The first question to be asked is why it should be necessary to re-queen a colony. Well, there are several occasions when the introduction of a new queen would be beneficial to both the bees, and the beekeeper. An old queen is failing, or has become a “drone breeder”, thereby weakening the colony. The colony has developed undesirable characteristics. This is often due to the loss of the original queen through swarming, and the new queen mating with drones bearing the genes which result in these undesirable characteristics. High on the list of undesirable characteristics is bad temperament. Very few beekeepers get a huge thrill from being stung, and if we come under attack from aggressive bees every time we go near them, then re-queening would seem like a very good idea.
New, mated queens can be taken from our own apiary, from nuclei, which we have bred ourselves, but more usually they are bought in from specialist breeders. If we use our own queens, then we have a known history and blood line that can be followed, and we have first hand knowledge of their laying potential. Unfortunately however, few of us have the equipment or the expertise to indulge in artificial insemination, and have little control over mating. It is for this reason that so many beekeepers rely upon the queen rearing specialists.
In order to stand any chance of the new queen being accepted, the colony must first be in a queenless condition. It is necessary therefore, for the old queen to be found and despatched. This is best done in the middle of the day, when one would normally carry out hive manipulations. Most of the flying bees will be out foraging, leaving fewer bees to look through, and making it that much easier to spot the queen. Once this has been achieved, the hive can be closed and left until the evening. Immediate introduction is fraught with danger, as the bees may not immediately recognize that they are queenless, and because of our manipulations, they are in defence mode, which is not conducive to accepting a strange queen in their midst. Introduction is therefore, much safer in the evening, when the colony has settled and are fully cognisant of their queenless condition. The introduction should be achieved with the least possible disturbance, in order that the bees will not be put on their guard.
The means of introduction depends to a large extent upon the source of the new queen. If it comes from a specialist breeder, it is likely to be received in a travelling cage, which will also act as an introductory cage. If however, it comes from our own apiary, it will be necessary to provide our own cage. Why is a cage necessary? Well, if a strange queen were introduced directly into the colony, she would not have the colony odour, and would therefore be treated as an intruder. Because of this, it is safer to keep her caged until she acquires the same odour as the colony, when she would more likely be accepted as one of them.
If we are using one of our own queens, then a Butler Cage provides a very simple means of introduction. It is a wire mesh cage, sealed at one end. The queen is popped into the cage, which is then sealed with a piece of newspaper secured with a rubber band. The cage is then wedged between the top bars of two brood frames, with the newspaper end facing downwards, or it can be secured to the face of a brood comb with a cocktail stick or similar. The worker bees will nibble their way through the newspaper to get to the queen, but this takes time, and by the time they reach her, she will smell the same as them.
If a new queen is bought in, she will arrive in a travelling cage, with some attendant workers and a block of candy for sustenance during the journey. The cage consists of two compartments; one containing the queen and workers, and one filled with candy. Before introduction can take place, the attendant workers must be got rid of, as they will reduce the chances of the new queen being accepted. This is best done in an enclosed atmosphere, such as a garden shed or workshop, and near a window. The top of the cage can be slid back allowing the bees to emerge. The workers will fly to the light of the window, but if the queen also emerges, she must be put back into the cage alone, and the cover slid back into place. It is always distasteful to kill bees, but these workers carry an unnecessary risk of disease, so are safer dispatched. The queen is now ready for introduction. At the candy end of the cage there is a sealed exit hole. The queen’s access to this is blocked by the candy, so this seal can now be removed. The cage can then be placed in the brood chamber, wedged between the top bars of two frames, with the exit hole accessible to the bees. They will start to eat their way through the candy, but by the time they reach the queen, she will have acquired the colony odour, and should be accepted.
There is no doubt that a greater success rate can be achieved when working with a small colony with an excess of young bees. If the new queen meets with aggression, it is usually from the older bees of the colony. Many beekeepers therefore, prefer to make up a small nucleus, and introduce the new queen into that. After acceptance, this is then united to the main colony using the newspaper method. (See “How to Unite Two Colonies”). Whichever course is taken, once the queen cage has been introduced, the colony should be left undisturbed for at least five days. Interference may result in the queen being “balled” and killed. After a week, an inspection should find the new queen released and laying
Introducing new queens is never without potential difficulties. We are after all, tinkering with nature, and sometimes nature will not allow it. The success rate however, is sufficient to warrant taking the trouble, and if it results in easier and more productive beekeeping, then it is a project well worth tackling.