Buying Queens

Caveat Emptor or ‘buyer beware’ as true today as it was when first written, especially when dealing with the sellers or dealers of Queen bees. As in all business, these days, poor quality, profiteering and downright double dealing seem to be the norm, which will cause the amateur beekeeper untold problems.

It would appear, on the surface that a Queen is a Queen, provided she lays eggs is all that matters! Nothing could be further from the truth! The Queen is the ultimate being in the hive and everything the hive does or fails to do can be attributed to the quality of the Queen in residence. Perhaps a description of the dubious methods of raising Queens and the effects it can have on a hive might be useful when analysing any problems that can be caused by poor Queens.

Emergency Queens.
The usual cause of the hive starting emergency Queens is invariably created by the keeper, either in manipulation or deliberately by creating splits, or even when dealers are creating package bees. The hive suddenly and unexpectedly loses a Queen. Panic ensues and the bees will now take larvae which are too old, reversing the feeding and re-starting Royal Jelly, this will produce a ‘sealed’ cell at 4 days instead of the normal 10-day sealing. It becomes obvious that the Queen produced will have something missing, a shortened development time will result in an interclass, neither a Queen or worker. It will lay eggs, but because of the shortened development time the ovary size is diminished with less egg production, and pheromone production is also decreased, leading to angry bees. This will explain how in many respects an emergency Queen is unsatisfactory, leading to early supersedure.

Regretfully, emergency Queens are standard practice in many Queen rearing operations, when making packages this is the favourite method. A package is ‘shaken’ from the donor hive, the Queen is taken and goes with the package, leaving the hive Queenless. Instant emergency, the bees start raising a new Queen and the hive is left to their own devices until it has time to rebuild ready for the next ‘shakeout’.

Another scenario,
Splits or nucs, the same principal applies. The resident queen goes with the nuc and the hive is left to fend for its self until the time comes again to split it. Worse in this case than before as often an old Queen is sold.

The effects on the hive can be devastating if not corrected and quickly. The brood pattern suffers, often with a shortage of brood replacement, the hive will go into swarm mode very quickly with an older queen. Even if the hive manages to replace the poor Queen there is always the danger that the virgin produced fails to mate or come back from a mating flight leading to the colony collapse. The results for newbies and their first hive can be catastrophic, leading to a first-year failure.

Queen on a frame with bees
A good Italian Queen

Poor Rearing.
Poor rearing can be as devastating to the colony as Emergency Queens. The standard practice is to try rearing Queens too early in the season, mainly because unenlightened beekeepers insist on having Queens far too early. It really makes little difference when a hive is re-Queened if the Queen is not too old. There is some advantage to late summer re-Queening as it will allow for a young Queen going into winter, far better than an old Queen which is likely to fail.

When grafting it is possible to take larvae which are too old, creating the same problems as ‘Emergency Queens’ but it does shorten the production times, leading to more profit. Alternatively, it is necessary to feed early production of Queens as there is little forage available in the early spring. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that feeding is withheld, even if sugar is fed it cannot be considered ideal food for a Queen. Much better to wait till later in the season when natural food is more readily available.

The reader will now hopefully begin to see there are a number of pitfalls associated with buying Queens, even from supposed reputable sources, but it doesn’t stop here as we haven’t discussed strain selection, breeding and mating.


Queen bee and bees
Queen bee

The pedigree of bought Queens can be as suspect as the rearing. There is a tendency to completely forget genes when dealing with pedigrees of bees. It is pointless in trying to mate a Great Dane with a Chihuahua and hoping for a Golden Retriever, it just doesn’t happen, but that is what we’ve done in Queen breeding for many years.

Even when there is a reasonable pedigree available greed from the dealer can ruin all your plans. Just recently I heard from a dealer who confessed to shipping different Queens than the ones ordered he said “they won’t know the difference”. The customer ordered Russians, but the dealer had run out, so shipped Carniolans instead!

Areas of serious concern are mating. It is a known fact that a Queen has to mate with at least 15 drones to be considered well mated, so subject to the weather this is sometimes impossible to achieve.

If the mating cycle is tightly timed there is considerable danger that full mating is not achieved, leading to virgins being harvested, ultimately small virgins are sold. If this is the case then those virgins on being introduced to a full hive fail to go out to mate and end up as drone layers. Or just as bad, run out of semen at a very early age, leading to colony collapse.

Open mating is also the best method, the colony health is dependant on mating diversity, so why we consider Artificial Insemination with only a few drones semen as the best for the colony is beyond me.

Is it any wonder we have so many problems in trying to winter colonies, angry bees are becoming the norm, honey harvests are down and the poor quality of bees is becoming more and more noticeable, supersedure is the norm, and now we have Colony Collapse Disorder.

mating hive frame
Mini Frame

Here at the Bee Works we have been working for some years to ‘clean’ our bees of stray genes created some years ago by misguided breeding information. Using Morphometry and very careful Queen selection we are getting closer every year, as we get closer to a pure strain so the quality is improving. General habit is better, quieter gentle bees with bigger hives and larger honey harvests. Would you believe last year we averaged 215 lbs per?

The best advice I can offer. Make your own Queens. With the above information in hand you really should consider getting off the bandwagon.