Methods of Making Increase Colonies

December 2014


Many Queens Are Killed by Beekeepers

by John Connor


A well-respected beekeeping instructor and queen producer just wrote to me and said that he feels that 50 percent of his queens are killed by beekeepers. He was being critical of both the naiveté of new beekeepers and the questionable competence of some of those who teach beekeeping. Often new and small-scale beekeepers are not educated in the nuances of producing, using and evaluating queens. There is a great deal of ignorance about queens and queen biology in the beekeeping community and the Internet has created a quagmire of information, some of which is quite bluntly wrong and potentially harmful. In addition to this 50 percent loss, one must add the loss that is a reflection of Nature’s rather severe selection pressure on colony survival. Let’s establish a few facts about the biology and beekeeping of queens and colony mortality.

The high risk of preventing inbreeding
First, in an effort to prevent inbreeding in the species, young queen bees take enormous risks during the mating process. Unlike other social insects, young female reproductive honey bees do not mate inside the nest or close to it. Instead, they fly a mile or so to a remote location called a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) where they encounter and mate with drones from colonies located very near the DCA, not drones from their own colony. This is nature’s way of minimizing the risks of inbreeding, and keeping a large number of viable drones in one location. It takes much less fuel (honey) for a single young queen to fly a mile than to launch 15,000 drones (the number considered necessary to maintain a successful DCA) a mile each way to a DCA several times every afternoon.

New beekeepers often make the mistake of thinking that they control both sides of the mating equation of their new queens if they have both queen cells and young drones in production on a large scale within their colonies. These young queens will not mate with their brothers or other drones from the same apiary, but instead with drones produced in colonies located a mile or more away from the queen’s colony. So, efforts by the beekeeper to boost drone vigor and numbers will likely do more to help their neighbors’ colonies and nearby feral hives (which is not a bad thing). Good drone saturation requires many, many colonies to be distributed geographically around the area where the mating will take place. This means that large colony numbers must be distributed over a one to two mile distance and in all directions around a mating area.

For the small-scale and most sideliner beekeepers, lack of mating control puts the entire fate of mating replacement queens and queens produced in a small nucleus increase operation into a highly random state. These beekeepers must routinely plan on a loss of at least 25% of the new and replacement queens they attempt to mate due to predation, sudden bad weather and orientation failure by the queen. The apiary where I mate queens is near ponds and swampland that produce and support a high number of dragonflies, predator bird species and other challenges to mating success. In mathematical terms, if I want 100 new mated queens, I must set up at least one-third more mating nuclei (133) with young queens just to reach my 100 queen goal.

When existing colonies replace queens, or produce swarms, they face this 25% loss rate, leading to significant colony mortality during the season. It helps explain why beekeepers find queenless colonies after the nectar flow and when they prepare colonies for winter. Beekeepers are well advised to keep nucleus colonies in their apiary with young mated queens that may be used to requeen these failed colonies.

Natural queen replacement
Second, queen replacement often happens when there is a nectar flow underway.  New queens are produced for a wide number of reasons. An old swarm queen that moved with the swarm to its new location and helped establish the swarm colony often fails later in the season.  After 100 or more days in the new home, the bees may replace her. Any queen that produces a low level of pheromones is soon replaced. Frequently, we find that young queens shipped in a package colony are replaced in as little as 30 days after installation because they were poorly raised, were overheated during transit or poorly mated.

Queen replacement during the nectar flow makes biological sense. During a flow, there is plenty of stimuli to fill emerged worker cells with nectar and pollen rather than letting the queen lay new eggs. Extensive brood rearing during the flow draws worker bees away from gathering and producing honey. Large numbers of hungry bees would consume the newly collected honey once the flow is over. As a rule, worker bees produced during the nectar flow will not mature fast enough to help gather and process the nectar flow. Replacement queen cells are often found when there is a natural reduction in the number of brood cells that occur in colonies.

There are at least two factors associated with queen replacement without swarming. First, there is pressure to fill brood cells with incoming nectar and pollen. Second, the queen is failing, producing fewer eggs and less pheromone—perhaps at half the level she did at her peak. This reduces the brood area significantly, which also reduces the amount of brood pheromone being produced.

When some inexperienced or mis-informed beekeepers see a decline in young brood production (the absence of eggs and larvae) and the appearance of queen cells, they wrongly see this as evidence that the colony is about to swarm. If the colony is undergoing queen replacement (supersedure), that is usually the wrong conclusion. Many instructors recommend that beekeepers cut all swarm cells off the brood combs to prevent swarming (when the hive will have abundant brood cells and queen cells). This is not the case during supersedure. Unlike colonies that are about to swarm, those produce fewer supersedure queen cells that are positioned on a smaller number of frames because there are fewer and smaller frames of brood.

If the beekeeper successfully destroys all the queen cells in a colony lacking eggs and open larvae, the colony is doomed. When there are no more eggs and larvae suitable for the conversion into queen cells to replace the ones the beekeeper has destroyed, the colony will go into a predictable pattern of decline, including the appearance of egg-laying worker bees and eventual death. By cutting queen cells, the beekeeper basically kills the colony, thinking he or she was doing the right thing, following poor instincts or bad advice.

Understanding drone production
Third, drone production within this geographic mating area must be stimulated to produce a large number of drones throughout the season. Peak drone production happens naturally during the swarm season and then tapers off. If there is no mid- to late-summer nectar flow, there may be no more drones in colonies starting as early as June or July. Mating attempts in many areas are  ...