queen bees

Intercaste queens and swarm guards

I want to share an interesting conversation I’ve been having with Oregon beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky. After I posted about how to use swarm guards, he challenged the idea that virgin queens can sometimes get through them. He wrote:

I had a conversation with Dan Purvis some years ago regarding virgin queens and queen excluders. Dan is a commercial queen breeder and quite knowledgeable. He is adamant that virgin queens cannot go through a queen excluder. If this is so, then virgin queens should not be able to go through a swarm guard if the spacing is the same as a queen excluder. When virgins first come out of their cells, their abdomens are not full size but their thorax is and that’s the reason virgins cannot pass through a queen excluder.

I explained that I’ve seen swarms with virgin queens go through swarm guards, but I thought this might be due to worn out excluders. Over time as they get dropped, thrown into the backs of trucks, or wedged into buckets, the spacing gets compromised . . . at least in the metal ones. At that point, if a queen is lucky, she can find that sweet spot where the bend works in her favor.

But then Morris came up with a brilliant idea that could explain why I was seeing something different than a commercial queen breeder even if the excluder was properly spaced:

An intercaste queen, a queen which has been raised from a larva that is too old to produce a perfect queen, will be smaller. This could explain a smaller queen passing through an excluder: a smaller queen, therefore a smaller thorax. Since Dan is a competent queen breeder he surely does not see intercaste queens, at least not from his own operation. So from his own experience he would be adamant that the thorax of queens would not pass through an excluder.

Intercaste queens are small

And I believe Morris is right. His comment reminded me that I did have such a queen a few years ago. She was so small I couldn’t find her except by looking for her retinue. Although she was basically queen shaped, she was not much longer than a worker, and I would say her abdomen was more rounded and less pointed than a standard queen. Surely she could have fit through an excluder.

I kept track of her because I was fascinated by her smallness. She was obviously able to mate and function normally because she built up the hive for about three months before the colony superseded her. In a way, she demonstrated nature over nurture—she was small because she was nurtured too late to become a normal queen, but her genetics were fine because she laid the egg that became the queen that superseded her. The colony ultimately thrived and lives on today.

But this is an open topic. I’m sure there is more to hear on the subject of virgin queens, intercaste queens, and queen excluders, so be sure to chime in.



  • I am told that before a queen swarms her food intake is reduced and she is slimmed down for flight. This is why, I am told, the trick of putting a queen excluder under the brood box when hiving a swarm does sometimes not work and they all get out and carry on their merry way.

    I guess these small queens might explain that too. I am guessing they are the queens that are raised from emergency cells. In the uk they are known as ‘scrub’ queens, I am aware they are smaller, sometimes hard to tell from the workers and often quite quick moving when you are trying to get hold of one when you are trying to requeen.

  • Certainly we see scrub (emergency) queens of poor size in some colonies where the beekeeper has not coped too well with swarm prevention: and last year was dire for queen rearing in the UK. From your post, Nick the whole business of when queens can fly and when they can’t should not be learned by rote. We teach our novices to clip 1/3 to a 1/2 of a wing, more I feel is butchery…yet in the past I have had a marked queen on an out apiary fly accurately through a tiny knot hole in a timber siding 100 yards away round the other side of the house and lay up a colony we subsequently cut out recovering our queen. And only yesterday, the day after recovering a laying queen from a similar cut-out where she was laying well for our slow-start season, she had to be recovered from a blackberry patch again around 100m from her new hive. So it is not just virgins, slimmed queens and newly mated queens capable of taking off meaningfully!

  • Speaking of queens! I’m the one who received a package with a dead queen and had a month of drama getting a refund. I’m happy to report I finally did get one!

    Today I received my new package (from a different apiary) and installed it using your method. The queen in this package is alive and well, and the package had already started building wax onto her cage. The bees themselves were much less hostile than the first package. I had zero trying to sting me and no hitchhikers riding back to the house on my bee jacket this time! I’m not sure if that’s a difference in the bees, the less disruptive installation, the live queen, or some combination.

    Interestingly the queen in this package is much larger than the one who was dead in her cage.

    • Andrea,

      Excellent! I’m glad it all worked out and that you got a refund.

      Yes, queenless bees get very testy sometimes. I’m not surprised they were aggressive toward you. Let me know how it all goes.

  • Soo glad to hear you got some more bees and a refund! Wish you luck with your top bar. I’ve been checking back hoping you got some help. Were any of the worker bees left from the first package or did they all perish?

    • Hi Margali!

      Sadly all the workers from the first package died.

      These bees are a joy so far! They seem curious about me but not aggressive and are industriously applying wax and propolis and storing nectar and pollen. I went in today to get the package box and they’d propolized 5 bars together and started some comb on the box. I cut it off and set it next to their feeders so they could get the pollen and nectar out. I’ve spotted them out working the strawberry patch, dandelions, and presumably they’re enjoying all the pollen the trees are putting out!

  • Probably not very politically correct, but my mentor calls them “midget queens” and so I have taken up the term myself (it’s nice to know there is a better term for it!). I first saw one late last summer when my mentor and I were requeening a friend’s hives (she was out of town and a whole bunch of us made one big queen order, so we installed them for her). I kept asking, “Are you SURE that’s a queen? She’s too small!” But it was…. That was the weirdest thing I had seen up to that point, and since, I have had two in my own hives. They are really hard to spot. We did splits for ordered queens a few weeks ago and in one of my splits is the tiniest queen I’ve seen to date, and of course everyone wants to see her, and when people are around, I can never find her, of course…

    Andrea, sorry to hear about your package, but I’m glad your new one is doing well!

  • Glad I had read this before picking up a package this week. They had kindly popped it into a nuc box for me because I forgot it when picking up our club’s order last week. When I came to get it, they said, “The queen is out, here, we’ll show you,” which I appreciated. When I finally saw her, it was all I could do not to yell “THAT’s a queen?” Well, she unmistakably was, and they’re in and doing fine, but I will keep an eye on how she does. I haven’t seen the queen in my other package, and wonder if she too is small.

    Wishing everyone’s queens, large or small, a good spring!

  • I wrote a week ago to tell you about some sick bees we got in a package. They were rolling out the front entrance, kind of drunk-like, and crawling in the grass unable to fly. We saw the queen on day 7, but by day 9, were down to less than 1000, and still no sign of eggs and didn’t see the queen. We still didn’t find out why they were all dying, but in 2 weeks, we’ve got less than a dozen bees left. Today we were kind of disassembling the hive, and guess who we found? The queen! She wasn’t much bigger than the worker bees. There was not one egg or any propolis or any pollen. The only thing they did was draw out a few frames and filled them with sugar water. So I assuming either she was a virgin or too sick to lay any eggs. I’m on a waiting list for a nuc. My question is what do we do with the few frames of drawn comb. Do we need to sanitize the hive or frames in some way? They are all just pure white comb glistening with sugar water.

    • Barb,

      Your description reminds me very much of a pesticide kill. It is possible the bees got into something such as a sprayed fruit tree or other flowering crop. Of course, I can’t tell for sure without testing, but that’s what it sounds like. Not many other things would take a whole colony down so fast.

      I would go ahead and re-use the combs. It was built by house bees while they others were out foraging. And if it is filled with sugar water, you can use it to help start your new colony.

      • Sorry, I have another question, so is there any truth to the rumor that sugar water ferments or goes bad in combs? There is absolutely no pollen or propolis in our pristeen white comb.

        Thanks for your help,

        • Barb,

          It can ferment if it sits long enough, but if you are getting new bees this year, it won’t be a problem. Instead, it will help them get off to a good start. However, if you really don’t want it there, just turn the frames upside down and shake it out.

  • Rusty

    Have you ever heard of beekeepers putting a small queen excluder in the front of the hive box to prevent the queen from swarming, or how about the swarm bandit thats being sold by Brushy Mountain?

    • Yes, I sometimes use a swarm guard if I see that a swarm is getting ready to leave. I’ll put one on to buy myself a little time to assemble the equipment to do a split. But you can’t leave them on very long because the drones can’t get in or out. And if a virgin queen has already left on a mating flight, she can’t get back in. If you use them sparingly for very short periods, they work fine.

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