of brood from my strong hive do to dwindling population, I didn't have it available the day I re-queened. The push in cage was working well but the workers had ate a one bee whole through the comb to get in to her. They had not killed her but I thought I would be safe and wait the 7 days before I remove it due to the fact that she will probably find the whole and come out on her own by then. Then I will just remove the cage and check for her. I hate to lose her to a battle if that was a virgin queen and she returns. What would you suggest I do at this point. I know I need to go in and check, but can I do it so often without problems. I was in last Monday after I notice bee population was dwindling at hive entrance. That's when I found out 2/3rds of my bees had left. I searched twice for a queen and or a swarm cell but only found open empty swarm cells. I ordered a queen and checked again on Friday before putting the replacement in. No queens and no unopened cells. Opened on Monday to add brood frame with honey and pollen. Now Tuesday notice this. Any advice would be helpful. Weather permitting I know I have to go in tomorrow to check on things. If I find the new marked queen under cage and find a new virgin queen what should I do? I have no way to winter a young queen. I also hate to pinch her for no reason but I can't lose another mated queen. I do have a unused 5 frame NUC, but I don't think I have enough resources to populate it for her at this time. What to do? Dammed if I do and domed if I don't. I could write a book just about the last two months. Sorry about the Novel.

    • Jeffrey,

      Really, I don’t know what to tell you. Sounds to me like there might be a queen in there already. Some queens don’t lay much this time of year, so it’s possible you had a queen in there on break. But it also sounds like you saw a virgin taking off for an orientation and/or mating flight.

      Are you absolutely sure that 2/3 of your bees swarmed? What are your mite counts like? That would be one of the first things I would check.

      • Rusty,
        I had to go in and check yesterday to make sure my new queen was not killed. She wasn’t ! WooHaaa ! She was still in the push in cage. The nurse bee’s had chewed through the back side of the comb and there were about 20 of them in the cage with her. I made the cage 4×7 inches to give her room to lay some eggs. She seemed fine, so after inspecting the hive for any other queens or virgin queens, and I was certain there were not any, I tore down 10 empty queen cells of various types, then had to take away a deep and eight frames, do to the loss of bees. The frames were not being used by the remaining bees. They were only in the top box. I left them with all their repaired cut out comb, 5 deep frames mostly filled with honey, nectar, and pollen. I gave them 1 frame 2/3 filled with brood both sides, and honey from my other hive. Left the frame the queen was on after removing the cage. That one has open brood cells on both sides with pollen and nectar on it, and one frame that the bees started to draw nice fresh white comb on before they left. I am also treating my hives with Apivar strips up to October 15 so I left one strip in their deep. Unless I suspect a problem from outside that hive, I have no intention of opening it again until it’s time to remove the Apivar strip. I will just keep feeding them as long as they will take it. In October I will add the quilt box, check for new brood, assess the winter stores and hope for the best. I will probably have to do some winter feeding on that hive. Nothing like a crash coarse in chaos my first year. Thanks for the help. Your site is very informative. I love to read the stories from your fellow beeks. (I hope that is a term of endearment.) I don’t feel so alone with my problems, and its good to hear all the different ways people where able to overcome their bee keeping issues.

  • Rusty, I had a major setback today on what i thought was my strong hive. I think they have doomed themselves for the season, with a little help from me.. They were the first hive that I cutout. I lost their queen during the removal. I tried to re-queen them and they killed her and her workers. So I bought a 5 frame nuc and did a newspaper combination to save them, it worked. That was in the end of June. They grew strong, but nasty. Couldn’t take their unprovoked attacks anymore. So I re-queened them last week, I tried a push in cage, like the one I did a few days before for my other hive, this time it seemed to be going well, “So I thought”. Until I checked today, and they too had eaten through the comb to get to her like the other hive, only this hive killed her, I found her this morning, My plans were to let her out after a good inspection. I just can’t waste any more money on queens for that nasty hive. I did find a emergency queen cell, but this late in the season it will be a miracle if she gets mated, but if she does, she will have the similar genetic makeup to the nasty workers. If they where not so aggressive I would try one more time to save them. Unfortunately I think it best to let fate prevail over this one. My only consolation is that I can use their store to prop up my other hive, that as of last week didn’t kill their new queen. I promised myself not to go into that hive until mid October, but I may be adding that upper deep back next week to give them a food store boost. I just don’t know if they have enough population to make it through the winter. I won’t even try a combination with the other hive for fear of them killing yet another queen. That hive was suppose to have been Carniolan, but due to the amount of propolis, and their bad attitudes, they fit the description of Caucasian bees better. They also have bur comb everywhere and they kept gluing their ventilation hole shut all summer. To be honest if they pass I won’t miss them. Ergo, they will more than likely survive. If not I will attempt again next spring, but I will purchase Italians and hope for a gentle group. That is what the queen in the other hive is. I just hope she is still okay. Thanks for letting me post my saga. Now starts seven months of waiting, I guess that will give me time to clean up my wooden wares, and plant some early bloom flower bulbs for the deer and chipmunks to eat. HaHAaHaHaHa!

    I hope you and your readers overwinter well and have a good spring.

  • Rusty,

    Just thought you might like to hear a little good news about my hives. In my previous posts my luck hasn’t been that good for this first year. I learned a lot of things NOT to do, and picked up lots of fantastic information from your site. Thanks for posting.

    It looks like October is the month it might be turning around for me. Just dumb luck or a well-planned mishaps? Hahahahahahaha!

    I began my fall checks today with the knowledge that one of my hive’s was small due to queen issues all summer and one hive was queen-less due to an attempted re-queening gone bad twice. The nasty bee’s killed both new queens. I had kind of given up on that hive even though at the time they were the strongest, but nasty.

    When I opened the single box hive it was packed with bees and 6 of the 8 frames where full of honey and pollen with a small brood pattern on 2 of the 6 frames. The other 2 frames were drawn out to about 2/3’s each with some uncapped honey in them. The new marked queen looked good, fat and healthy. I placed the quilt box I made on today, refilled the feeder and closed it until November.

    To my amazement when I opened up the double box hive it was full of bees, 5 weeks with no queen and only a half a dozen drones in it. Something didn’t seem right. Upon very slow and close inspection of 16 frames I found two small areas of uncapped brood. I could not believe it. So as I cleaned up the propolis and reinstalled the frames back into the boxes I looked carefully. As I put the last frame back in, there she was, a new young Italian Queen running across the frame. I have no idea how she got in there. The only way I can think of is that when I used the push in cage to try to re-queen she managed to laid a few eggs before they got in and killed her. Then they must of made a queen cell with the young eggs after I forsaken them. She has to be matted too. I found uncapped brood in a small pattern on two of the frames. Now I am in catch up mode. I put together another quilt box and oiled it today. I’ll give it a few days to dry good and place it on that hive. I hope I can keep them both alive this winter. I will have to do some feeding of the single box now that I can’t take the surplus honey from the other hive. I just hope they make it through the winter.

    I’ll keep you in the loop on how things are going with another post in November, if you like.

    • Jeffrey,

      Yes, keep us posted. The only sure thing about honey bees is there are no sure things, as you are learning.

  • Rusty,

    Hi mate new to queen rearing… Can you please tell me if you can roller cage grafted queen cells as soon as they are capped off? Do you need to put attendants in that roller cage to keep it warm or does the overall hive keep it at right temperature. The reason i ask is having lots of burr comb drawn incorporating the cells when using strong finisher hives? Any solutions be appreciative.

    • Buzz,

      Yes, you can. I never use attendants because the bees in the hive will feed the new queens through the cage. Attendants are used when shipping, since there are no outside bees.

  • Also if you need to put attendants in on day 9 say. Would they survive without water? I can give them sugar candy?? is there an easy way to get them into the roller cage?


    • Buzz,

      The attendants get the water they need from honey, syrup, and/or fondant. The bees outside of the cage will keep the hive cool enough.

  • Hi Rusty,

    In an earlier post in this string you mentioned sifting bees through a queen excluder. I assume it’s a way to find a queen for those of us who find that process difficult. How does that actually work? Is it like it sounds or have I misunderstood? Why does this scare the crap out of me?

    • Wanda,

      I can’t find the passage you are referencing, but let’s say you wanted to put a swarm in a hive, but you wanted to use your own queen. I would put a queen excluder on top of the empty hive, put an empty box on top of the excluder, and dump the swarm in the empty box. All the bees, except the queen and the drones will go down through the excluder. A few workers will stay with the queen, but the point is you will be able to find and remove her. I don’t know if you misunderstood or not, so I don’t know why it scares you.

  • I’ve got an odd question.

    So I work for a go-between for bee package delivery. We were given replacement queens, in case any of the queens in the packages failed. The replacement queens are in a small cage with several nurse bees, however, due to unexpected weather, it’ll be a week or more before anyone can check their hives, to make sure the queens are ok. Is there anyway I can prolong the life of the queens?

    If they’re not taken as replacements. How long can I have them last, say if i put them in a two frame nuc, or something similar, with a pollen patty and syrup? I have no brood to add at this time, I only just started my own hives, and am not sure if the queen has survived in it yet. I live in Canada, and its below 5 Celsius.

    • Sean,

      I think you’re better off keeping them inside in a warm, dark place, draft-free place. You need to make sure there is enough food, and give them water about twice a day. To provide water, I just wet my finger and rub it along the screen. If the candy plugs go empty, refill them. They don’t need pollen because they are not feeding larvae. They should last a week or so.

      • Can’t think of a way to extend that? Like putting them in a nuc? or a mating box? so they can’t get out, but have lots of resources?

        • Sean,

          You can use a banking frame but I thought you didn’t have the resources to do that. In any case, the longer you keep them from laying, the less likely they are to be successful queens.

          • I don’t, I’m just trying to see what i can do. I can build some small nucs. I’ll look up banking frames and see what i can do.

  • Rusty,

    I’ve been wanting to combine a hive that made it through the winter with a package I installed this spring. I planned to replace the overwintered queen with the queen from the package. The hive was very weak coming out of the winter and it’s taken a while for things to get rolling, but she seems to be doing really well now. But now I’m not real sure which queen is better. The one from the package has a real spotty brood and is a lot smaller. And last year, the older queen didn’t break any records. But now she seems to be doing better. I just wish this hive would have been at this point back in March.

    So instead of killing one queen to combine the hives, I’m thinking about starting another nuc and keep them both. One queen goes in the new nuc and the other in the hives I’m combining.

    To make the nuc, I would take a couple frames from a nuc I already have (from a small swarm I caught this spring) and a couple frames from the package along with a spare frame of honey I have left over. Or I’d pull one with honey and pollen from another hive sans bees.

    Is mixing bees from different hives a bad idea or does it matter?

    And do I have to relocate the nuc and the newly combined hive?


    • Dan,

      I’ve never had a problem mixing bees. Sometimes I take bees from three or four places to make a new colony. There’s usually no fighting (two much confusion) and it all settles out in a couple of days.

      No, you do not have to relocate them. Just remember that the foragers will go back to their original location.

      • Hi Rusty,

        Are you saying you grab a frame or two of brood and bees from say 3 different hives and put them side by side on the same day or are they queenless for 24 hrs? Won’t they fight if you join them straight away because they all have different queen pheromones on them?

        I’m confused…

        • Buzz,

          No, they don’t fight. They are from different places, no one has the upperhand, there is lots of confusion. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember, with a queen or without. It’s just like filling packages: they all come from different hives and are thrown together. No one is dominant. It forces them to get along and they do.

  • Thanks Rusty for your quick reply. So just to reiterate, you say with or without a queen.
    So if I have a struggling weak nuc which is queenrite. Can i just add a frame of brood with bees from another hive in the same yard, and say a frame from another strong hive from the same yard and leave the nuc where it is?

  • I am in Ohio and have 3 hives I started this 2017 spring. In your experience which type of queen does the best?

    A lot of hives died last winter in Ohio and I have spent hours on the internet to find ways to keep them fed and warm this winter. Has anyone ever put light bulbs in the cedar chip blanket on top?

    • Conrad,

      If you are asking which type of queen overwinters the best, I vote for Carniolans, but others do well also.

      Yes, a zillion people have tried various forms of heat and light in winter hives, but the best thing to do is make sure the mites are in check, and make sure the bees are dry with plenty of food. Honey bees are perfectly capable of handling the cold as long as they are dry and well fed. If so, the cold isn’t really an issue.

  • Rusty – I might have a very successful grafting experiment coming up that could produce many more queens than I need. I built 4-queen condos that are actually standard Warre boxes but with a partition for a food locker – that reduces them to 5-frames. Your 2-frame NUC? Is that a stand alone NUC box that would have 4-5 frame Langstroth frame and possibly an interior partition? Perhaps entrances on opposite sites? The reason for asking is if I have success I’ll need to make a place for the new queens to reside. Your comments have me thinking I could make space for them by simply compartmentalizing several of my normal sized Warre boxes. Like into thirds???? Using the same top and base – would give me 3-two frame mini-condos in one standard Warre box.

  • Hi. I’m new to beekeeping. Couldn’t get a nuc so I ordered a queen with 4 workers. Will they start a hive or was that a waste. I put food in hive thinking workers not having to search for food would be more productive at hive. Thanks. Any info would help. Also I just found a place near me to get a nuc. Would it be smarter to just start over. Thanks. GB

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