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Summer Queen Problems

Queens Giving Up

Watching Queen Quality in Summer

July 5th, 2023

It is that time of year – time for queen quality watch.

We are familiar with a pattern that emerges often at this time of year. Everything goes well until you notice that things look off on a hive inspection. It becomes evident in brood patterns or the discovery of queen cells (capped) during the early summer months.

This is a note of awareness. We receive calls every year about this time (Late June/Early July) that something looks wrong and it ends up being a queen quality problem.

There are several plausible reasons for this, one of the more prevalent ones from those that started with packages being that queens produced early in the spring simply did not get mated well due to early production cycles, weather, or other factors and they are faulty from the get-go. They may do ok for a while, and carry on normally all spring, but after a period of time they stop producing and a colony will choose to supersede (replace) them.

The typical phone call sounds like this – I see my brood patterns do not look very good, and I found some capped queen cells – what should I do?

Sometimes the actual thing going on is the nectar flow comes to a close and the queen stops laying. It looks like something is wrong, and things look different upon inspection – but this is actually normal. We often coach beekeepers to be patient. Some queens will actually physically stop laying, and you will think your queen has gone south. Then if you are patient and wait it out – she miraculously starts up again and things are fine. New beekeepers are quick to panic – they buy a replacement queen – install it, only to see it be killed immediately because the colony knows another queen is still there. If in doubt be patient – do not run off to buy a queen. If you have a large population of bees, you can ride out a bit of time to see if the problem corrects itself.

Queen Cells:
When you see queen cells, capped, charged queen cells, then you know the situation is different. Here you have a few options.

  • Let it run its course. The colony realizes it has a defective queen, and a new daughter is underway. Nature will relieve the situation, she’ll go out and get mated, and take over. The bees will handle the replacement and you simply have to keep tabs over time to see that it runs its course. When it is early summer, this is a viable option; albiet with some risk (covered in a moment)
  • Purchase a replacement queen. Inspect the colony for the queen, and pinch her off – terminating the defective queen. Scrupulously look at every frame from capped queen cells and destroy them. Wait a pre-determined period of time, and then introduced the purchased queen. [This is a summary of the process, talk to us for proper details]

Now for the fine print. Yes, this is a daunting thing to live through as a beginner and you would want to consult with us to get some guidance. We can do a more detailed review of what you have going on and then lay out your options. Reading the situation does take some guidance, and the timing of when it happens makes a difference as to which options are better. For example, if this happens now (first week of July) it is easy to recover. If however, it happens in September or October, well purchasing a well-mated queen at that time of year can be tough, and it takes some time for the new queen to get indoctrinated in the hive.

Our goal here is not to make you fret about this. It is not very common, but yet it is common enough that we see it every season. Consider this post a reminder that sometimes queen problems can happen, and it is our job to check in on our colonies periodically to ensure that the most important resident of the colony is doing what she should be and catch any problems as early as possible.

Much of what was shared is likely geared at new queens that came with packages. For those of you who started with Nucs, well sorry, you are also tasked with watching.

Many Nuc colonies came with overwintered queens. In fact, some of those queens could have been in service for several seasons. Over our dozen-plus years of experience, we have observed that the average productivity of a queen is about two-and-a-half years. It is possible that you got a 2-year-old queen with your Nuc and come mid-year she will begin to fade.

Ideally, that queen will show some weakness during the forage season and the colony will replace her. Sometimes she picks a terrible time to falter; in late summer and early fall. This too is a common enough occurrence for a certain percentage of new beekeepers to be prevalent and surface each year.

The advice here is simple. If your queen patterns start to look bad, and you are seeing drones in worker comb, you should be on watch. Let us know what you are observing and have in the back of your mind that you may have to requeen. There is a fine line between dearth brood patterns and faulty queens, so here you should not fret. These situations develop over time and usually, they are quite recoverable.

The last word on this has to do with inspections. Once a colony gets to full grown, it seems practical to leave them to their own devices. We like to think that you inspect bees for a reason and if there is nothing to do management-wise, then perhaps you skip checking in on them. Do not be too complacent in summer. This is something that as a management practice you need to get familiar with. Inspect your colonies in summer and get used to seeing what the brood patterns look like. If you do this, you will both learn and also spot potential problems early. We have had beekeepers in the past not look in on their colonies until early fall and then struggle mightly to correct queen problems because of the lateness of the season.

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