Finding Queens

By Paul Kelly

Queen finding is a skill required for making splits, re-queening, and many other hive manipulations. Once you learn a few tricks and gain some experience this challenging task becomes fun.

The ideal conditions for finding queens are when the weather is warm and sunny, a nectar flow is in progress and the colonies aren’t too strong. Some practise in the spring will help you gain the confidence needed to find queens when the hives are more populous later in the summer.  It is helpful if the sun is directly overhead but if that isn’t possible, try to work with the sun behind your back. Sitting on a low stool or kneeling beside the hive will improve your vision, comfort, and concentration.

Your search image is the queen’s abdomen as it is visibly different from the workers abdomen.  Staring at a picture of a queen will help imprint this search image in your brain. Even if you think your queen is marked with paint, look for her abdomen not the coloured dot.  She may have been superseded. Work carefully but quickly to find her before she wanders away from the brood area.  Use enough smoke to keep the bees calm but not so much that the workers start running. Unfortunately the aggressive, runny colony that you most want to requeen will be the hardest to find a queen in.  You can move this colony, a day or so ahead of looking for the queen, to a different location in the bee yard.  This will result in some of the more aggressive older bees drifting to other colonies. One key fact to bear in mind when searching for queens is that a mated queen always moves away from light. The following method takes advantage of this behaviour to locate the queen.

When working with a double brood chamber hive, set the hive lid on the ground, rim side up. Place the second brood chamber diagonally on top of the lid. Separating the two brood chambers prevents the queen from moving between boxes.  In early spring the queen is likely in the second brood chamber so look there first. Remove the second frame from the side closest to you, scan your eyes over it briefly and then lean it against a front corner of the colony. Leaving this frame out for the duration of the inspection, systematically remove and replace each frame working away from yourself.  When replacing frames in the colony keep them close together to maintain your working space and prevent bees from clumping.  As you remove each frame, look at the exposed side of the next frame in the brood chamber.  If the queen happens to be on the next frame you will see her working her way down the comb and away from the light. As her abdomen will be pointing up she’ll be relatively easy to see.  Hold the removed frame in good light and at an angle that reduces glare coming from the sunlit wings. Look first at the side of the frame not exposed to light when it was still in the box.  Scan around the edges of the comb then across the middle. Queens located near the edge of a frame will often duck around to the shaded backside of the frame and then duck back when you rotate the frame.  If the queen is not found in the second brood chamber, cover it up and then look through the first brood chamber.  If you don’t find the queen after looking through all the frames twice, close the colony up and come back another day when the colony is more settled. It is of course much easier to find a queen in a single brood chamber hive. You have the confidence of knowing which box she’s in and half the number of frames to look through.

Some beekeepers install a queen excluder in between the two brood chambers to simplify locating the queen. After one week you’ll know that the box with eggs and very young larvae will also contain the queen so she’ll be easier to find.  If your goal is to split the two brood chambers and make a new hive you can simply introduce a new queen to the brood chamber with no eggs. No need to find the queen at all.

Many beekeepers despair of not being able to find queens. Make this the year you are going to improve your queen finding skills and start practising this spring.

Originally Published in the Ontario Bee Journal