Note on: Finding & Marking / Clipping the Queen

The management practice of most beekeepers requires that the queen be identified. The queen of the native Irish black bee is dark and has similar colouring to the workers and drones, and hence it is normal practice to mark the queen. The subsequent presence of an unmarked queen can indicate supersedure. Also, queen wing clipping is normally undertaken to give flexibility in swarm control. Beekeepers will over time develop their own approach. Below is the approach that I have found useful.
          1. Finding (marking/clipping) the queen does not have be left to a separate annual campaign in your beekeeping calendar. Beekeepers should have the necessary marking/clipping items on their person at all times so that the job can be done when queen shows up in the normal course of business.

Finding the queen

Queen behaviour
          2. From the viewpoint of a beginner who has never seen a live queen, having a picture of her physical appearance is of limited use in trying to find that one insect in a box of up to 25,000 insects. It is most likely to be her behaviour/demeanour on the comb that allows her to be identified as she moves to the edge of the frame to get out of the daylight. A video of queen -behaviour would be a better aid in identification. In any case the beginner should make a point of getting the mentor (or an experienced beekeeper in the vicinity) to show a queen moving on a frame.

Separate Queen -finding task
          3. In many cases the queen will be identified during the normal course of beekeeping, as mentioned above. However, for any queen not picked up in this way a separate queen-finding task may have to be undertaken. In this case the queen will most likely be found by going through the frames one at a time. This task is best undertaken in early spring before the colony population gets too big.

Minimum smoke
          4. The queen normally resides in the centre of the brood box on frames containing brood and in egg-laying mode. However, when the colony is smoked at the entrance there will be an increased likelihood of finding her on frames nearer the back of the brood box as she moves away from the smoke and the light being introduced as front frames are removed and examined. Minimum-smoke should be used during this exercise as she can be driven off the frames and onto the floor or walls, making detection much more difficult.

Virtual enclosure
          5. Each frame should be examined in detail and remember that a queen wants to get out of the light. Use your eyes to initially scan round the perimeter of the frame - in effect trapping the queen in a virtual enclosure. Continue to move your eyes inwards in diminishing circles while being conscious all the time of any unusual movement of a bee(s) towards the edge of the frame. You can blow gently on any clumps of bees to thin them out. Turn the frame and continue checking until all the frames have been examined. In most cases the queen will turn up most likely on one of the last frames to be examined. Be particularly alert to the possibility of a hole in the brood comb, as a queen can ‘play games’ with you by disappearing through the hole as you turn over the frame.

Wall or floor runner
          6. If the queen has still not been found it may be that you have not missed her on a frame but rather that she is a wall or floor runner. Young queens tend to be flighty/nervous and readily move off the frames. If this is the case it can be difficult to see an unmarked queen that is off the frames and on the floor or walls as she will most likely be in the shade with brood frames obstructing your view.

Second brood box
          7. If you have been unable to find the queen at this stage (and there is a large and increasing population of bees), time is running out (coming near the swarming season) and a different approach is necessary. A second brood box can be set on a new floor or travelling screen alongside the parent brood box and after examination the frames from the parent brood box can be placed in the second brood box. Placing brood frames together in pairs in the second brood box can help in finding the queen, as she will usually move to the inner faces of the brood-frame pairs to get out of the light. If the queen is not found, the walls/floor of the parent brood box can now be checked. A large population of bees can make it very difficult to identify a queen that may be buried in a huddle of bees in the comer of the brood box. You can blow gently on these bees to thin out the huddles. If the queen is still not detected, the frames in the second brood box can be re-examined one by one and moved back to the parent hive. If still no success, another method may have to be tried.

Moving parent hive
          8. Choose a good day when the bees are flying freely. Move the parent hive to a new position in the apiary as far away as possible from the original stand position. Leave a super (or the supers that were on the hive) behind on the original location. Wait for at least 30 minutes until most of the flying bees have returned to the original stand and then smoke the colony gently. Now go through the frames in the parent hive as you would for a normal queen search as above. If queen not yet found, resort to using a second brood box. Most queens should be found in this way. In the event that the queen is not found and you have an urgent reason for finding the queen, such as the need to do an artificial swarm, then do the artificial swarm without finding the queen (details later). If, however, you feel that you must find the queen, e.g. to make up a nuc or to re-queen, a bee filtering system can be used.

Queen filtering
          9. This is a last resort and involves putting all the bees in the hive (or below the queen excluder where supers are present) into a brood box with a queen-excluder mesh on the floor and filtering all the bees through the box. The parent hive is moved to one side and a new empty brood box and floor is placed on the original hive location on the stand. The brood box with the queen-excluder mesh attached to the bottom is placed over the new brood box. Any supers on the parent hive are placed on the upturned roof as in a normal manipulation. The colony is lightly smoked. Frames are taken out of the parent brood box in turn, shaken into the filter box and all bees brushed off. Each frame is then placed into the new brood box in the same layout as they were in the parent hive. The bees may require to be lightly smoked down into the filter box from time to time. When all the frames have been cleared of bees and placed in the new box the rest of the bees in the old brood box and floor can be brushed into the top of the filter box and smoked down. The queen should now be found in the bottom of the filter box and put into a matchbox for marking etc. The filter box can be removed and the queen excluder and supers placed over the new brood box.
          10. A number of things will help to make the operation as smooth as possible -such as putting Vaseline on the runners of the new brood box and scraping the tops and below the lugs of the old frames to enable them to move easily below the filter box. While this approach is fairly intrusive on the colony it does have one significant by-product in that it is a great opportunity to clean up old combs.
          To make it easier to place the old brood frame into the new brood box, the filter brood box on top should be offset by pushing it back one-frame width. This will result in the queen-excluder mesh at the bottom of the top brood box hanging over the end by one-frame width. This gap should be sealed up (e.g. with a lath of wood) to prevent the bees being shaken into the top box escaping down the back.

Catching & Marking / clipping the queen

The queen can be marked using colours from the international colour code below or a single bright colour such as white.
          Years ending in
          1 or 6, white;
          2 or 7, yellow;
          3 or 8, red;
          4 or 9 green;
          5 or 0, blue.

It is necessary to ‘restrain’ the queen in some manner in order to mark or clip. This will involve either catching the queen by hand or trapping her in some other way. Using a ‘press-in cage’
          11. It is best to catch the queen on a comb and beginners or inexperienced beekeepers will find it easier to initially use a ‘press-in cage’. When the queen is sighted, use the press-in cage to trap her, and it would be recommended that the cage be kept in the breast pocket of the bee suit. Press the cage into the comb with sufficient pressure to contain the queen so that she stops wriggling and the thorax is centred in one of the squares in the cross threads. Use the felt-tipped colouring pencil (that should be kept in the bee suit pocket) to put a small daub of paint in the middle of the thorax. Allow paint to dry before releasing the queen. If you are also clipping the queen, release one wing through a thread square and clip off up to half the top of the wing. Release the queen onto the comb and check that her conformation is good, and that she has settled back normally into the colony. Smoke colony gently, return frames and close up. By hand
          12. Pressing the queen onto the hard comb with sufficient pressure to contain her can be harsh, by putting pressure on the abdomen if she is in full lay, and by twisting a wing through the cross threads. Alternatively the task can be done by hand. When the queen is sighted the needles of the press-in cage can be pressed in just far enough to contain her without pressing her against the comb. The frame can be held by the second person, if present, but if you are on your own the comb can be left gently on top of the brood frames. I find it best at this stage to lightly spray water onto the hands and dry thoroughly with say, kitchen paper. While water is not a solvent for any propolis present it will tend to take the edge off the stickiness, will remove any sweat and make the hands more neutral for the highly odour-sensitive bees.
          13. Remove the press-in cage and catch the queen by the thorax with the index finger & thumb of the right hand and transfer to the left hand finger & thumb with the middle finger supporting the abdomen. With the marker pen, put a daub of paint on the centre of the thorax and while the paint is drying clip the wing, making sure that the queen legs are well clear. As above, release the queen onto the comb and check that her conformation is good, and that she has settled back normally into the colony. Smoke colony gently, return frames and close up.

©jmcmullan March/2015