queen bees

How to recognize a queenless hive: 9 reliable ways

Queen cells can be a sign of queenlessness.

Queenless colonies change from panicky to listless as the days go by. In order to save your colony, learn to recognize the signs of queenlessness early, even before you open your hive.

A queenless hive is a problem for any beekeeper because a colony cannot survive without a healthy, mated, laying queen. For new beekeepers, identifying a queenless hive is the first hurdle. But how can you distinguish a queenless hive from a normal one?

The signs of queenlessness change over time

Unfortunately, the signs of queenlessness are different in a newly queenless hive compared to a hive that’s been queenless for days or weeks. On inspection, a newly queenless hive may appear normal. You may see brood in all stages of development, an average number of drones, and workers behaving normally.

Within a few days, however, things will start to change. At some point, the workers will build supersedure cells, the amount of worker brood will drop, and nurse bees with nothing better to do may forage, filling brood cells with nectar and pollen.

Next, laying workers may develop. When this happens, you may see multiple eggs in cells, lots of scattered drone brood, and an abundance of drones. In addition, the population of workers will plummet. And with no queen pheromone to guide the colony, the remaining workers may act listless or lazy.

Learn to spot a queenless hive early

Because things inside a queenless hive get worse in a hurry, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by learning to identify queenlessness early. If you suspect queenless just by looking at a hive from the outside, you may have time to re-queen before laying workers get established.

No two colonies are the same, of course. But with practice, you can often tell when one of your hives loses a queen. Once suspicious, you can open the hive and look for other clues to queenlessness.

Three outside signs of a recently queenless hive

Here are three signs of a newly queenless hive you might notice just from walking near the hive.

1. Irritable, grouchy, or aggressive bees

The pheromones (odors) secreted by the queen bee keep the colony cohesive and orderly. But when those odors become weak or go missing, the workers get cranky and misdirected. Instead of doing regular colony chores, they may lash out at anything that comes close to the hive, including beekeepers, pets, and children. They may sting for no apparent reason. If one of your hives suddenly turns nasty, check for queenlessness right away.

2. A loud roar or high-pitched whine coming from the hive

Normally, a colony makes a soft purr, a pleasing industrious sound that’s soothing to a beekeeper, a soft sound that signals, “All is well.” But a queenless hive may sound scary.

Two distinct sounds are common, often occurring together. The one I hear more often is almost a roar. I can hear it from a distance, powerful and threatening. It’s purring on steroids.

Less often, I hear a whine coming from several bees at once. Like a high-pitch whine emitting from the back of a human throat, it can be long or short. I think of it as a distress call.

3. An increased number of foragers coming and going

With no source of fertilized eggs, a newly queenless colony has fewer larvae to tend. This leaves the nurse bees with little to do, so many of these become foragers. Gradually, you may see more and more workers at the entrance, hauling in pollen and nectar.

Be sure to look carefully. A sudden increase of bees at the entrance can also mean robbers are trying to steal from the hive. But real foragers arrive with loads of nectar (you can see extended abdomens) or loads of pollen on their legs. Robbers never carry pollen and leave with extended abdomens.

Six signs of queenlessness inside the hive

If you are lucky, you will recognize the outside signs of queenlessness early. But regardless of the timing, the next thing to do is open your colony for further inspection. As you search for your queen, be on the lookout for the following signs of queenlessness.

1. A progressive loss of brood

Once a queen goes missing or becomes incapable of laying eggs, the brood nest gets progressively smaller. After three days, all the queen’s eggs have hatched. After another six days, you will see no more larvae because it all has been capped. And by the end of three weeks, all the queen’s brood has emerged. That means the brood nest alone can give you an idea of how long the colony has been queenless.

2. Supersedure cells

Supersedure cells appear fairly soon after a queen is lost or disabled. A colony can usually tell the queen is missing within about 15 minutes, so a sudden flush of supersedure cells may be a clue to trouble.

However, some colonies build queen cups (the foundation of queen cells) regularly, so don’t be fooled by these. Look for cells that the bees are building around existing larvae. Queen cups built around empty cells may be nothing to worry about.

3. Food stored in the brood nest

As the brood nest goes empty, a lot of the nurse bees have little to do. Many of them may begin to forage, and because the brood nest isn’t being used for brood, the workers may store pollen and nectar there.

Be aware that backfilling the brood nest before swarming is not the same thing. Because some things in a hive can be confusing, it’s best to look for several signs of queenlessness before you decide to re-queen.

4. Signs of laying workers

You may see signs of laying workers inside a queenless hive. Laying workers occur when queen pheromone and open brood pheromone disappear. These pheromones normally suppress the development of worker ovaries, but when they are no longer present, the workers’ ovaries mature and the bees begin to lay eggs.

The eggs of laying working are often not centered in the cells or they may occur on the rims or walls of cells. In addition, you may see many eggs per cell. A large proportion of the workers may lay, perhaps up to 20 percent.

Look at the brood carefully. Workers only lay drone brood, but they often lay it in worker-sized cells. In addition, workers don’t lay eggs in a tight pattern the way a queen does. Instead, they lay randomly throughout the combs.

5. Fewer workers, more drones

As the queen’s offspring dies off and the remaining laying workers produce more and more drone brood, the ratio of worker bees to drone bees changes drastically. After a while, you will notice the proportions changing until nearly the entire colony is composed of drones. 

6. Listless and confused bees

The queen’s pheromones guide a colony of bees and keep it cohesive. After several weeks without guidance, the remaining bees become listless, lethargic, and lazy. You may see them doing nothing or simply walking slowly inside the hive or outside on the landing board or nearby foliage.

The queen’s health requires constant attention

The take-home message is that the character of a queenless hive changes over time. At first, things may look fairly normal, but the bees are headed for a downhill spiral unless they can raise a queen quickly or you can provide one.

If you can train yourself to notice—or at least suspect—a queenless hive from the outside, you will be able to re-queen before it’s too late. Try to be alert for the outside signals of trouble, so you can do a thorough inside check.

Remember, always look for multiple signs of queenlessness, but do it early. For many reasons, queens don’t live as long as they used to, so queen monitoring should be high on your list of priorities.

Honey Bee Suite


  • This time of year it is an almost impossible problem to solve. Even if they try to make a queen, there are no drones to mate her. I have two mentorees with queenless hives. Both from a queen not returning from her mating flight. One did try, so I split the hive and took both to our club apiary with ~200 hives. No luck. Best hope is two trap-outs in process

    • When I find a queenless hive in winter, I usually just combine it with another colony. You can save the bees and prevent laying workers if you catch it early.

    • I don’t understand “One did try, so I split the hive & took both…”. If both were queenless, split the hive & move it to make new queens? I’m lost here. It’s over Johnny.

  • Rusty,
    Wow, great entry. So needed as novice beek. Queens and varroa are the two biggies imo.

    I’ll bookmark this one until I can commit it to memory.

  • My problem is, the more I mess with my bees to see if they’re queenright, the more chance I’ll accidentally kill the theretofore perfectly fine queen. I’m also likely to opt for the “let’s wait and see if they requeen themselves” approach. [long pause] I may not be the world’s greatest beekeeper.

    • Yup, I’ve killed queens trying to check on them. It happens. But I think over the long run, it usually works out for the best.

    • But you said you took it to the club apiary where there were 200 hives. Surely, there was something to combine it with.

  • One common newbee problem is that they think they must always see the queen. My experience is that is totally uncalled for, and what really counts is the brood pattern. How is she performing? Is the brood scattered? This could be her, or varroa? If the brood pattern is excellent, relax. If it isn’t, worry and find out why.

  • What a fantastic and comprehensive post, love it. Making sure the colony is queen right and queen is in good condition is my #1 priority in my inspections. I’ve learned to no longer look for a queen, as long as I can spot eggs or young larvae and the pattern is good. Of course, late season and nectar dearth may influence brood production, but pulling a frame from the center of the brood usually does the trick.

    Thank you for the post.

  • I’m sorry, I was not clear. One queenless hive did try, and made a few queen cells. Knowing there were very few drones around, I split the hive, thinking that would double the chance of getting a viable queen. I then took both to the club apiary, where there are about 200 hives, hoping there would be enough drones left. No such luck. They reunited, and no queen returned. The other newbie managed to buy a “mated” queen, but she also failed. Now what??? I have two newbees, both with only a single hive. I have two trap-outs in progress. No easy solution.

  • Last autumn (fall) I had a colony going into winter that appeared to be queenless – no eggs or brood, and no sign of a queen despite several searches. To be certain, I added a frame of eggs from another hive. No queen cells were produced. I did this twice, but still no queen cells. I left the colony alone, and by next spring it had died out.

    Will a colony always make queen cells on added eggs if it is queenless? Or could this be laying workers or an intercaste queen that is producing pheromones but is not laying?

    • Greg,

      I think the problem may be the time of year. Since you were going into winter when the colony went queenless, the bees had no way to get a queen mated even if they produced one. There are no drones around, and even if some were in the area, it’s unlikely that drones and the virgin queen could fly to the drone congregation area for mating because it’s too cold.

      When this is the case, perhaps the bees know the situation is futile and don’t bother raising virgins that are just going to die anyway. I don’t know if it happens that way (that they know in advance it isn’t going to work) but I suppose it’s possible.

  • Thank you. I have always assumed that the bees would make queen cells from eggs or young larvae at any time, if there is no queen pheromone present. Does anyone else have experience of this not happening?

  • Re-queening a hive with laying workers is difficult. Usually they will not accept a caged queen. I have tried it with no success. However, I have added an occupied queen cell and the hive did accept that queen. Maybe they just needed “time” to accept the queen cell method rather than the live caged queen. Never ending learning experience. Another note, -20 F yesterday, wind chill -40….I hope all my girls were cuddled up. Warmer today +30 later. Vermont USA.

    • Peter,

      I agree that it’s easier to introduce a queen cell than a caged queen. As you say, a “never-ending learning experience.”

  • The problem, I find, is that about 20% of queens don’t make it back from mating. Why I prefer mated gals.

  • I got a new package of Italian bees Wednesday. The package was upside down when I arrived at the Post Office to get them. Even though the labels were on top with a 3X5 red label reading “this side up”, the address label was on the side of the box which was also upside down. How long they were in this position is not known. Did this affect the bees since they could not get the sugar water?

    My supplier told me that unless there was a 1 1/2-inch mass of dead bees a claim could not be filed. The postal service is ignorant about bees. Yesterday I checked to see if the queen was released yet. All looked good and the workers were almost through. Today there is a large hole in the candy and it looked like all the bees were released. However, there was one bee that did not look responsive and wasn’t moving around in the queen cage. Since the queen is new and has not grown to the full size, it was not easy to determine if I have a queen or not at this point. Now I am unsure what to expect. The frames were new because we did not have any with drawn-out comb. What to do???

    I was furious with the lack of proper marking on the package. Common sense tells me to mark the sides with arrows pointing up. No just one label. The US Postal Service’s processing centers are notorious for the lack of care they give our mail and packages as well as the lack of operating in a common sense fashion.

    I have another package coming on April 6th from the same location and supplier. I am just to the point where I would rather drive 6 hours one way to get a package of bees.

    Some consoling words would be nice, but people operating with common sense would be the best solution. Maybe some day.

    • Wendy,

      See “Would you accept this package of bees?” for some insight into package bee problems. Be sure to read the comments, too.

      I have never seen a package arrive upside down, but I’m sure it happens. If it was that way for a long time, the bees would starve. But if your bees are alive, that’s good news.

      A dead worker in a queen cage is not unusual, nor is it anything to worry about. Bees don’t grow after they emerge; they reach full size while in the cocoon. Queens will mature sexually after emergence and may appear more robust as their hormones develop, but their exoskeleton doesn’t change size.

      As soon as your bees build comb, the queen will lay in whatever they build. Check every day until you see some. Although queens can be hard to find, you don’t need to see her if you see her eggs.

      • Thanks for the information Rusty! My only concern is the bee left in the cage could have been the queen. My observation is based on size and appearance when compared to all the bees in the package and being a newly mated queen.

        We have been beekeepers for 10 years and have not had this happen before. This includes purchasing from two other sources for package bees.

        I will be in the hive daily to determine whether we have a queen or not.

        By the way, I am feeding them honey we extracted based on one of your articles which proved to be very helpful. The bees have already made great progress on drawing out the comb. There is a small amount of completed comb that is raised away from the plasticell foundation. For only three days in the hive, they have made more progress than I expected.

  • Didn’t see where else to post it or how to start a new thread.

    Mid May I inspected a colony and found about 8 frames of open and closed brood and quite a few swarm cells. Around June when I inspected, no brood at all, they swarmed apparently. When I inspected last week I found a copious amount of drone brood. I would have suspected laying workers except there was a queen cup with a pupa in it, unfortunately it was on the outer frame, which was the one I removed first and got damaged.

    I would appreciate any thoughts you might have on what the situation is and how to resolve it.

    Thanks in advance,

    • Dave,

      Regardless of the one queen cup, it still sounds like laying workers to me. It’s possible that a laying worker deposited a drone egg in there. Most likely, the colony swarmed and for whatever reason, the remaining bees were unable to get one of those virgin queens mated. It happens.

      How you handle it at this point depends on whether you have any other colonies, but I would assume it’s a laying worker hive and go from there.

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