Finding queens in Spring, and marking and clipping them whenever necessary, has become an integral part of my seasonal beekeeping programme. This was not always the case, and for many years I tried to manage my bees without clipping or marking queens, until eventually I plucked up enough courage to have a go, and like many other beekeeping operations, which seem so difficult, if not virtually impossible before the first attempt, I discovered that in practice, these tasks were quite easy, even for one whose hand was as unsteady as mine. – Micheál Mac Giolla Coda
I did find that a little practice was required (e.g. marking and clipping a few drones), and that certain precautions were necessary such as wearing my reading glasses and resting my hand on my knee while kneeling on the other one or even sitting on a hive stand or roof, etc. Having once accomplished these tasks I developed real confidence and each Spring this confidence is renewed after I clip my first queen or two of the year. Not only has these operations added considerably to my enjoyment of beekeeping but they have also resulted in so many benefits that I could not now visualise myself trying to manage my bees without taking care of these annual chores in the Spring or early Summer of each year.
Finding the queen
Generally this poses a problem for beginners, as indeed for some of the more seasoned beekeepers, who are not accustomed to examining their colonies on a regular basis. Perhaps the ability to spot the queen may be described as a gift, which comes with experience in the routine handling of bees. Certainly there would appear to be an acquired “knack” to it. It is generally much easier to find the queen in a colony with a small population of bees as is usually the position in Spring or early Summer, but sometimes it can be quite difficult to find the queen of a very small colony such as a weak nucleus or a mini mating-nucleus. This is probably due to the fact that in these tiny colonies the queen is more likely to run onto the floor or sidewalls and it may be necessary to remove all the frames before she is found on the inner surface of the nucleus hive.
Adopt a standard procedure
When looking for the queen it is best to adopt a standard procedure which can as a rule be incorporated into other manipulations such as routine swarm inspections or evaluations of colony development, disease, brood, stores, etc. Quite often the queen can be spotted in the course of those normal inspections, so that it is a good idea to be always prepared to capture her on sight. As my frames in the brood chamber run the warm way i.e. parallel with the entrance, I stand behind the hive and take out the rear frame first. Unless a lot of smoke has been used the queen is rarely on this in the early spring, but it is always safer to thoroughly scan each frame for the presence of the queen as it is removed from the brood chamber. This frame can then be placed in an empty nucleus box, which is covered over with a cloth, for the time being. In order to make more room for inspection it is advisable to remove a second frame from the brood chamber and having scanned it, transfer it to the nucleus box in like manner. These back frames are generally empty in the early spring, or they may contain stores only, with some adhering bees. A number of similar frames may be encountered before reaching the brood nest, but as I move inwards I become more cautious and keep a sharper look out for eggs. The practice of beekeeping is very dependent on the acquisition of the simple skill of being able to recognise worker eggs and beginners in beekeeping should learn this skill at the earliest possible opportunity.
Brood nest surrounded by pollen
It is customary in A. m. mellifera bees for the brood nest to be surrounded with freshly harvested pollen at back, front, above, at the sides and sometimes even below the brood, so that usually a pollen-filled frame is encountered before eggs are found. When this frame of pollen is reached the search for the queen intensifies as she is quite likely to be seen on one of the brood combs and generally on a comb of eggs and young brood. The more bees that cover the comb the harder it is to see her so there is a distinct advantage in doing this in the forenoon of a warm sunny day when most of the work force is out in the fields collecting nectar and pollen. As each frame is lifted I first look at the exposed surface of the adjoining frame and occasionally the queen may be spotted running down the face of the comb. It is essential to develop a mental picture of the queen, especially her distinctive shaped abdomen and long legs which usually have a reddish or orange tinge. Often even very dark queens have what has been termed a sort of golden hue on their undersides, which makes them very conspicuous among their dark progeny – the worker bees. However it is generally more difficult to find dark queens than ones which have some yellow or Italian blood in them. The fact that they can be quite small makes it still more difficult.
Look in concentric circles
It is a good idea to have a set method of scrutinising each frame as it is lifted out of the brood box. It is always safer to hold the frame directly over the broadest in case the queen might drop off onto the ground and get lost. Holding the frame by the lugs with both hands, let the eyes travel along the top bar from left to right, then down the right side bar, from right to left along the bottom bar, then up along the left side bar. Following this procedure let the eyes move inwards towards the centre of the brood frame in ever decreasing concentric circles. Turn the frame around and treat the opposite side in like manner and do the same with each brood frame in succession.
The hiding queen
There should be little need for a departure from this routine procedure as one progresses through the brood nest, except to more thoroughly investigate a heavy clump of bees, or if there is a hole in the comb. One may need to check the other side again in case the queen has moved through. With some practice the beekeeper becomes quite adept at this scanning procedure and can move through the brood chamber very quickly. One becomes familiar with the sort of places where a queen might hide, such as depressions in the comb or spaces between the comb and the sidebars or the bottom bars. Some queens have a habit of remaining motionless in a comb crevice for quite a while. If the queen has not been found after the first run through the broodbox, a decision must be made as to whether to search further or to wait until the next inspection. As a rule it is better to decide in favour of the latter, unless there is some urgent reason for finding the queen immediately, e.g. the imminent danger of losing a swarm, or the urgent necessity of removing or/killing the queen. Very often at the next inspection the queen is found without the slightest difficulty.
The running queen
If it is essential to find the queen immediately, one can only work backwards through the broodbox, again examining each frame in turn. If she is still not found the next procedure is to remove the brood frames into a spare broodbox, where they are placed in pairs with a space between each pair. The walls and floor of the old broodbox are now thoroughly examined for the presence of the queen. If she is still not found the next step is to lift each pair of brood frames and open them out like a book. If the queen is present, she will usually be found on an inner frame surface where she would naturally have sought refuge from the light. Running queens are the most difficult of all to find but as long as the queen is confined to one box there should be no great difficulty. When she has the run of two or more boxes it can be much more difficult and where such is the case I usually take off the top box or boxes and place them on the upturned roof with a queen-excluder underneath, and then search the bottom box first. Occasionally the queen may be found on the underside of the crownboard, quilt, or queen-excluder, especially if much smoke is given at the entrance. Many a queen has been lost at this stage. It is a good practice therefore to develop the habit of examining each item carefully as it is removed from the hive, as the loss of a queen, particularly in the early part of the year, is detrimental to the development of the colony. To the uninitiated this may seem like a lot of work which may not be entirely necessary. As the season progresses however, one becomes more aware of the numerous advantages of marking and clipping, particularly as regards swarm control or bee improvement. At each subsequent examination work diminishes as more queens are found in the apiary. With each succeeding year the workload is decreased further, as only those young queens from the previous year need marking and quite a large proportion of queens may be found to have marks from years prior to that. This proportion depends on the longevity of the strain of bees.
Clipping the queen
Many beekeepers may think that clipping queens is beyond their capabilities. It took me some years before I developed enough confidence to tackle this job myself, but nowadays it has become an integral part of my seasonal beekeeping manipulations and I derive quite a deal of satisfaction from clipping and marking each individual queen, as I know it will simplify my management of this particular hive for the duration of that queen’s lifetime. Besides, it is the start of a relationship between the queen and me, which may last for a considerable length of time.
A good quality pair of scissors is necessary. If taken care of and not used for rough cutting or lending to spouse or others they should last for years. It is a good idea to stick it in a piece of polystyrene in the workbox and tie a red flag or marker on the handle in case they are dropped on the ground in the heat of the moment. A round marking cage known as the “crown of thorns” is a very useful piece of equipment also, but this is very easy to lose and again it is better to have a red flag tied to it with a piece of string. The circle of spikes should be stuck into a square of polystyrene to prevent them from sticking into people’s knees etc. There are a variety of marking paints available from the bee appliance suppliers. I use a pen type marker and find it quite effective. There is an international colour code which suggests a different colour for every year, but this is not necessary if one records the date on which the queen is marked and more importantly the year of her birth.
When using the heavy leather beekeepers gloves or gauntlets it is necessary to remove one or both gloves to catch and clip the queen. This is probably the main reason why many beekeepers are reluctant to either clip or mark their queens. At least that was so in my case. Like most people I did not relish the prospect of attracting a few extra stings each time I removed a glove to catch a queen. As well as that it took so long to remove the gloves that I would have lost sight of the queen and when this happens it is surprising how difficult it is to find her again. The older these gloves, the more clumsy they become as it is almost impossible to remove propolis from them and when they get wet they become hard and unyielding making it difficult to grasp small objects. The other thing is that if one has to remove the gloves and there is a fear of being stung, this is likely to increase the danger of damaging the queen. Having tried out a variety of gloves, I found that the thinnest of household rubber gloves suited me best for general beekeeping manipulations. Inexpensive, disposable, and readily available, they can be purchased at any supermarket or even small country grocery shop. They are washable and even hard flakes of propolis can be removed from them with cold water. If one has handled a stock which has suspect brood comb, the gloves can be burned without regret and a new pair brought into use. Bees seem to have difficulty in piercing the rubber gloves with their stings and when they do penetrate they rarely go deep into the flesh and it is easy to pull out the sting by raising the rubber at the point of contact. A very small amount of venom is received with each of these minor stings and this has the effect of gradually conferring a certain degree of immunity to the recipient. Indeed, nowadays I find it necessary to remove my gloves occasionally so as to avail myself of the therapeutic value of a few bee stings. The beauty of these gloves is never more apparent than when clipping queens, provided the proper size of gloves are worn i.e. ones which are skin-tight and through which it is possible to have sensitive feeling with the fingers.
Catching the queen
In the early part of the year when queen clipping is in progress it is a good idea for the beekeeper to have an assistant or else for two beekeepers to work together, so that when a queen is found one person can hold the frame and watch her while the other prepares the necessary equipment for clipping and marking. My method is to catch the queen from behind by both wings as she walks across the comb with the thumb and index finger of the right hand. She is then transferred to the left hand where she is gently held by the thorax between the thumb and index finger while her abdomen is being supported on the ball of the third finger. With practice it is even possible to gently imprison the forelegs between the thumb and index finger and so keep her from wriggling around or lifting a foreleg when she feels the scissors beneath her wings.
Great care should be taken so that damage does not occur to the queen while she is being clipped and marked. Never handle a queen by the abdomen as it is very easy to damage this most vital part of her anatomy. When about to cut the wing or wings, with the blade of the scissors in position beneath the wings, pause for a moment and look carefully to ensure that one of her legs is not being cut off as well. If this occurs the queen will be superseded. The queen uses her forelegs as a caliper to measure the diameter of each cell before she lays in it. This determines whether a fertile female egg or an unfertilised male egg is laid, depending on whether the cell is a worker or a drone cell. The early part of the year is the best time to clip queens, but one should always be sure that the queen being clipped is a laying one. If there is any doubt as to her being mated it is safer to just mark her and leave the clipping for a later date. When just marking young queens it is safer to use the “crown of thorns” cage to imprison them as they are very liable to fly when handled.
A little spot of queen marking paint is applied to the thorax of the queen from one of the special paint bottles or with a marking pen. Where it is necessary to ensure that individual queens can be identified a combination of different colours may be used or even special numbered discs can be glued on the thorax. After clipping and marking it is better to place the queen in a well-aired matchbox for a couple of minutes to settle down in the dark while the paint is allowed to dry and she recovers some of her composure. The matchbox is then placed face down on the brood comb. The cover is gently removed leaving the queen confined on the comb beneath the drawer of the matchbox. She is then in her natural environment in the darkness, and quite often when the drawer of the matchbox is lifted after a few minutes. the queen can be observed searching for a vacant cell to lay in. Very often if the queen is released on to the comb direct from the hand, she will start rushing about quite frantically and because of this unusual behaviour a worker bee can pounce on her and sting her.
Advantages of marking and clipping
Not only does marking the queen help in finding her during the rest of her life, but a queen which has been marked and recorded will be ” dated ” and so it is always possible to determine her age by reference to the hive card or record book. She can be easily and quickly found at any time. It is possible to ascertain if and when she has been superseded, or if she has attempted to leave with a swarm, in which case she is usually lost. The fact that a swarm can not leave without her, gives the beekeeper a few days grace to get to the swarming colony before the emergence of the first virgin queen, so as to take the necessary preventative measures. Since I have become interested in the improvement of my bees through selective breeding, I find that one of the greatest advantages of marking my queens and recording their ages is that I know exactly how long they live. This is especially important because one of the characteristics I select for is longevity. I have learned that not only can some of my bee strains live much longer than others, but they can continue to lay vigorously for much longer. This very important economic characteristic is transmitted to the queen’s progeny, both worker and drone. I have had three and four year old queens maintaining a population of worker bees equal to that of one or two year olds. Perhaps the greatest advantage I see to-day in clipping queens is the fact that clipping, in itself, helps to select in favour of long-lived superseding strains, as opposed to short-lived swarming strains. The queen which is superseded after two, three, or four years, has the opportunity of producing drones for that long period of time, which continue to transmit the longevity and superseding characters to the young queens of the swarming strains with which they mate. These take over the swarmy colonies when their clipped mother queens are lost and aids improvement. Clipped queens of swarming strains on the other hand are doomed to die, often in their first season, because they fall to the ground and generally perish on leaving the hive with a swarm. This annual loss of swarmy queens has the effect of gradually reducing the swarming impulse of the local bee population as a whole, so that over a period of years there should be a marked selection in favour of supersedure strains. To me, this fact alone is sufficient reason to ensure that every queen in the apiary is clipped as early as possible in her first full season and before the swarming impulse occurs in the apiary.
Micheál Mac Giolla Coda.