Some of the other posts on my site have mentioned locating the queen in a given hive. There are a number of reasons for this practice, which will be discussed later on, but there is a bigger issue here: how to do it. When you are inspecting a hive filled with thousands of bees, finding the queen is not as easy as identifying a black marble among thousands of white ones.
Identifying a queen is considered one of the more advanced skills of beekeeping. It takes a lot of practice and many, many inspections. It is not uncommon for first-year beekeepers to find locating the queen impossible. They have to rely on more experienced beekeepers if they are concerned about a hive that may be without a queen.
As a means of introduction, there is nothing biologically special about a queen in the larvae stage. Queens are made when workers randomly choose eggs they will then nurture to birth as queens. Science doesn’t quite know how that choice is made, but any egg could potentially be chosen as the next queen.
So, how do you find her? Let’s get to it. I’ll start with opening a hive box.
Getting into the Hive
We have all seen demonstrations on TV showing beekeepers smoking their bees to make them docile. First of all, smoking isn’t really necessary if you are an experienced beekeeper who knows how to handle your bees. But that aside, smoking is not a good idea if you’re attempting to locate the queen.
Smoking in and of itself does not make bees docile. Rather, it frightens them. When bees encounter smoke, they assume a forest fire is raging. They gorge themselves with honey in anticipation of having to flee the hive. That is what makes them docile. They are so engorged that they are slower to fly, slower to react, etc.
The problem when you are trying to find the queen is that she will run at the first sign of smoke. Furthermore, worker bees naturally react to the smoke by following her and covering her up to protect her. Introduce smoke to your hive and your chances of finding the queen go way down.
Actually getting into the hive starts with removing one of the outside frames first. The less force you have to use to get the frames out, the less likely you are to disturb the queen and those workers immediately surrounding her. So remove an outside frame and then work your way toward the middle. Inspect each frame as you go.
In all likelihood, you will find the queen located at or near the next comb to be filled. That is the case 90% of the time. Find that comb and you are in good shape.
What to Look For
Getting your hive opened and locating the most likely frame is just the start. Now you actually have to inspect. This is where it helps to know what to look for. Rest assured that your queen will not be identified by a gold crown and a red robe. There is no telltale mark that distinctly separates her from the rest of the females. So you have to look at a variety of characteristics.
1. Bee Volume
The first thing to look at is the volume of the bees throughout the frame you are currently inspecting. You generally find the queen on the frame with the most active bees. Why? Because worker bees are there serving the queen while others are out gathering food.
Next, pay attention to the behavior of the bees. You should be focusing particularly on workers here. Where workers going about the general business of the hive are flying around quickly and in a manner that appears erratic, those workers serving the queen will be a lot more calm. If it helps, think about the difference between a chaotic environment outside of the royal castle as opposed to the calm, orderly environment inside the throne room.
Next, look to see if you can spot a small group of worker bees all facing a single bee in front of them. This is pretty common. Where the queen is, you usually find five or six bees standing almost still, directly facing her. We don’t know what’s going on here, but we do know it happens.
You will also notice this small selection of bees behaving a little bit differently. You may not be able to quite put your finger on it, but it will seem like they are giving the queen their full attention and focus. Again, think of human officers in the court of a human queen. They are standing at the ready, waiting for instructions.
The next thing to pay attention to is movement. Some expert beekeepers liken bee movement to dancing. They compare worker bees to dancers doing the bossa nova while the queen is dancing a ballet. The queen is much more deliberate in her movements. She is slower and more graceful.
Worker bees, on the other hand, move quickly and in a manner that may seem jerky. If you find a group of hyper workers with a single bee moving more slowly and gracefully in their midst, that single bee is most likely the queen.
Understand that in terms of movement and behavior, you may not notice anything the first time you try to find the queen. As previously stated, this takes practice. It is a good idea to harness all of your powers of observation whenever you inspect a hive. The more you observe and learn, the easier identifying queens will get. Remember that practice makes perfect.
If all the other observational techniques fail you, a technique of last resort is to look at the physical characteristics of your bees. We consider this a last resort technique because observing any physical differences can be extremely hard. That said, here’s what you’re looking for:
Queens usually have upper bodies similar to their workers in terms of size. But their abdomens are larger for obvious reasons. A queen’s abdomen is filled with eggs almost all the time. So it will appear fatter and longer than the workers around her.
Sometimes you get lucky and the queen exhibits a slightly different color. What that color is depends on the species of bee you’re working with. She may be darker or lighter than the rest of the workers. Her colors might be brighter or more dull. There is no hard and fast rule here. The goal is to simply look for something different.
When Finding the Queen is Necessary
Let us wrap up this post by discussing why you might need to find the queen in a given hive. There aren’t a whole lot of reasons. In fact, you may go through entire seasons in which you have no valid reason to look. Your hives are all healthy and thriving.
The first reason to look for the queen is a suspicion that she might be gone for good. There is a quick and dirty way to answer this question without going through the whole process of taking apart your frames. Look for open brood. If you find evidence of it, the queen was there at some point within the last three days. You probably don’t need to look any further unless you still suspect the queen is gone three or four days later.
The next reason for finding the queen is the existence of a particularly loud or agitated hive. The fact is workers get agitated if there is no queen present. If you are checking for this reason, be careful. Agitated bees can be unfriendly bees.
Next, you might want to check for the queen to make sure she is preparing for winter weather. Queens began to slow down production in late autumn with the understanding that the winter months will bring colder temperatures and less food. The purpose here is to make sure the queen is still alive even though egg production has slowed down. A hive without a queen headed into winter is not likely to survive.
Finally, you’re obviously going to attempt to find the queen when you are requeening a hive. You might be requeening because you are trying to split a rather large hive into two. Or, you might be doing it because your current queen is not as productive as she used to be. In either case, you cannot successfully requeen until you found the existing queen.
Remember that identifying queen bees is not easy. It takes time, practice, and the right technique. Hopefully you will catch on with each inspection you conduct. Who knows? You may become an expert after just a few inspections.