Bee colonies revolve around their queen – but what happens when she’s gone? Although it’s not common, there are times when a beekeeper needs to introduce a new queen to an old colony. This happens if the queen dies or stops laying eggs, or if you need to split a hive and start a new colony.
Signs of a queen-less hive include lack of eggs and larvae, a drop in your bee population, an increase in honey and pollen stores, presence of queen cells, and generally irritable, agitated bees.
Without a queen, there are no eggs, and without eggs, there are no new bees. So, lack of a queen can eventually lead to the loss of the colony, if you don’t take steps to fix the problem. Some colonies will be able to fix the problem themselves by creating a new queen, but this doesn’t always happen.
A queen – or an intruder?
Even when a colony is in desperate need of a new queen, introducing one can be tricky. The colony is made up of bees descended from the original queen, so they’re intimately familiar with her pheromones and scent. If a new queen is introduced, they may see her as an intruder. If the colony does react badly to the new queen, they’re likely to attack and eventually kill her.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to introduce a new queen that will minimise the chance of rejection.
Here are some of the most common methods:
Commercial queen cage
When you purchase a new queen, she will generally be delivered in a queen cage. These small cages are made of wood or plastic, with air holes and a solid sugar plug at one end.
When the cage is placed in the middle of the hive, the worker bees can smell the new queen through the air holes and, theoretically, get used to her scent. Within 2-5 days, they will chew through the sugar plug and release the new queen. After her release, she should start laying within a week if she has mated successfully.
Although queens can still be rejected even when using a commercial cage, the delayed release can help the colony adjust to her presence and reduce the risk.
Some beekeepers prefer to introduce their new queen using a ‘push-in’ cage. This type of cage is made from wire mesh, with an open base. The queen is place on brood comb, under the cage, so she can start laying eggs immediately. If and when the colony accepts the queen, they may chew through the brood comb under the cage to release her. If this doesn’t happen and the bees don’t appear aggressive towards the new queen, the cage can be removed by the keeper after 3-4 days.
Fans of the push-in cage say it gives the colony more access to the queen’s pheromones, thanks to the open structure. They also like that she can start laying eggs straight away to rebuild the colony, while a traditional queen cage delays this by up to 10 days.
If your hive has been queen-less for some time and you’re sure no queen cells remain, you may choose to risk introducing the queen without a cage. This avoids any delay and allows the queen to start laying eggs straight away.
In theory, a colony that has been queenless for a while is desperate for a new queen, so they will accept anything. But there’s always the possibility of rejection, so think carefully before you try this approach.
Essential oil sprays can be used in conjunction with other release methods. You simply fill a spray bottle with a mix of essential oils – mint and lemongrass work well – and sugar syrup. Lightly spray the frames and bees, then place the queen cage into the hive. Some keepers also use oils if the colony is still behaving aggressively towards the queen 2-3 days after introduction – they remove the cage, spray, then try again.
The idea is that the oils distract the bees and help to dilute the scent of the old queen. As the workers scramble to clean up the sugar syrup spray, the new queen starts laying eggs and her pheromones take over. Although this approach isn’t traditional, it’s harmless to bees, so may be worth trying if you’re struggling with queen rejection.
Whatever method you choose, make sure you check your hive for new brood shortly afterwards – that’s a sure sign your new queen has been accepted and your hive is back on track.