How To Detect A Queenless Hive

A potentially queenless hive with many drones in a cluster

A honey bee colony enters a state of queenlessness if it doesn’t have a queen. They only have one queen bee, so when she goes missing in action it can have devastating effects on the hive. She is essential for laying eggs and the colony will soon lose all its workers without her.

In this guide, we’ll look at how to detect a queenless hive as well as the causes. We’ll also examine how beekeepers can deal with the problem.

How can I tell if a hive is queenless?

Common signs that a hive no longer has a queen bee is a lack of brood and eggs, an increase in honey and pollen, and a population decline. You may also be able to detect queen has gone by checking increased hive traffic, the presence of queen cells, and also laying workers. There are other giveaway signs, so let’s have a closer look at these symptoms.

1. Lack of brood and eggs

Most of the egg-laying in a beehive is carried out by the queen bee. In a queenless beehive, egg production will drastically reduce, and you may notice larvae developing but no freshly hatched eggs. On the other hand, if there are plenty of eggs at all stages of development, it means your queen bee should be fine.

The development of the hive’s brood will give you clues as to how long ago the queen bee left.

  • if you can see open brood, the queen was in the hive around 9 days before your inspection.
  • if you only see capped brood, the pupa that’s inside could be anywhere from 11 to 21 days old. This means 3 weeks ago you can be certain the queen bee was in the hive.

2. Increased honey and pollen

In a queenless hive, many of the jobs that were previously time-intensive, like nursing, won’t be required. That’s because there’s little or no brood to care for. Instead, there will be many additional worker bees spending their time foraging. This will result in a lot of extra pollen and honey, a strong sign of a queenless colony.

3. Population decline

A natural part of hive life is the death of worker bees. Threats like birds and garden sprays will kill bees from time to time.

In a healthy functioning colony, the queen bee will lay enough eggs to keep her population increasing steadily. If there is no queen, the population will slowly decline.

Because the death rate is low, it will take weeks for a beekeeper to notice a population decline.

4. Hive traffic and temperament

From dawn until dusk a cluster of bees will usually hover at the hive’s entrance. If there’s no queen, the cluster will either reduce or completely disappear. Any bees remaining in the cluster will look and sound agitated compared to their usual state.

It’s not just the guard bees that change their temperament once the queen bee dies or disappears. The entire population will sound different, giving off an unusually high-pitched whine.

5. Queen cells and queen cups

As we’ve mentioned previously, queen cups aren’t necessarily a bad thing for a hive. But queen cells are a cause for concern, especially if there’s also a lack of brood. You should immediately check the cell to see if it contains a larva and also if it’s been capped? If you see an open queen cell and a queen has recently hatched it, probably means the colony is raising a new queen.

6. Laying workers

Worker bees may begin laying eggs if the queen is gone too long. You know this is happening if there are multiple eggs in one cell and more drone than worker brood.

It ranges from difficult to impossible to get the colony queenright once this process begins. Once the hive has laying workers, they will usually kill any queen a beekeeper tries to install. For this reason, beekeepers will often write off a colony like this.

7. Increased drones

An increased drone population is never a good sign for a healthy beehive. They should make up less than 20% of the total bee population, so if you see more there are two possibilities:

  • The hive has egg-laying worker bees.
  • The hive has an old queen that no longer has sperm to fertilize eggs.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to replace the hive’s queen bee as quickly as possible.

A beekeeper checking a honeybee frame for signs of queenlessness
A bee keeper checks a frame for signs of queenlessness.

How to test a hive for queenlessness

It’s important to keep in mind that the symptoms of a queenless hive may be the result of something completely unrelated. To get a better understanding, you’re best to test a hive for queenlessness. You can offer a frame of open brood or place a caged queen on the tops of the frames.

Option 1: Offer a frame of open brood

The first option you have is to take a frame of open brood from a queenright colony and give it to the colony in question. Wait 2-5 days then check if they’re trying to produce an emergency queen. If you don’t see any sign of queen cells, you may have misdiagnosed the hive.

Option 2: Add a caged queen to the frame

Placing a caged queen on top of the frames will provide some good insight into the state of the colony. A queenright hive will react aggressively towards a caged queen. They begin fanning their wings, biting and trying to sting the cage (and the queen inside). This means you may have a new virgin queen that’s not yet laying.

How do I get the colony queenright?

1. Install a queen

Installing a queen is often the quickest, most reliable option for getting your colony queenright.

A cage containing the queen and a few worker bees will offer protection while the colony gets used to her smell. The cage will have a candy plug which the bees will chew at and enter the bee population within 5 days. By that stage, the colony should have accepted the new queen.

Place the queen cage in the center of the hive where there are a lot of bees. The workers must feed the queen, so ensure the screen is accessible to the worker bees.

It will take a few days for the new queen to adjust to her environment. But you can expect her to start laying eggs within seven days of release.

A beekeeper introduces a caged bee to a new colony
A beekeeper introducing a new caged queen bee to a colony.

2. Offer open worker brood

This option can only work if you have two colonies at your disposal. You have the option to take a brood from a healthy hive and loan it to the queenless one. This will calm the worker bees and suppress their desire to lay eggs. Hopefully, they’ll start making a new queen with the brood you introduce.

Keep in mind that adding brood won’t guarantee you get the hive queenright. It will also take around 20 days before the queen is raised, mated, and in a position to start laying. This is not an ideal situation and if you have a small colony, buying a queen bee is probably a better option. Also, if you’re in the cooler months, mating drones will be scarce; you’ll need to introduce your own queen bee.

Do I have to replace the queen?

Some beekeepers believe that the best option is simply to destroy the colony, especially when laying workers are present. If you decide to enter the colony, remove the honey and transfer it to another colony if you have one. Next, take the hive to an isolated spot and shake out the bees. Some may seek asylum in other hives, but the majority will die. This may sound extreme, but it almost certainly would have happened anyway.

What are the causes of queenlessness?

Killed by beekeeper: when the beekeeper examines a frame there is a real possibility that the queen could accidentally be squashed.

Disease and pests: although the queen has help from attendant worker bees, she is just as vulnerable as the rest of the hive to disease and pests. She is most at risk during her mating flight at the start of her life.

Killed by other colony members: when the queen starts to underperform, she is likely to be killed by worker bees to make room for a new one.

Killed by a queen: it’s possible that when two queens fight it out over the hive, they may both end up dying.

Commonly asked questions

How long will a queenless hive last?

Once a hive is queenless it will die off within 4-6 weeks if it can’t replace the old queen. That is the lifespan of a worker honeybee so with no queen to lay eggs, the hive will soon die out.

What does a queenless hive sound like?

A queenless hive causes the drones and worker bees to become anxious and irritable. They will begin making a hard-to-describe sound that mixes a low roar with a high-pitched whine.

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