Rob Stone's Re-Queening Protocol

Orange County Beekeeping Supply By Rob Stone May 16, 2018

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Or, Why did I spend big bucks on queens and none worked?!

Re-queening colonies is always a challenge, even the best beekeepers report success rates of at most 90%, with beginners typically around 50%. There are many factors that affect success, including colony size, genetics, honeyflow, weather, stress factors, etc. The biggest factor by far is colony size. You will not be able to requeen colonies of 2 and 3 boxes with any direct introduction technique, but sometimes it can be accomplished with more elaborate efforts and will take quite a bit longer. One other major prerequisites is the colony you are trying to requeen must be queenless. And it  is much better if there are no active queen cells being raised. If a virgin emerges after you have  introduced your desired queen and she is laying, she will be unsuccessful at fighting a feral virgin queen and most often the nurse bees will not let the introduced queen destroy the queen cells before their ‘home’ raised queens emerge, so you must intervene.  Of course, a colony cannot be queenless long enough to have the dreaded ‘laying workers’ syndrome, but that often can be rectified by introducing a frame of brood with all stages of eggs and larvae each week for 3 weeks, then trying the queen introduction as described here. Colonies need to be of normal mix, meaning you cannot wait till dark, pull a honey super full of foragers from a large colony to get your 5 (or 4 or 6) frames of bees and requeen that ‘colony’ because foragers are the least likely to accept your ‘foreign’ queen.   

Back to what is correct, the optimum colony size for requeening is of 4 to 6 frames of bees. 3 frames will still work if they have food and pollen. Even two frames, but expect a very slow buildup following introduction.  If you have bigger colonies, split them and requeen both halves or as many splits as you wind up with, but each should have at minimum 1 frame of brood. Two is better, three is best. And some of the brood should be unsealed, this is important as it provides the colony the brood pheromone which suppresses laying workers. You can use a nuc or a regular deep, each are OK but if you had a choice the fuller the box, the better, so the Nuc is preferable. Give them a frame of honey or two of honey (in the outside positions, thermal barrier) if you have it. Of course, if you working with 5 or 6 frames of bees, use the full size 10 frame hive body.   

Make the colony queenless. Yes, find her and remove her, untold thousands of queens have tried to be introduced to queenright colonies and they will be rejected. Without exception. I know, I have unknowingly tried this many times and it always has the same outcome, bad. A colony knows it queenless in about 8-12  hours, and they begin building emergency queen cells within 24 hours. Wait for about 3 days after you removed her and inspect. If you didn’t find queen cells being built, they think they have a queen. Or another queen is. So keep looking, you must confirm this colony is queenless by finding queen cells. Many colonies have multiple queens, most often mother/daughter combos that can persist like that for months. The colony must be in desperate need for a queen before it will accept a foreign one. Verify they need a queen by seeing the evidence of queen cells. 

Ok, you have waited 3 days and there are queen cells under construction, destroy them. Put your new queen (in her queen cage!) with corks in both ends in between brood frames or next to the one, but still be jammed between two frame top bars. You want nurse bees to come in contact with her. Before hand,  smear a tiny amount of honey on the screen of the cage. This will keep her fed for a few hours and hopefully the bees will begin to feed after that.  If you put the cage with the screen up between two frames you can check the next day how they are acting towards her and smear honey on the screen again in case they aren’t friendly to her yet. But be SURE they bees can get to screen, so they can come in contact with her when they are ready.  If they cant access her (but through the protection of the screen), she will die. Its OK to put the cage in screen down or up or whatever. She is going to remain confined like this for 3-5 days. She will be accepted within this time period, or not and she will be dead.  

So, the five confined days have passed, open up the colony and see how the bees are clinging to the screen of the queen cage. Gently coax them away from the screen. If they are trying to sting her, something is still wrong and you should remove her, and I bet you will find a queen, a virgin or queen cells. Correct and start over. Otherwise, put her aside and go through the colony very carefully to make sure you haven’t missed any queen cells, which should be large and sealed by now. If you find any destroy them. Pull one of the frames of brood and shake the bees off. The best selection is sealed brood ready to hatch or hatching now with a little corner of honey too. Bees just emerging will accept any queen.  Now we are going to let her out of her wood  cage into a push-on wire cage over some sealed brood (and some honey, if sealed poke a couple of cells so she can feed herself). This is the trickiest part of this whole procedure. An all wire queen cage is just a wire cage open on one side that your press down onto the comb. Yes, it will kill some brood where the cage knifes into the comb. I now cut a small door the size of the queen cage into the side of wire cage and flip it up (open).  Pull the cork  from the wood cage (not the candy end) and stick your finger over it (no gloves for this part of the procedure). Lay the brood frame down on something and lay the wood cage down on the frame. Place the wire cage up to the door you have cut into the push on cage. You now have your finger off and the queen can come out, and it can take a long time for her to find her way. Be patient.  When she (and attendants too if included) comes out pull away the wood cage and imprison her in the wire cage on the comb above honey and brood. I have seen her run straight to the honey and drink so it’s not true about queens not being able to feed themselves. When she is in the cage and on the other end, flip down the door and push it into the comb. She just have enough room to crawl around on the comb underneath the cage. Replace the frame with her on it and leave them alone for 5 to 7 days. She will have  bees hatch with her and she will start laying in the comb she can access. You pull the cage off after the five to seven days and now you have done it. Smile and congratulations.   

So its complete and all your stress is over. Not quite. Many times, in particular with aggressive feral colonies, they will accept your foreign queen, let her lay eggs for somewhere between a week and month,and then she is gone and you find a full set of queen cells. The only action you can take to prevent this is to look each week at your newly requeened colony and if they build queen cells, destroy them. But always verify there are eggs in worker cells before you destroy their chances of replacing your new foreign queen who has now somehow  failed and has stopped laying or is laying drone. 

Additional thoughts: Other factors influence your success rate. One is honeyflow. If there is no honeyflow things are more complicated, the bees are cranky and wont tolerate your interventions as well, and the small colony you are working with will be more  susceptible to Robbing. If your working with one colony in your backyard, robbing is a much smaller issue, but if it’s a small colony in a beeyard, you have to be so very careful. Without a honeyflow, you should put in a feeder and provide syrup, like to 1 to 1 (water weight to sugar weight) to stimulate the colony and get them to want to grow. You dont need to feed, they should have a couple of frames of nectar or honey already. You just need the stimulation a honeyflow provides. Be extra careful with the syrup (no spills, open the colony the minimum time necessary) so the small colony doesn’t get robbed out, that will ruin your chances of a happy outcome. And just put in an inch or two at a time and do it again in a couple of days. If they didn’t drink it there is a reason. Figure out why.  With feeding the big issue is robbing, so already have reduced the entrance to one bee space before you begin the requeening protocol, and use a robbing screen if the time year warrants it.  

If your working with nicer bees and can go gloveless, you can add newly hatched bees into the cage with the queen before you mash it into the comb. Find these fuzzy bees on a brood frame and pick them up from behind or by the wings and insert. They wont sting you. There are a couple of these bees on the picture above close to the queen. Again, newly hatched bees accept any queen.  

Queen pheromone strength.  If you buy a batch of queens they come in individual cages inside a large box that has few hundred attendants with it. The attendants care for all queens in the box, but you will see some queens have much larger groups of bees surrounding them. Those queens have stronger pheromone and will be easier to introduce. This is a factor for introduction. Use the more powerful queens for the larger colonies you are attempting to requeen, and the less powerful queens for the smaller colonies. 

Recap:
1. Get colony to proper size, 3 to 6 frames.  Entrance reduced, correct size box, etc. Honey, brood, pollen. 
2. Make queenless, and verify queen cell construction. Destroy cells
3. Put in queen, feed her first. Let them get used to her. Feed her again.
4. Destroy cells again and transfer queen to screen comb cage. 
5. Brood hatches and accepts her, she begins to lay in comb inside cage. 
6. Remove cage.
7. Inspect weekly for queen cells for the next month.

https://www.ocbeekeeping.com/single-post/2018/05/16/Robs-Re-Queening-Protocol

[Note: Rob Stone, owner of Orange County Beekeeping Supply, was our featured speaker at the May 6, 2019 monthly meeting of the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association. Whether or not you were one of the fortunate attendees at this meeting, you’ll remember Rob’s highly informative, engrossing, and entertaining talk about bees and beekeeping, you’ll want to check out his blog at: https://www.ocbeekeeping.com. Thank you to Rob Stone - your talk was awesome!]