Beginner Beekeeping Basics: Finding the Queen

Beginner Beekeeping Basics: Finding the Queen

Non-beekeepers imagine that the queen bee is very obvious – not quite wearing a little crown, but definitely different from the other bees. Unfortunately for novice keepers, this isn’t the case. The queen does have a different body shape from the rest of the colony, but picking her out from the crowd of 40,000-odd bees isn’t always easy.

If you’re just starting, learning how to spot the queen bee is an essential skill. You need to check on her regularly to make sure she’s in the hive and laying as she should be. It’s not common, but if she disappears without you noticing, your hive could go into a decline and eventually fail.

Finding the queen can be tricky at first, but if you know to look for the body shape, behaviour and location, you’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Here’s how to find your queen:

Distinctive features of a Queen Bee

Although she won’t be double the size of the average worker, your queen will be larger with some distinct features that set her apart from the other bees.

Look for:

  • A long, narrow abdomen with a pointed end – other bees have a rounded abdomen.
  • Shorter wings – while workers’ wings reach almost to the end of their bodies, the queen’s wings only reach halfway down her abdomen.
  • Splayed legs – most bees tuck their legs under their bodies. The queen’s legs are longer and splayed out to either side.
  • Smooth stinger – unlike the barbed stinger of worker bees, the queen has a smooth, reusable stinger that she uses in egg-laying and to fight off other queens.
  • Shiny back – the queen’s back tends to be shiny and hairless, compared with the fuzzier backs of worker bees.

Queenly behaviour

The behaviour of the queen – and the bees around her – can also give you clues for identification. Unlike worker bees, who tend to bustle around busily, she may stay in one place for a longer period. When she sits still, the queen is usually surrounded by a circle of worker bees, each facing toward her.

When she does move, other bees move out of her way, leaving a path of empty comb. This break in the regular movement of the hive can lead you to your queen.

Hive location

The queen’s main job is egg-laying, so it makes sense that she can usually be found on a brood frame. If you’re looking for your queen, bypass honey frames and capped brood, and check the fresher brood frames first.

Queens are shy as well, so they’re usually as far from the outside of the hive as possible. Look at the centre of the hive first – the middle box in a vertical bee hive, and the central point of a horizontal bee hive.

More queen-spotting tips

When you open the hive to find your queen, there are a couple of ways to increase your chance of success. First, be quick – because she’s shy, the queen will often scurry off into a corner when the hive is disturbed. For the same reason, it’s best to use less smoke when you’re looking for the queen.

If you can’t find her in the centre of the brood nest, check the edges and corners carefully, as she may be trying to hide.

Still can’t find her? Don’t panic – just close up the hive and try again in a day or two. If you have freshly laid eggs, then you likely have a queen - she’s just proving difficult to find!

Marked or unmarked?

When you buy a queen or a nuc box that includes a queen bee, she will usually be marked with a bright spot of paint for easy identification. This mark helps you identify the queen, and it can also give you key information about her. If you breed your own queen bee you can also catch your own queen and mark her - watch our handy Beekeeping 101 video for a demonstration on how to spot and mark your queen bee.

Queen bee marking colours should represent birth year

It all comes down to the colour. A sequence of five colours – white, yellow, red, green, and blue – denotes the year a particular queen was introduced to the hive. Because queens only live for five years, the sequence starts over again after blue. For example, if your queen is marked with a white spot, she was raised and introduced in a year ending in 1 or 6.

Colour

Year introduced

White

Years ending in 1 or 6

Yellow

Years ending in 2 or 7

Red

Years ending in 3 or 8

Green

Years ending in 4 or 9

Blue

Years ending in 5 or 0

This information helps you keep track of the age of your queen, and prepare to requeen the beehive towards the end of her life.

Later in your beekeeping journey, your colonies may raise new queens – with or without your help – so you’ll need to be able to spot queen bees with or without a marker.

However, if this happens, you can mark your queens again if you prefer. Use our queen bee-specific paint pen to create a small dot on the thorax. Don’t make the mark too large, and let the paint dry before releasing the queen back into the colony. If you’re looking for a queen catcher that makes marking your queen easy, check out our range of queen cages.

Practice makes perfect

When you’re first faced with a hive bustling with thousands of seemingly-identical bees, finding the queen can seem impossible. But, as with most things in life, it gets much easier over time. The more you practice spotting your queen, the simpler it seems. And before you know it, you’ll be picking her out in seconds.

Want to know more about spotting the queen bee? Talk to the team at Ecrotek.


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