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Problems With Queen Bees

Many years of problems and still no solution

I started beekeeping in 1963 and since 2002 I have been trying to highlight problems I have experienced with queens that I rarely saw until recently. I am a very experienced beekeeper having 130 colonies for about 15 years at one stage. I am heavily involved with my local BKA and travel widely giving presentations and demonstrating, so I speak to a lot of beekeepers and see a lot of colonies. I am not a new beekeeper with limited experience who has seen something a few times, or is confused by what I see.

There are several problems and what may be associated problems, but they can largely be put into three groups as follows:-

  1. Young queens failing.
  2. Young queens being superseded.
  3. Queens "disappearing".

In addition there are a few other problems that I have seen on a number of occasions. These have appeared fairly recently and may be connected, some of which are mentioned later.

A bit of History.

In my earlier years of beekeeping there were very few problems with queens. About the turn of the 21st century I started to observe several issues with queens and their performance I had rarely seen before.

What I write about below seems to be quite universal and is becoming recognised by a growing number of beekeepers, not only in the U.K. but elsewhere. I gave a presentation on the "Queen Problems" at the SICAMM conference in Switzerland in September 2012. This was an international event with beekeepers of all abilities from all over Europe. Afterwards I had a queue of people wanting to speak to me, to tell me they had experienced exactly the same problems I had described. One French researcher said she was pleased she had heard my presentation, because she had been seeing the same problems for several years. She had discussed it with her colleagues who said she must have been doing something wrong!

At the National Honey Show (NHS) in 2013 I spoke for some time to Michael Palmer, a beekeeper from Vermont who had 1500 colonies. He told me he had exactly the same problems I had described. At the 2016 NHS I spoke to Dave Tarpy, a U.S. bee scientist who also has problems. Within a couple of days I had a phone call out of the blue from Willie Robson, who runs 1800 colonies in the Scottish Borders asking advice. The following day I had a call from Dorian Pritchard to discuss the same. In June 2016 I gave two x 2 day Bee Improvement workshops in the Hudson Valley area of New York State. I inspected about 100 colonies in 5 apiaries. There were problems with queens in each apiary.

I have been in discussion with many other beekeepers who tell me they have the same problems. They are widespread, so why is there so much denial? I think there are several reasons. The standards of beekeeping are often quite low, so many beekeepers simply don't understand what should be happening in a colony. I'm surprised at the number of beekeepers who have been keeping bees a reasonable length of time who just don't know the "basics". These are the simple things we need to know in order to manage our bees reasonably well.

Many people have come into beekeeping since these problems with queens have appeared, so they don't recognise them as a problem, in very much the same way as the effects of varroa - they think what they see is the norm. This is becoming more evident when I speak on the subject, as with the passing of time there are fewer people who agree that things aren't as they once were. I often ask if the audience have seen the problems I have been highlighting. There is usually little reaction until I start explaining what I have seen, then heads start nodding or they whisper to the person next to them. They do see it, but they think it is normal.

I often look back at what happened to bees in the wild before our intervention. I have a presentation "Honey Bees in the Wild - What Can we Learn From Them?" and the page on "Natural Honey Bees Nest" where I discuss their survival. Honey bees must have had to keep a fairly stable population based on the process of natural selection. They could not have survived for long if they suffered the queen problems we see today, many of which are terminal for a colony.

What should happen?

A queen, depending on her prolificacy, should live for perhaps 3-5 years. I have had many that have managed the latter or beyond. I have rarely culled a queen due to age, as the type of non-prolific queens I prefer will normally perform well throughout their lives. Depending on a number of circumstances, a queen will swarm, or attempt to, perhaps 1-3 times during her life. Some won't at all, yet others, such as carniolans may swarm twice in the same year. She should be superseded in late summer or autumn and very often still be in the colony alongside her daughter the following spring. This is what happens naturally and is in all the old books.

What is happening now?

Young queens failing.

This is very often in their first year, with many showing signs of failure within weeks of starting to lay, although initially they may appear to be performing well.

Very often a young queen will lay drone eggs in worker cells for a short time before settling down, but I have seen many colonies where there are initially a few drones in worker cells, perhaps 4-6 per side of comb. This raises concern with me as the numbers usually increase. I have seen as much as 25% of drones in worker cells. In one case the beekeeper, who had been keeping bees for several years, didn't recognise there was a problem. When I pointed out the single drones in worker cells he said "they are always like that"!

Young queens that are performing well should lay the correct number of eggs compared to the size of the colony, the time of year and the amount of food available.

If you see a full colony in the summer during a nectar flow and the queen is only laying on perhaps 2-4 frames, with the brood scattered, or the pattern of eggs is poor, when at the last inspection all appeared to be well, with brood across the box, then you know the queen is failing.

In my experience, once you first see the above, the queen usually only lasts about 6 weeks before being superseded, or she "disappears".

Young queens being superseded.

This is often in their first year and I have regularly seen supersedure cells started before the young queen's first brood is sealed. Very often the brood appears to be good to my eye. The cutting out of these cells usually results in others being built and, if continued, my experience is the queen will usually fail or "disappear" in about 6 weeks.

Supersedure cells can be built anywhere on the frame or comb, not always on the face as we are often told. I find they are very often on the periphery of the broodnest and on several occasions I have seen them on combs with no brood on. Individually, supersedure cells look like swarm cells, but you can determine them by the quantity. I have a saying of "usually one, often two and occasionally three". Any more than that and they are likely to be swarm cells.

Colonies will swarm on supersedure cells and this is a major problem, especially if there is only one that is on a comb towards the outside of the brood box that has been missed, or you haven't gone that far because you haven't seen any queen cells, so aren't expecting any. On many occasions I have had a call from a beekeeper saying they have had a colony swarm that haven't got any queen cells. I advise inspecting the colony fully, lightly shaking the bees off frames, which often reveals one or more sealed supersedure cells.

When young queens are introduced into a full colony the bees will often build supersedure cells, especially if they are introduced to a colony where the previous queen was laying well. This is common where they were mated in mini-nucs or have been banked for some time. In these cases I assume the bees realise the queen isn't up to speed, so try to replace her. The removal of these supersedure cells usually allows the colony to settle down. This is not what I'm indicating, as this is usually overcome when the queen comes into lay fully.

Queens "disappearing".

This is odd, as there seems to be no sensible explanation. I clip my queens and normally do 14 day inspections. At the Wisborough Green BKA teaching apiary we meet every 10 or 11 days. Good records are kept. You can inspect a colony and find no problems, with no supersedure cells and no problem with the quantity or visual quality of the brood. At the next inspection you can find the queen will have stopped laying instantly, but in about 50% of cases there will be emergency cells, the other 50%, nothing. A check on the age of the brood very rarely suggests the queen may have been damaged at the previous inspection.

The lack of emergency cells may be significant as it suggests the queen has gone off lay, but stayed in the colony for several days, so there are no larvae young enough to be converted into emergency cells. This is one reason I think there might be some "interference" with pheromones (see below) as there are other unexplained things happening that are possibly pheromone related.

Other issues

At one time a prime swarm could be collected, hived and left for the rest of the season to build up with little attention, as it would naturally. Prime swarms would usually have a fertile queen that would last at least until the end of the season, when perhaps she may be superseded. Currently there are many more prime swarms with virgin queens in than there used to be. Very often those swarms with fertile queens will have the queen superseded or she will fail soon after hiving, with drone laying being a major problem. I believe the former may be caused by the colony swarming on an emergency cell, where perhaps the queen has "disappeared", the latter where a colony has swarmed on a supersedure cell and the queen that has gone with the swarm has soon failed.

There are many reports of "queenless swarms". I suspect there is a queen there, but she has already stopped laying before swarming and doesn't come into lay again. Why does she not lay? Is it a physical problem or do the bees not get the message that she needs feeding more?

In late July 2016 a local beginner had a colony that had become queenless. It had been queenless for some time, so I found two large swarms for him. As it was late in the season I hived them together by running them into the queenless hive. We put a board in front of the hive and chucked both swarms out together. At the same time another member wanted a queen to requeen a bad tempered colony, as a short term measure. I picked one of the queens from the bees that were running up the board and introduced to the bad tempered hive, leaving the second queen to head the two swarms and queenless colony. Although both queens survived, they both failed.

Queen introduction is nowhere near as simple as it once was. At one time you could take a queen out of a colony, put another queen in a cardboard matchbox or a queen cage with 3-4 workers and place her in the colony immediately. If you went back 24 hours later you could release her, or she would have been released by the bees and there would be no further problems. It was almost unheard of to see emergency or supersedure cells a few days later as is now often the case. For some strange reason some colonies refuse to be requeened. On many occasions I have tried several queens, queen cells, combs of eggs and larvae and they flatly refuse to accept any opportunity of a queen.

On several occasions I have seen both swarm and emergency cells in a colony at the same time. Unless there has been a manipulation by the beekeeper, such as the queen and some swarm cells removed, this shouldn't happen. Surely the worker bees are getting conflicting messages.

In the past a test comb was very reliable, but in the last few years I have come across several instances where the colony is clearly queenless and they won't build emergency cells (or accept queen cells).

At an apiary meeting of the Wisborough Green BKA on Wednesday 25th June 2014 we inspected 28 colonies and 10 of them had at least one of the problems I mention above. Several colonies had queens laying, yet there were emergency cells in the colonies. The following day I inspected another and found that had a problem too. This is not a small sample and within shouting distance of 40% of colonies with problems. This is not normal.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind there are problems and at a guess there may be several causes. The really sad part is that despite there being widespread problems, nobody seems to want to do anything about it. It has been suggested the lack of historical information is the issue, but there are parts of the world where I don't believe there are problems, so there may be a natural control population. In my opinion there is an excellent opportunity for a research establishment to do some meaningful research that may help all beekeepers. I probably know more than anyone on the subject and I would be more than willing to help.

I don't know how many times I have heard that queens aren't getting mated properly because of bad weather. In my experience the same problems arise when the weather is good, but these people don't have an answer for that. I don't think we understand enough about mating in general to make sweeping statements like this. I understand that all bees are capable of forming drone assemblies, but only the native bee Amm is capable of what is called Apiary Vicinity Mating (AVM), so perhaps the answer might be to use native bees.

The success rate of getting a queen mated has reduced considerably. At one time, once you saw a queen cell that had been vacated you could leave a colony for 2-3 weeks and when you went back there was usually good brood. The usual answer if a colony becomes queenless after emergence is the "birds" took them on their mating flights. I'm not buying that one. I think it may happen in a very small number of cases, but not at the rate it is now. Just think of the number of bees there are likely to be on the wing when a queen goes out to mate. The mathematical chances of a queen being taken are very low. I strongly suggest everyone looks at the wings of virgin queens, as there are now a significant number that emerge with deformed wings. This varies from tiny stubs to almost full wings that are crumpled at the tips. I think they may emerge from the hive to mate, but don't get airborne. This suggests a possible virus problem, so perhaps we should look in that area.

What are the reasons?

I am an engineer by trade, not a scientist, so I will try to leave the answers to others. Amongst the more sensible suggestions that have been made to me, though not in any order are:-

Some of my guesswork.

By speaking to local beekeepers it seems there is a possibility that the increase in viruses may be an issue, especially if queens are heavily infected. Perhaps infection is through their larval or adult feeding, or during mating where viruses may be transmitted by drones.

I am an observant beekeeper and with my engineers mentality I use a bit of logic. What follows is something I have been thinking about for some time. I must stress it is no more than a non - scientific theory, but please feel free to pick as many holes in it as you like.

Many of the problems could be pheromone related. I have done no reading on them, but with my practical engineers mind I see a pheromone as a substance that is made up of a number of components, each one having a different percentage of the whole. I'm guessing that if one or more components has a different amount than it should have, or is missing, it gives a different message to the worker bees.

Pheromones are chemicals and chemicals can be altered, something we all know from our school science lessons. My thinking is there may be some sort of "interference" with the pheromones, perhaps with chemicals that are coming in from outside the hive, or those administered to the colony. If that modifies the pheromone it may give the wrong message to the worker bees. I hope I explain myself adequately.

If the above is close to being a possibility, it may explain some of the things that are happening with queens.

I accept the above is conjecture, but in the absence of any other explanation, let's chuck it in the pot with everything else. One thing is for sure and that is it's a better bet than keep blaming the weather and birds!

I know this won't affect all beekeepers, but here is another suggestion. In a natural bees nest there are usually holes in combs. I reckon these are created by bees to improve communication and travel around the colony. My guess is that queens use these to get round the hive to spread footprint pheromone and give more bees the chance of taking queen substance. Many beekeepers use large frames and discard those with holes in. An increasing number are now using plastic foundation that bees can't chew holes in. Does this allow the queen to spend a long time, perhaps an hour or so on one large surface, preventing a free flow of chemical messages, so bees on combs where the queen has been absent for some time may think their queen is failing?

Why has there been little or no progress?

I have tried desperately hard to make beekeepers aware of the above problems over a long time and I have become very frustrated at the lack of progress. I have tried to highlight them, but I have experienced negative reactions from people in influential positions who I think should know better. Quite frankly some simply don't believe me and dismiss what I tell them that I have seen with my own eyes. I have come to suspect that some well known beekeepers may not be as knowledgeable or observant as their status in beekeeping suggests. The cynic in me wonders how often they inspect their own bees or if they understand what they are seeing.

On several occasions I have been told by beekeepers they didn't have a problem, but when I ask to look at their bees, I often see some. As always, when some people don't know much about a subject they rubbish it, ignore it or try to discredit it. I have been asked to provide proof there were previously no problems, but who records things when they go well?

The negativity or lack of knowledge of some beekeepers probably has a bearing on it. I have been openly told that the reason I have problems is because I'm a bad beekeeper, which I find unhelpful and offensive. I am doing the same as I have for 50 years and I'm more than happy to inspect colonies in front of anyone.

What can be done?

I think beekeepers can do quite a bit on their own, but it needs to be in an organised way, not a scattergun approach. I am not a biologist and know little about anatomy of bees, but I think beekeepers who have an interest in microscopy can dissect queens to study spermatheca and ovaries. If there is variation from the normal healthy organs this could provide data for researchers to take further. Starting in 2015 we are doing that in West Sussex BKA.

I am out of my depth already, but my hope is that any abnormalities could be tested for diseases, viruses, poor sperm, etc.

My thinking is that queens in fairly high numbers are easy to produce during the summer, so could be used in a number of ways, as virgin and fertile queens. I am prepared to do this myself and I think I know a number of queen rearers throughout the country who would also be prepared to provide material.

There are a number of locations that are still varroa free and to the best of my knowledge have no problems, so queens reared there could also be tested to see if they have problems.

For the sake of beekeeping I hope someone can at least do some exploratory work. I'm happy to provide the information and advice. I also give presentations on the issues, so if you want to know more please contact your local BKA secretary and forward my presentation list.

Roger Patterson.