When we set out to become keepers of honey bees, there are numerous facts, methods, tools and repeatable tasks we must master. One of the most important to get under your belt as quickly as possible is learning how to efficiently and quickly find the queen. In this blog post, I’ve compiled notes, suggestions, and advice from several different sources on how to find a queen with my comments along the way.
Like any endeavor, successful beekeeping requires paying attention, thoroughly understanding the bee, its biology, its needs and biological patterns so that one can both work along with and also manage appropriately. Too many beekeepers are either intimidated to the point of not trying, settle for hit-and-miss success or have given up altogether. This doesn’t have to be.
At the heart of beekeeping success is the well-being of the queen. Although every bee is needed, along with their many vital tasks, the colony most acutely rises and falls with the fate of the queen. A colony can lose a few hundred workers or drones and feel little ill effect. But, lose the queen, and the colony descends into an uproar in literally minutes. Even newly initiated beekeepers intuitively understand the need to at least keep tabs on the status of their queen. We set out with good intentions and even careful study, but, as is the experience for many, actually finding that elusive queen without harming her, the hive or yourself in the process can be a daunting task.
There is hope, don’t give up. You can do this if you are determined to do so. Hopefully, the following information will help you get over the hump and further along the path to becoming an excellent beekeeper!
Tips on Finding a Queen Honey Bee
I keep a wide variety of apiculture books on my shelves at home. I turned to a few of these first to find the comments below. I have attributed each with the author’s name and a link directly to Amazon if you have interest in the book.
1. “Fifty Years Among the Bees” by Dr. C.C. Miller, pages 66-70
”I have seen some attempt at rules for finding a queen, but after all is said, you must do more or less hunting for a queen if you would find her.”
Persistence and work!
”I generally begin looking on the first frame of brood I come to-hardly worthwhile to look on any frame before the brood is reached...”
This is my experience. Rarely does this not pan out.
”...as I raise the frame out of the hive I keep watch of the side next me. Then when the frame is lifted out of the hive, before looking at the opposite side, I glance at the nearest side of the next frame in the hive; for it requires scarcely any time to do this, and if she happens to be in sight it will be a saving of time...”
After reading this again I realize the impatience that typifies my usual inspection process. I need to slow down and take Miller’s advice.
”Not seeing her on the frame in the hive, I look over both sides of the frame in my hand, and continue thus through all the frames...it is worth looking for her on the comb remaining after passing over those that contain brood, for in trying to get away from the light she will go to the outside combs.”
The goal is to NOT have to go back over the comb. His next bit of advice is something of a learned art:
”This trying to get away from the light on the part of the queen, by going from one comb to the other, makes me go over the combs as rapidly as possible without looking too closely, for if I do not see her with a slight looking, the chances are that she is on another comb, and I count it better to run the chance of going over the combs again, rather than to go too slowly.”
It can be a mental hurdle learning to trust your eyes. I often find queens in my peripheral or without really “seeing” her, if that makes sense. You are training your senses to spot the typical pattern, shape, color difference, movement, etc that is the queen.
If one goes TOO slowly, then...
”...if one goes over the combs slowly enough, it is a pretty safe thing to say that the queen will be driven clear to the other side of the hive. ”
So, it is a balance of moving through the hive efficiently, with a process, but not too slowly. Not spending too much time per side of each frame but moving on and trusting the eyes. This takes practice and testing and trusting yourself.
Interestingly, and with a twinkle in his eye, Miller describes how his wife, on the other hand, likes to go very slowly and detests having to go over comb more than once. In her case, he acknowledged she was better at it than him. Either way, Miller suggests going through a colony more than twice not worth the time and better to close it up for another day. I concur.
Other ideas from C.C. Miller:
- He sometimes put comb in pairs into empty hives, then another pair set next to the first but with a gap of an inch or more. He did this to all the comb and suggests that she will find her way between comb wherever she is to get away from the light (interesting!)
- If the pairs are left long enough, those without the queen will become obviously agitated
- Sometimes (I seldom see this) you will find the queen on the sides or bottom of the hive
- A strainer can be used to search for a queen (not advised)
- Sometimes (I very rarely see this) you will find the queen on the bottom of the cover
2. “The Beekeeper’s Handbook” by Sammataro and Avitabile, page 69
“If it is necessary to find the queen, use as little smoke as possible, open the hive gently... and remove the outermost frame.”
Good advice. One need remember that you can ascertain the quality of a queen and the colony by looking quickly at a few frames to assess the presence of eggs, in a good pattern, etc. You can also sabotage their own efforts by needless jarring, noise, scents, etc when doing an inspection. We make it easier on ourselves when we are gentle, quiet, and without offending odors. Then, pulling the outermost frame or so is vital to ensure the safety of the queen. It is common for new beekeepers to injure the queen (easy to do) by rolling or crushing her between frames.
“[The queen] will seldom be found on frames with just honey and pollen or on frames with capped brood; she will most likely be found on or near frames containing eggs and uncapped larvae.”
This to me is one of the most important tactics: playing the odds. A queen’s job is laying eggs. She does this for the most part without ceasing. If you want to find the queen, find eggs that were just laid. She’ll not be far-either on that frame, those next to her or straight up or down.
“The queen can often be spotted in the midst of her encircling attendants or retinue. When a queen moves slowly along the frame from cell to cell, the other bees will begin to disperse, but the circle will re-form when she pauses...”
As you become more adept at spotting a queen, this pattern will become more readily perceived. Not just the pattern of the workers around her, but her very shape and lumbering movement.
Another idea from Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile: you can put a queen excluder between the two brood chambers if this is your setup. Four or five days later, the queenless box will have no eggs. There are other variations on this theme.
3. “The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture” by the A.I. Root Company, pages 685-686
“A queen honey bee always remains in the brood nest area except when she is moving from one side of a comb to another. However, heavy smoking...or much disturbance will cause a queen to move about in the brood chamber.”
Use the general principle to your advantage. And, as already mentioned, just smoke very lightly to calm and distract the bees but not so much as to irritate and run the queen.
”...to find the queen one removes any honey storage supers and goes directly to the brood nest...searching for the queen...on one side and...move across the brood chamber examining one comb after the other.”
Simple, but specific details that can’t be skipped.
”The first comb removed is usually one without any brood. It is placed outside the hive usually leaning up against the hive.... [and] will be placed back in its original position...”
This is my practice. It’s simple and one doesn’t need to buy any fancy equipment to hold frames. It hurts nothing to quickly scan the first frame for the queen and then lean it gently against the hive around the corner from your feet so that you don’t accidentally kick it. Do this quickly and efficiently and help yourself get to the brood area as quickly and smoothly as possible.
What’s not usually mentioned in books I read are practical next steps. I generally quickly but very gently break apart the next 3-4 frames, prying them apart a bit to give enough space to see where brood begins. I then attack that area first. This saves much time, gets me to the brood quicker, and gives less time for the queen to move about. I want to catch her before she might jump down to the deep below, for example.
A.I. Root is thinking about this scenario next:
”If there is brood in two brood chambers it may be helpful to set the top one off onto an upside-down hive cover. This prevents the queen from running off a comb in the upper chamber onto one in the bottom.”
We typically employ this tactic on our second time through the brood if we didn’t find her on the first pass. In a full-strength colony with maybe 2-3 deeps, I’d hazard a guess that we usually find her in the first pass about 75% of the time, within 3 minutes or less as a general rule, sometimes much quicker (especially if a smaller colony).
Additional thoughts from ABC & XYZ:
- Light colored queens can be easier to see than dark
- Some queens or lines of bees generally run more on the comb
- Older queens are less likely to run
- Queens sometimes hide in a ball of bees on the edges of the comb
- Marked queens are easier to find (I don’t mark our bees and have no issues and I think this possibly could become a crutch for some?)
4. “The Practical Beekeeper, Volume 1” by Michael Bush, pages 119-124
Bush reminds the reader that it’s really not necessary to find the queen every time you enter the hive. I completely agree. One searches for the queen only intentionally when you need to remove or dispatch her, etc according to pre-determined management needs.
Michael, like the others, encourages minimal smoke and then gives this helpful tip:
”The queen is usually on the frame of the brood chamber that has the most bees. This isn’t always true, but if you start on that frame and work your way from there you will find her either on that frame or the next 90% of the time.”
Additionally, he states ”The bees are calmer near the queen.”
The attributes of the queen are focused on next. We obviously look for a larger, longer bee. In addition, we should look for:
” ...larger “shoulders”. The width of her back, that little bare patch on the thorax. These are all larger and often you get a peek at them under the other bees. Also, the longer abdomen sticking out sometimes when you can’t see the rest of her.”
I think it’s worth your time to pull up photos and video of queen bees looking straight down (the typical perspective of the beekeeper) and study the form and shape of her head, thorax, and abdomen. For me, the bare patch most often gives her away, with her pointy long shape a close second, followed by her gait and movement. Notice that the queen just doesn’t normally fit in color-wise. She’s on average different in appearance than the workers around her. Look for and scan quickly for the shape and color that’s different. “One of these things is not like the other.” :)
I like Michael’s description of a queen’s movement on the comb.
”Other bees are either moving quickly or just hanging and not moving. The workers move like they’re listening to Aerosmith. The queen moves like she’s listening to Schubert or Brahms. She moves slowly and gracefully. It’s like she’s waltzing and the workers are doing the Bossanova. Next time you spot the queen notice how the bees in general move, how the bees around her move and how she moves [in contrast].”
Michael rounds off his discussion on spotting queens by encouraging the keeper to have a proper mindset. Just a cursory look for a queen without believing she’s there isn’t helpful. Trust the process and remember she’s there and you’ll find her. And, like anything else in life worth pursuing, this takes practice.
I trust this information is helpful to you. Pass it on to other new beekeepers who may be struggling with this important skill.