Usurping the Queen

My Hive 1 Queen Bee

My Hive 1 Queen Bee

I never wanted to requeen. I had visions of reaching the end of my beekeeping life saying I’d never requeened. My theory was that bee colonies were clever things that have managed to survive without human assistance for millions of years (TENS of MILLIONS of years, actually). In fact, it is humans that may be their demise. I hoped that when one queen was old or ill, the colony would realise this and create a new queen in what’s called supersedure.

Uh huh.

So, why am I posting about requeening my swarm hive? 3 reasons:

1) The most significant influence in my decision to requeen now is that this might be the last chance for the year. You don’t requeen in winter and it’s well into autumn now. The beekeeping supply shop was getting in some queens and wouldn’t promise more until spring. (Later we were told this was nonsense, that queens will be available through winter. *sigh*)

2) The queen that went with the swarm was possibly old and feeble. We believe she was in Hive 2 when we bought it and we have absolutely no idea how old she was. The swarm was small (nowhere near half the hive we think it came from) and maybe bees weren’t keen to follow her because of her decrepitude.

3) The swarm hive was weak. We gave it honey robbed from the other hives to jump-start it – twice. Even though the other hives were still collecting nectar and storing honey the numbers of bees in the swarm didn’t increase significantly and they hadn’t drawn enough comb to fill a brood box. It’s been 2 1/2 months and in that time a strong queen should have been able to create a strong colony. We considered killing the queen and merging the colony into one of the other hives but would rather give the swarm a chance to make it on their own.

After much soul searching, the decision was made to order a new queen for the swarm.

Then the anxiety set in.

Is it “right” to kill a living creature (the old queen) for the sake of the super-organism (the colony)? I think so, but it feels kind of wrong. I bet I know what the old queen would say!

Anyway, that’s the reasoning, now the process:

1) Buy the new queen. She came in a little box on Saturday with her own attendants and their own food source, a sugar paste.

Queen cage

Queen cage with honeybees and sugar block on right

2) Open the hive, find and kill the old queen (waaaahhh).

Catching the old queen

Trapping the queen in a queen catcher

3) Stick the queen cage into the wax on a brood frame (positioning it such that the sugar plug is slightly elevated which prevents the exit being blocked in case an attendant dies). This cage protects the queen from the existing colony. They’ll smell her foreignness and kill her otherwise. By the time the sugar plug is eaten out by the bees, they’ll have spread her scent around the colony and they’ll adore her.

Queen cage wired in

Queen cage wired in, sugar on top

Plug in queen cage

Plug in end of queen cage, the queen will escape through this after the sugar is eaten away

Proboscis

The bees eating the sugar in the queen cage – check out the proboscis on the gal in the middle!

4) Replace the frame (placing the frame with the queen cage in the centre of the box next to another brood frame to make sure there are plenty of nurse bees to care for the queen), close the lid and wait a few days.

5) Check the queen cage after a few days (between 2 & 7) to make sure the sugar has been eaten out and that the queen got out of the cage and is alive and well.

There are all kinds of risks to the new queen and the colony now, but I think this is the best chance this little hive has. I’m sure the queen will reign for 2 – 3 years (maybe 4?) with no problems.

Now we watch the swarm – now Hive 3 – and keep our fingers crossed it’ll make it through winter. Again I give thanks that the winters here are mild.

Queen with shiny black thorax in her queen cage with attendants

Queen with shiny black thorax in her queen cage with attendants

The queen is dead – LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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18 Responses to Usurping the Queen

  1. Fascinating. Love the pictures.

  2. Brilliant photos especially the hive 1 queen bee!!

  3. Max says:

    I think the necessity of intentionally culling (isn’t that just a nice way to tell your friends you killed something without having to say kill?) for the betterment of the whole or to alleviate suffering, one of the toughest transitions a city slicker has to make when trying to take up any form of animal husbandry.

    • A transition I still haven’t really made. I think (know?) it would have been different if the queen had been obviously injured or suffering – then killing (culling 🙂 ) her would have been easy. But she was fine, just menopausal (gulp). I’m really trying to think of a bee colony as a super-organism rather than as a group of individuals in high-density housing and, in that frame of mind, killing is easier (still not easy).

      Maybe my problem is I never saw myself as taking up animal husbandry – I just got a new hobby. More proof (if any was needed) that I’m a daft ol’ thing.

  4. Really fascinating and the photos are amazingly helpful. I am interested in starting a hive so this is really great to have an opportunity to see someone else’s success.

    • I like the way you think! It would be easy to see this as a glass-half-full (first my hive swarmed against my express wishes, then the swarm never got strong enough to survive without an assassination of the monarch). I think you have absolutely the right attitude for beekeeping. It’s hard not to succeed if you appreciate everything those little bees do for nature, for themselves and (if you’re lucky) for you. I say give it a go and then let me know how successful you are.

  5. Emily Heath says:

    It’s never nice killing a queen, but chances are the bees would have done it soon themselves anyway. This way they can make a healthy start to spring.

    • I don’t know why they didn’t kill her themselves – they’ve had enough time. But no sign of a queen cell in over 2 months so action had to be taken. Here’s to that healthy start to spring!

  6. So interesting and great photographs. I hope hive number 3 is happy with their new queen.

    • Oh, me too. I haven’t opened the hive yet (I want a nano technology robot with a camera attached for Christmas!) but I’ve watched the bees come and go and listened for any strange sounds (there are none) and everything seems hunky-dory!

  7. vuchickens says:

    um… how did you kill her? did you step on her? 😦 brilliant photos… as usual. 🙂

    • I killed her by ordering my lackey (hubby) to do it. He squashed her then cut off her head just to be sure. Then we put her in a plastic bag so no scent would escape and have the colony swarming us.
      I was like the queen of hearts from Alice in Wonderland running around shouting “off with her head”. He was one of the lowly deck cards simply obeying orders. His idea had been to drown her in detergent, that totally freaked me out. What a way to go *shudder*.

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