Occasionally checking in on the queen bee is good practice during hive inspections. Although beekeepers don’t always have to see her to know a colony is thriving, in some situations it is essential.
A simple paint mark on the back can make identifying her much easier. If you’d like to learn how to mark a queen bee, then keep reading. This handy beginner’s guide provides 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 common for her to leap onto a nearby frame if she feels 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 valuable 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, but avoid anything thicker as this work requires delicate, precise 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, reaching the hard part, not just the hairs.
Consider using a queen marking tool if you use a queen catcher. This gadget is much like a syringe without the needle; there is a tube that 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 makes it easy to 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 pick the queen up with your fingers, delicately hold her by the legs. The easiest way to do this is to let the queen hold onto your index finger, then keep her legs in place with your middle finger and thumb.
Using a push-in cage makes marking the queen a simple process. Push it 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, allow the queen to walk out. You don’t have to worry about rejection; the marking process 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 with using white. Whatever product you choose, ensure it is non-toxic and safe for queen bees.
Posca offers a range of water-based art pens that come in various colors. We recommend the PC-5M model, which has a 2.5mm bullet tip that’s easy to use.
Correction fluids 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. This choice isn’t suitable if you want to use different colors to indicate the queen’s age.
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 available in a wide 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
While it isn’t essential to mark a queen bee following the international color code, it helps identify the age of your queen. The colors used are white, yellow, red, green, and blue.
Can you mark a queen bee with nail polish?
Nail polish is not recommended for applying to bees as it gives off strong fumes and is less visible than other paint products.
Most products also contain butyl acetate and other compounds which are components of honeybee alarm pheromone. The nail lacquer could mask the queen’s own pheromones and trigger an alarm response.
Commonly asked questions
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 the effort for less experienced beekeepers. It makes the tasks of finding her and age tracking straightforward. Queens replaced by the colony will be immediately evident as the paint will have disappeared.
Marking a queen bee is a good idea if you need help spotting her or you’d like to keep tabs on her age. Although the process is fiddly, 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 melittology, check out our article on the role of a queen bee.