Your honeybee queen is the most critical member of the colony. She is the egg layer, work director, and it is through her pheromones the colony knows they are a cohesive unit. Without her the hive dies. Periodically, it is good to have a queen sighting just to know she is alive and well. If you have trouble spotting the queen, you can always tell by larvae and eggs that she is present. But it is much more fun to spot her yourself.
The queen honeybee is distinctly different from the other bees in the hive. She has a longer body that appears more narrow than other bees in the hive. Her wings look shorter because of her longer abdomen. Do not confuse the larger drone bees with the queen. They are shaped like the workers but larger. There will be several drones in the hive but only one queen.
When looking for the queen, remember you are looking for one bee to stand out among tens of thousands. Sounds impossible, right? Like a proverbial needle in a haystack. It is kind of like that but there are some clues to narrow down the search.
Check the Brood Boxes
Most of the time, the queen is on a frame in a brood box. Remember the brood box is exactly what it sounds like: where the colony is raising brood. To examine the frames, start on one side, pull out the first frame and inspect both sides closely. Handle frames gently and complete the inspection over the open box. If the queen does happen to be on this frame and drop off, she will fall back into the hive.
Do you see capped cells in an arch pattern? If so, your queen has been there. You may see open cells with a small “c” shape in the bottom. Congratulations. You have spotted an egg. You will also note developing larvae in uncapped cells. It is helpful during these thorough inspections to have a frame holder on the outside of the box. As you inspect the hive, place the first two frames on the holder after you ensure the queen is not on those frames. As you move through each frame after the first two, simply slide the next frames to the empty space. After inspection return the frames to the original positions.
Look for a Retinue
Another clue that the queen is in the vicinity is a “retinue”. This is a small contingent of attendant bees who follow her in a semi-circle with a space between her and the rest of the colony. I find it easier to spot the queen directly than the retinue and notice the retinue after the fact. If you have the opportunity, snap a photo when you do spot the queen. Studying pictures helps you learn what to look for the next time.
If you know you have a marked queen this will make finding her bit easier. A dot of paint is placed on the queen’s thorax. Once you find the dot of paint you are assured this is the queen. You will also know her age by the color of the paint. An international marking system specifies the color used to mark honeybee queens by the year of birth. Since queens are typically viable for only 2-3 years, five colors are used.
Year Ending in: Color
1 or 6: White
2 or 7: Yellow
3 or 8: Red
4 or 9: Green
5 or 0: Blue
The key to finding the queen is patience and careful examination. It also takes some practice. The first few times, I was able to spot eggs and larvae but no queen. Now a queen sighting is much more routine.
Check out these three pictures to see if you can find the queen.
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