There comes a time when a beek has to step in and play referee, and it came earlier this month when I had to decide to squish an underperforming queen bee. Most of the time (as in 99 times out of 100), the bees can correct a situation where there is a queen that is simply not up to par. I tend to use more of a hands-off approach when I see supercedure cells and just let them take care of business, even if it looks in my opinion that the queen is doing great. The bees that come in close contact with her on a daily basis really know better than me most of the time. Besides that, every time I’ve tried to talk them out of it by tricking them, they still supersede anyway.
In all fairness to the queen bee that I eventually had to squish, however, I did take careful notes over the course of a few months which by most commercial beekeeping standards is more than generous, even foolish perhaps. Since I am NOT a commercial beekeeper, I can afford this luxury of time with queens that need a little more encouraging to get in gear and become that wonderful egg laying machine that all of us beekeepers hope to have in every colony. I’ve had some colonies where I’ve taken notes on the queen and wrote the words “not impressed – requeen next visit” on the back of the box. Come next visit and she is cranking out brood everywhere in the brood nest – awesome but not what I was expecting. So give your girls some time especially if they are new. You might be pleasantly surprised if you give them a little time. Sometimes just to build morale in the hive with a beginner queen, I will take a frame of eggs and very young brood from another hive and slip it into the underperforming hive. After that I think the worker bees get the impression that their own queen is the one responsible for the wonderful find, and they pat her on the back and say “way to go – see, I knew you could do it!”
I’ve used this technique in newly-mated queen hives, as well as when I hit the 3 week mark if I’ve simply replaced a bad queen with a seasoned-mated queen. Every so often when you give an experienced queen to a queenless hive, or in the case of installing a package right around the 3 week mark, the bees get the notion to supersede this queen and make their own. Sometimes adding a frame of uncapped brood will keep things running smoothly without a supercedure interrupting her progress. The boost in morale usually does wonders for your bees just like it does for us humans. We can get discouraged and really pumped up and so can your bees.
Well my under performing queen was given roughly 3+ months to prove her worth and as the fall season approached and the numbers of worker bees in the hive dwindled down to what appeared to be about a frame full, the answer was now obvious. It was time to get rid of the bad queen and shake the workers out so they could beg their way into another colony for winter.
My guess was she just didn’t get mated well. We’ve had considerable rain this year with our weather patterns, much more than usual and that may have played a factor in her not getting a good mating flight in. It’s really hard to say, but with fall approaching the colonies have almost completely evicted the drones by now, so even if I gave the failing colony a frame of eggs to work with, the odds are still stacked against them in generating another queen in October with cool to cold temps another month away. First cold night we get and the small cluster would freeze to death.
If you keep more than one hive which I highly recommend you do — I run between 30 – 60 depending on where we are in the season — I would consider keeping 3 hives as a hobbyist, a conservative number. Ten would be my minimum personally, just in case you want something to shoot for. I find that the more hives you get into to inspect the better beekeeper you will become because you’ll begin to pick up on trends or signs of an under performing colony early and fix them with your stronger hives. Trust me, once you lay your eyes on a colony that is just busting, your goal is to get all of them to look like your champion hive. It’s really easy once you start to see little things taking place like slow starting queens – just boost them with a frame of brood. Keeping high numbers of bees in every colony is also good for fighting off just about every possible bee pest there is. It really does come down to numbers. The more helpers there are to do clean up, maintenance, repair, foraging, etc the better.
When you have to squish your under-performing queen, keep her in a bottle of rubbing alcohol. This makes a great swarm lure for spring time. I dip a Q-tip into the bottle and toss it into my bait hives during swarm season. So as we start to hunker down for the long winter it’s time to get back to our education by reading watching videos and get building new frames and boxes for next spring. It will be here before you know it. Check out the video that goes along with this article, too.