A few days ago I stated that clipping a queen’s wings was a “barbaric” practice. In response to this comment, another beekeeper said I was emotional and irrational. He said I was overreacting because clipping wings is like cutting hair or nails—completely innocuous.
For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, some beekeepers clip away part of their queen’s wings. I’ve heard at least three reasons for doing this. First, it will keep the colony from swarming. Second, it can indicate the year the queen was produced, and lastly, it can be used to mark a particularly valuable queen. (Right, whenever I get something particularly valuable, I start cutting it up.)
The idea behind swarm prevention is that once the queen’s wings are clipped, she won’t be able to fly. When the swarm realizes the queen isn’t with them, it returns to the hive. In the short term, this can buy you some time. But the colony retains the impulse to swarm even if the queen can’t come along. Eventually, the swarm will leave anyway, perhaps with a virgin queen. A swarm with a virgin queen has a long row to hoe: before it can start building population, it has to get the queen mated. If that doesn’t work, the swarm is doomed unless it’s rescued by a beekeeper.
In the comment where I used the word “barbaric,” the beekeeper saw her swarm leave, saw it return, and found her clipped queen in the grass being stung to death by a number of workers. Obviously, the queen couldn’t keep up with the swarm, but instead of making it back to her hive, she fell to earth where she was attacked by worker bees from somewhere.
It is interesting to note that all the normal swarm preparations occur within a colony, regardless of whether the queen is clipped. The queen ceases egg laying, she gets skinnied down by the workers, cells get backfilled to reduce the nest size, nectar and pollen collection are reduced. With her or without her the colony will swarm, so little or nothing is gained by mutilating the queen.
Some beekeepers mark the age of the queen by clipping the right wings on even years and the left wings on odd years, reasoning that when a dot of paint wears off, the information is lost. While many beekeepers see no downside to this practice, others believe that workers sense their queen is “defective” and supersedures come more quickly.
For now I want to go back to the emotional and irrational comment. Yes, at times I am both. But here’s the thing: wing clipping is not like hair cutting. Bee wings contain rigid veins that strengthen the wing and carry hemolymph from the body cavity, through the wing, and back again. Some of the veins also have nerves running through them. Although we don’t know for sure, the presence of nerves probably means the queen feels pain when her wings are cut. We know for a fact that hemolympth often oozes from the cut veins, at least for a time, and this can’t be good for the health and vitality of the queen. The workers have it right: a clipped queen is defective.
Furthermore, accidents happen when queens are clipped. Legs have been accidentally deleted and the occasional abdomen has been nicked. It remains my emotional and irrational opinion that there are better ways to mark a queen or stop a swarm.
For more information on wing morphology, see Honey-Maker by Rosanna L. Mattingly (2012) chapter 11. For more on clipping practices, see The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (2007) p. 788.