6 Indicators that Your Hive is "Queen Right"
The queen is the star of the show when it comes to bee hives. They literally would cease to exist without her. She is the mother, continues to replenish the population, and has the say of the location of the hive. Her world revolves around her. When beekeepers check their hives, they are checking to make sure that the queen is still there and is doing alright. But how can beekeepers know that all is good for our leading lady? Here are 6 ways to see if you are "Queen Right". Keep in mind: some of these indicators merely imply that all is good in the hood - some of them confirm it. These ways are listed in the order you would typically see them during a hive inspection as a beekeeper.
Activity outside and right inside the hive
One of the first things a beekeeper notices when approaching their hive is the activity. Are there bees around the hive? Are there bees flying in? Coming out? How about when you first pop off the lid? Is someone there to greet you? How many bees seem to be present in the hive?
If you have some activity, this is a good sign. If the queen has swarmed, she has taken a significant percentage of the colony's population with her. So seeing some activity and a moderate to large population would indicate that the queen has not departed, and is probably healthy. Additionally, bees around the hive suggest that the colony is not suffering from collapse, which is also a good sign.
2. White Wax
One of the jobs of worker honey bees is to secrete wax and use it to build comb on the frames of their hives. To do so, they need to have adequate nutrition provided by the forager bees. Older wax is a dark maroon color, similar to propolis.
Newer wax is characteristically white, and very clean. New white wax reminds me of what a mouth full of sparkling white teeth looks like after a cleaning appointment with a dental hygienist. The comb is perfect and pearly. If you find white wax in the hive, the worker bees are bringing in adequate nutrition, and carrying on with their jobs to expand production. This implies that the queen is present in the hive, demanding space to lay more eggs. Her pheromone is also likely keeping everyone in line, with good nutrition consistently making its way into the hive's stores.
3. Absence of Swarm Cells and Emergency Cells
When the queen intends to leave her colony, she will typically leave behind a "queen-in-process" in a swarm cell, usually found on the edge of a frame. Swarm cells are pictured below:
If you find a swarm cell with any "juice" inside, that would indicate that the queen may have swarmed or will swarm soon. Moreover, if you find a capped swarm cell (above), that is an indication that the queen has already left. Be careful with your new queen who is inside the swarm cell!
If the queen has suddenly died, the hive goes into panic mode and attempts to make (instead of birth) a queen. When they do this, the worker bees will usually construct a cell that looks a lot like a swarm cell, except the Emergency Cell is found in the middle of the frame. The workers likely have not sensed the Queen's presence for some time if they make one of these. It is unlikely that the hive is queen right if you find one of these.
However, our research team found what looked like a classic Emergency Cell (pictured below) in one of our hives, and just a few boxes down, we found the queen herself! So while it is unlikely, you may still be queen right even if you find swarm cells or an Emergency Cell in the hive.
Eggs are one of the best indicators that a hive is queen right, because their presence proves that a queen was in the hive at least 3 days prior to their discovery. Brood hatches out of the eggs after three days, so if you still see small white grains (they look like individual grains of rice) the queen is probably still in business. They can be hard to see on some frames, so look carefully!
While eggs are usually a good sign, sometimes they can be indicators that the hive is not queen right. Queens tend to lay eggs in the middle of the frames, with honey and nectar occupying the edges. If eggs are laid sporadically across multiple frames, it could indicate that the queen herself is not doing well, or that workers are attempting to lay eggs. Another indication that workers are attempting to make up for an absent queen is when they lay multiple eggs within one cell (above right). A queen will not do this. If you are queen right, you will not see sporadic egg-laying patterns or more than one egg within a cell.
The queen is unique among the female honeybees in that only she can lay diploid eggs which will eventually blossom into workers. The drone eggs are haploid, which means the queen does not need to fertilize the drone eggs. If you open your hive and observe an even brood pattern, with brood in multiple stages (as pictured below), then you are likely queen right.
If you see patchy brood, that could indicate that the Queen is not doing well. If you see only drone brood (below), this would indicate that the workers are attempting to make up for an absent queen, and have begun laying unfertilized eggs - drones. Both patchy brood and exclusively drone brood are strong indicators that the colony is not doing well.
6. Her Majesty Herself
The most obvious way to determine if the colony is queen right is to find the queen. If you find her - congratulations! If she is not marked already, be sure to mark her. Sometimes, you can watch her with her attendants and see if she is measuring cells so she can lay her eggs in them, or just watch her crawl around. If you found her after finding some swarm cells, it may be time to split hives or to clip her wing (below right).
Just because you may find the queen, however, does not necessarily mean that all is well. A few weeks ago, our research team combined a queen-less hive with a small nuc (a very small colony, typically in a controlled environment) to see if we could make one healthy colony from the two. When we got into the hive a few days later, we found the Queen - right next to a capped Emergency Cell (shown below right)! This Queen had no attendants following her around, and the hive seemed to be completely ignoring her. It appeared to us that the hive was carrying out a planned mutiny against their ruler. We proposed that the reason they were keeping her around was to ensure that the developing virgin returned from her mating flight before they killed off their only Queen. When we got into the hive a few weeks later, though, it did look as though they were accepting of the Queen. Keep your eyes peeled!
This example just goes to show that none of the indicators by themselves are enough to conclude that a hive is queen right. I would encourage anyone who regularly keeps bees to look at and listen to the whole hive, and use several of these indicators to make predictions. Don't be surprised, though, if the bees decide to rewrite the rules!