If you’re a beekeeper, checking in on the queen bee is an important job during hive inspections. Although you don’t always have to see her to know a colony is thriving, on occasion you’ll need to spot her.
A simple paint mark on the back can make your job of identifying her much easier. If you’d like to learn how to mark a queen bee then keep reading. We’ve created a handy beginner’s guide which is loaded with step-by-step instructions and advice.
Steps to mark a queen bee
Step 1: Identify
Spotting the queen bee amongst so many similar-looking bees can be a challenge. Check the frame with the most bees and look for eggs as that’s where she’s more likely to be.
When you first pick up a frame, pay careful attention to see if she tries to jump ship. It’s not uncommon for her to leap onto a nearby frame if she’s feeling exposed.
You can learn more about what queen bees look like here. It’ll help you identify her more easily by appearance, movement, and behavioral characteristics. We also share some useful tips for spotting a queen bee.
Step 2: Isolate
Once you find the queen, it’s time to isolate her from the rest of the colony. There are several ways you can do this:
Queen catcher: this device has handles that you squeeze to open a set of jaws and catch the queen. Once closed, the queen is too big to escape but the worker bees can. The queen catcher is a safe, secure way to isolate the queen.
Fingers: gently pick her up, taking extreme care not to cause any damage. You can use latex gloves if you prefer, but avoid anything ticker as this work requires delicate, precision handling.
Push-in cage: a push-in cage is a type of mesh square that you can stick into the comb with prongs. The queen is too big to escape.
Step 3: Mark
The next step is to mark the queen. Try to paint the top center of the thorax, making sure to reach the hard part, not just the hairs.
If you used a queen catcher then a good option is to use a queen marking tool. This gadget is much like a syringe without the needle; there is a tube which you pop the queen into, then insert a plunger.
A piece of sponge helps protect the queen from injury, and at the other end is mesh which allows you to easily mark the bee’s thorax.
Once you paint the queen, allow a few minutes for the paint to dry before releasing her back to the hive.
If you picked the queen up with your fingers, then delicately hold her by the legs. The easiest way to do this is to let the queen hold onto your index finger, then hold the legs in place with your middle finger and thumb.
Using a push-in cage makes marking the queen a simple process. Push the cage into the comb until her movement is restricted, then apply the paint.
Step 4: Release
The final stage of marking the queen is to release her back to the colony. Open the hive and place her on top of a brood frame. If you used a queen marking tool, then just place it opened on the frame and let the queen walk out. You don’t have to worry about rejection as the process of marking is quick.
What paints are best for marking queen bees?
There is a wide range of paints for marking queen bees, but we suggest choosing between Posca, Humbrol, or correction fluid if you’re okay using white. Whatever paint you choose, always make sure it is non-toxic and safe for queen bees.
Posca offers a range of water-based art pens that come in an assortment of colors. We recommend the PC-5M model which has a 2.5mm bullet tip that’s easy to use.
Correction fluid-like Tipp-Ex (Europe) or BIC Wite-Out (U.S) are good options. Look for an applicator pen rather than the brush, which is usually too broad for a small thorax.
The downside to using correction fluid is that it only comes in white. If you’re wanting to use different colors to indicate the queen’s age then this choice won’t be suitable.
Note: Check the ingredients before using correction fluid to ensure there are no harmful chemicals. Products like Tipp-Ex won’t harm your bees.
You can also use Humbrol enamel paint, which is popular with model makers, and come in a decent range of colors. While the paint quality is good, it takes a bit longer to dry, and dealing with a tiny tin can be fiddly when you’re in the outdoors.
Color guide for marking bees
It isn’t essential to mark your queen bee following the international color code, but it helps identify the age of your queen. The colors used are white, yellow, red, green, and blue.
Commonly asked questions
Can you mark a queen bee with nail polish?
To mark a queen bee, you’re best to use paint pens from bee supply or hardware stores. Nail polish is not ideal for using on bees as it gives off strong fumes and isn’t as visible as other paint products.
How long does a queen bee live?
Queen bees can live up to eight years, but this is rare. On average, they’ll live 1-2 years if provided with a healthy colony.
What if I find an unmarked queen which was previously marked?
If you’ve already marked a queen and now discover one that’s unmarked, it could mean the paint has rubbed off. Otherwise, the colony could have swarmed, and you are looking at a new queen.
Is it worth marking a queen bee?
Marking the queen is worth doing so that you can easily find her and keep tabs on her age. If the queen is replaced, you’ll be able to tell easier by marking her.
Marking a queen bee is worth doing if you have trouble spotting her or you’d like to keep tabs on her age. Although the process can be a little fiddly, you’ll find it’s not too difficult.
Take your time and treat the queen with delicate fingers. She’s a valuable part of the colony that you need to look after.
If you’d like to learn more about the bee colonies then check out our article on the role of a queen bee.