You have completed your first full season as a beekeeper. It is now spring, and you are looking to split one of your hives. But wait. You suddenly realize you don’t know how to find the queen. You don’t even know what the queen looks like. How are you going to find her in the midst of a very active hive?
Queens that come in starter kits are generally marked with a dab of paint. It might be red paint; it might be green. But relying on a dab of paint is not smart. Why? Because paint wears off. Moreover, the paint marking will only help you with your first queen. Every subsequent queen the hive produces will not be marked. So it’s better to learn to identify queen bees on their own merits.
Tens of Thousands of Bees
The first queen spotting obstacle you run into is the number of bees in your hive. A typical hive can contain between 20,000 and 60,000 bees. Larger hives can have 80,000 or more. You are trying to spot a single bee that looks different from all the rest. Not such a problem when you’re only looking at 40 or 50 insects. But 20,000 or more?
Having to find a queen in the midst of so many worker bees is challenging, to say the least. Therefore, it is best to learn all the clues that could point you to the one you want. The four most important clues are:
- Body shape
- Head appearance
- Hive location
- Bee behavior.
Long-term beekeepers recommend that newbies resist the temptation to mark their queens. Marking becomes a crutch that can get beekeepers in trouble. It is best to learn to identify the four clues and what they mean. Nail them and queen spotting becomes second nature.
You would be forgiven for assuming that queen bees are larger than workers. Sometimes this is the case, but not always. Most queens are just slightly larger, but not large enough to be noticeable among thousands of other bees busy about their business. Having said that, careful observation reveals that a queen’s body shape is noticeably different.
The queen has a longer, narrower abdomen. Though the rest of her body is about the same size, her abdomen is different enough that it stands out. If you are ever unsure, picking up a genuine queen will also reveal longer legs.
Between the long and narrow abdomen and longer legs, the queen actually sticks out quite noticeably. The trick is identifying those two features in the middle of tens of thousands of others. With practice, you can get pretty good at it.
The queen’s head will be similar to the rest of the bees in a colony, in terms of color. It will be black. But here’s the difference: a queen’s head is bald. There is no hair. Moreover, her head is also shiny and a bit reflective. Find a bee with a shiny, black head and a narrow abdomen and it is quite likely you have found the queen.
Queens have a very specific role within the colony. Their job is to reproduce. As such, queens do not leave the nest to forage. They do not spend time producing and storing honey. All of this tells you something particularly important: the chances of you finding your queen in frames filled with honey or already capped are slim to none.
Where will you find her? In the brood chamber. Wherever eggs are being laid, the queen is busy about her business. By going straight to the brood chamber, you can eliminate tens of thousands of worker bees from the pool of possible candidates.
Your most important clue in tracking down the queen is bee behavior. Every bee in a hive has a job to do. Worker bees go out and forage. Nursery bees care for larvae and fill honeycombs with honey. The queen’s job is to reproduce. She has a single mind to do only that. As such, she is quite determined.
Spend some time observing the behavior and you will notice that the queen seems to move through the brood chamber with authority. She doesn’t linger. She knows exactly where she’s going and how she plans to get there. Meanwhile, worker and nursery bees get out of her way when she moves.
It is similar to a monarch entering a crowded room. Everyone parts and makes way for them as they walk through. If you can think of it in that context, observing bee behavior will make a lot of visual sense as you observe it.
When the queen bee is stationary, you should notice a large number of the worker bees surrounding her, with their heads pointed in her direction. Some veteran beekeepers describe the visual as being similar to a flower. The queen is at the center while worker bees form concentric petals surrounding her.
It Takes Practice
You may not know what a queen bee looks like at this point. Perhaps you have never seen a queen up close and personal. Don’t sweat it. If you really want to know, start studying pictures and videos. Start looking for the clues you learned of in this post. Above all, practice relentlessly. The more you practice, the more easily queen spotting becomes.
What does a queen bee look like? Remember the four clues: body shape, head appearance, hive location, and bee behavior. All four will point you right to the queen once you learn to recognize them.