A queenless hive is a sad story indeed, and one that’s not uncommon for new beekeepers. It can be difficult to diagnose as the effects of queenlessness are—at first—quite subtle. Hilary Kearney has been through it and offers advice on how you can avoid the mistakes she made when she was starting out.
A small piece of comb with one egg per cell from a queen-right hive. This is what your comb should look like.
My first mistake as a new beekeeper was not recognising that my colony had lost its queen. To my untrained eyes, everything looked like it was going well. The bees were flying in and out. They were building pristine, white combs. I spent hours watching them from the outside, peeking in through the window at them. Then one day, it seemed like the traffic in and out of the hive was slower. They had stopped building new comb and the small cluster of bees inside seemed like it was shrinking. Without the queen there to lay eggs, there were no young worker bees to replace the ones dying of old age. I looked at the comb and found only honey and drone larvae. I had been watching this colony slowly collapse for weeks, but I didn’t know it. There are some telltale signs though, and once you know them, you’ll be able to recognise queenlessness before it becomes too much of an issue.
The queen bee is the only bee in the hive which can lay fertilised worker bee eggs. So, when the queen is absent, eggs will be the first thing to go missing. For this reason, beekeepers should always check for eggs during inspections to confirm the presence of a queen. A colony that has been queenless for longer will also lack larvae or capped brood. If you catch a queenless colony early, you can get them queenright before too much damage is done to the population. Remember that every day a colony is without a queen to lay eggs, worker bees are dying of old age and not being replaced.
A frame that previously had a centre patch of brood now being filled with nectar, possibly because of queenlessness.
In a queenless hive, worker bees who were previously occupied with the task of caring for brood will be out of the job. Without a queen there to lay eggs, there will be no more brood for them to care for. This creates a job imbalance in the hive and may result in increased foraging and food stores. If you see plenty of honey and pollen, but no brood, you may have a queenless colony on your hands.
A queenless colony will usually attempt to make a replacement queen. Just seeing a queen cell or cup does not necessarily mean that your colony is queenless because bees will make queen cells for many different reasons, but when you see a queen cell paired with a lack of brood, that is a strong indication that your hive might be queenless. When you see a queen cell, check to see what stage it is in. Is there a larva in it? Is it capped? Did it hatch or is it just an empty queen cup? The answers to these questions will give insight into whether or not your colony is hopelessly queenless or just raising a new queen.
Hatched queen cells. A colony that has recently made a new queen may appear queenless because it goes through a period of bloodlessness while raising a new queen.
Beyond what you will find in the combs, there are other symptoms of queenlessness that may catch your attention. Bees who are queenless are often cranky and listless. They may make a high pitched whine when you open the hive. The population will also start to fall. First you will see less nurse bees, but eventually foragers will decrease in number as well.
When a queen and her brood are absent from the hive for too long, worker bees will begin to lay eggs. Once this starts, it is very difficult to get the colony queenright again. A hive with laying workers typically kills any queen you might try to install. Many beekeepers don’t even bother trying to right a laying worker colony and consider it a loss. Symptoms of a colony with laying workers includes multiple eggs per cell, a lack of worker brood and an increase of drone brood.
A queenless colony will usually have more than one of the above signs present. If you see just one, you may want to test to see if your colony really is queenless. A simple way to do this is to take a frame of young brood from another colony and put it in the hive. If the bees begin to build queen cells on it, there is a good chance your colony is queenless. You can monitor them closely and let them finish making their own queen or you can destroy the queen cells and purchase a queen to install instead.
Hilary Kearney is a full-time beekeeper in her home town of San Diego, California. Her business Girl Next Door Honey educates hundreds of new beekeepers each year. She is the author of the Beekeeping Like A Girl blog and maintains popular Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. When she’s not rescuing bees, teaching about bees, photographing bees or managing one of her 60 colonies, she’s sleeping and dreaming of bees.