It was my first year beekeeping and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. So it’s not surprising that half of my bees decided they had had enough of me and were leaving the hive I had bought for them.
But I was smarter – or so I like to think. Because I caught those trouble-making bees and put them in a new home where I could keep a close watch on their sneaky behaviours. You can read about that beekeeping adventure here.
There was just one problem. In the commotion of catching those rogue bees, there was a chance the Queen had died or didn’t make it back to the new home for some other reason. Without a Queen my hive was dead. The Queen is the only bee who can lay fertile eggs.
Fun fact – The Queen bee can lay between 1,500 eggs and 2000 eggs a day. Long live the Queen!
Without the Queen, there was no way for my bees to make a new one in this emergency hive filled with empty frames. So I needed to find my Queen. But…
Do you really need to find the Queen?
Most likely, no.
If you see eggs, then you know the Queen was on duty at least 3 days ago.
See those tiny white things floating in these bee cells? Those are bee eggs. They are very tiny, but if you can spot them, you know the Queen was alive at least 3 days ago.
Of course, honey bee eggs are tiny. They are about 1 to 1.5 mm long, which is approximately half the size of a grain of rice.
Tip – To help you find honey bee eggs, buy yourself a pair of reading glasses and wear them when you inspect the hive. Then hold your frame so the sun shines into the bottom of the cells and you should be able to easily spot them.
But if you can’t see the eggs, look for larvae – pearly white, slug-like (sorry bees!), C-shaped forms in the cells. Larvae only stays uncapped for about 8 days so if you can see those baby bees, you know the Queen was alive and well at least 8 days ago. In case you are wondering… It takes 21 days to go from fertilized egg to worker bee.
Baby bees (larvae) is a sign that your Queen may still be alive. Larvae stays uncapped for about 8 days so if you see these baby bees, you know the Queen was alive and well at least 11 days ago.
However, in my case, I did want to confirm my Queen was alive and maybe you have a good reason too. Perhaps you’re splitting your hive (making a second bee colony from your existing beehive usually to prevent swarming) or maybe you want to impress your neighbours with your Queen finding skills.
Marked versus an unmarked Queen – and what the heck is that?
First of all, spotting the Queen among 40,000 other bees who look almost identical is tricky, but it’s even more difficult when you have an “unmarked Queen” (a “marked Queen” has a dab of paint on the top centre of her thorax).
Without that marking, it is REALLY hard for newbees like myself to find the Queen. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” every time you open the hive – only Waldo moves.
A marked queen has a dab of paint on the top centre of her thorax. Without that marking, it is REALLY hard for newbees like myself to find the Queen.
But it’s not impossible to find her and it’s a good skill to learn because…guess what?
The mark on the Queen can wear off, another bee could hide the mark from your view or, just like my colony, they could swarm and the old hive will raise a new, unmarked Queen.
How to check your hive to find the Queen bee
Me carefully pulling out frames to have a look for the Queen.
I always check my hives starting with the outermost frame. After removing that very first outer frame, always ensure the Queen isn’t on it and then you can set it aside or place it on a hive rack (I use one like this, which is similar to the one you see me using in the above photo)
Note: A hive rack isn’t necessary (you can set your frames sideways against the side of your hive instead). But I prefer a hive rack because I’m clumsy. With my luck, I’d knock the frame over with my foot.
By setting aside the first frame, you have more room to work so you don’t accidentally smush the Queen bee as you inspect the other frames.
As you check the other frames, replace each one back in the hive leaving a space between the ones you’ve checked and haven’t checked so the Queen can’t go where you’ve already inspected.
Look for frames with brood
I was told by my mentor that my Queen would likely be in the middle of one of the centre frames that contain brood (baby bees). Spoiler alert – That is exactly where I found her.
Your Queen bee will likely be in the centre of one of the frames in the middle of your box. This is where the brood (baby bees) will be and where there is brood, there is likely a Queen nearby.
Here is a drone (male) bee hatching. Isn’t he so cute who those big eyes?
Of course, always check both sides of the frames before gently putting each one back down into the hive.
Warning – The Queen can move quickly
The Queen can move quickly and will often dart towards the dark side of the frame. So you’ll have to learn to do this quickly. But this can also work to your advantage.
Look for something out of the ordinary
As the Queen crawls around, the other worker bees will move out of her way. The Queen also has her own entourage of maids who feed and care for her every need. The Queen’s only job is to lay eggs.
So you may notice a circle of bees surrounding another bee. Take a closer look at that bee because you’ve probably just found your Queen.
Don’t drop the Queen bee on the ground
When checking your frames, always hold them above your boxes so if the Queen falls, she doesn’t land on the ground. You want her to fall right back in the hive.
See how similar the Queen looks to all the other bees? Finding her is not an easy task for a beginner.
What does the Queen bee look like?
First, she is bigger or at least longer and narrower than any other bee in the hive. At first, I mistook the male bees (drones) for the Queen as they are bigger than the numerous female worker bees.
Look at the size of a drone’s (male bee) eyes. The Queen and worker bees have much smaller eyes. But the drone needs his big eyes to spot the Queen when she takes her mating flight.
The difference is that drones have big eyes and a large, blunt body whereas the queen is long with a tapered hind end allowing her to reach the bottom of the cells when she lays eggs.
Notice how the Queen’s abdomen (lower part of her body near the stinger) is pointed.
Finding your Queen bee takes practice – one of the reasons new beekeepers often have to check their hives more often than an experienced beekeeper. I can’t say I’m an expert at finding her because it still takes me forever scanning my eyes back and forth in rows across each and every frame, but with a little time, I can spot her.
And yes, I still get excited and give out a loud, nerdy beekeeper squeal each time I find her.
Looking for more information on how to find a queen bee? Check out QueenSpotting by Hilary Kearney.
Want to read more about bees and beekeeping? Check out some of my previous posts…
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