small bee

A Queenless Hive?

“There is no brood in my hive…”

DON’T PANIC! We expect a hive that has swarmed, superseded or suffered a queen failure to make a replacement queen themselves. Virgin queens hatch from those peanut-shaped, hanging down queen cells most often seen in spring. A freshly hatched virgin queen will take around three weeks to mature, go on orientation and mating flights and fatten up prior to egg laying. This is around the same amount of time it takes for all of the brood in a hive to hatch out. So not seeing brood is not necessarily a problem.

Looking for a virgin queen can be tricky, as they are smaller, faster and if the weather is good they may be out on a flight while you’re looking in the hive. Looking for hatched queen cells is not always reliable, as these can sometimes be torn down or cleaned up after use. Agitated bees can be a sign of a hive without a queen, but sometimes they can become agitated because they have no young to feed (Like a frustrated teenager with no internet!) If you have access to a fully functional and healthy hive, then transferring a frame with a patch of very young brood can occupy your angst-ridden nurse bees and can be used as an indicator as to whether you have a virgin lurking. A hive waiting for their queen to start laying will contentedly feed the young larva, while a colony without a virgin queen will usually work to make queen cells on the frame you have provided.

If you have a virgin queen present, then the game of chicken commences – try and hold your nerve to allow her time to start laying. If you introduce a mated queen during this period, she is likely to be killed by the smaller, faster, younger virgin. If you introduce a new virgin queen, then only one will survive. If it is your newer queen that gets the upper hand then the three-ish week process begins again and all the time the bees in your hive are getting older and diminishing in number.

Putting a queen into a problem hive is a judgement call that we don’t always get right. Too soon can be as detrimental as too late. It helps if you have a second functional hive that you can use to boost bee numbers or settle a colony. Try and avoid requeening all of your hives at once. Three weeks of rubbish weather in the south is not unheard of, so spread your risk if possible. Look out for other issues that might complicate matters, like disease, drone-laying, colony size, malnutrition etc. If in doubt, seek a second opinion. It’s not always straight forward, but we learn from these experiences!