The Ultimate Guide to Requeening a Weak Hive

The time will come when beekeepers will need to remove a queen bee and replace her with a new one. There are many reasons why you may need to requeen a weak hive. By removing the queen bee from the hive, you are ensuring that the colony thrives and gets stronger. Every beekeeper should be comfortable with requeening because it will likely be required at some period in their beekeeping career.

The queen bee is the only fertile female bee in a hive. A young queen will mate with drones from other hives. Then she will remain in her hive to lay eggs and populate the entire colony. The worker bees select a new queen by when it is larva and then they feed her royal jelly. When royal jelly is fed to the larva, it triggers the development of ovaries so the bee can lay eggs. The queen will take one mating flight and then will lay eggs for the rest of her life. Worker bees are very protective of their queen so it’s important to understand when and why you should requeen a weak hive.

Introducing a new queen bee is an art. Success will depend on the weather, the bee breed, nectar flow, bee temperament, and more.

What Is Requeening?

Requeening is the process of replacing one queen bee for another.

What Happens To A Hive With No Queen?

If a hive does not have a queen, the bees will either die or find a new queen. The worker bees will groom a new queen from existing larvae.

What Are Reasons For Requeening A Hive?

There are several reasons why a beekeeper may need to requeen a hive. Usually, it comes down to the queen is dead, getting old, not laying eggs properly, or the hive is aggressive.

  • The queen is dead. If you find that your queen is dead or no longer in the hive, you will need to requeen as soon as possible or you risk the survival of the entire colony. You’ll know if the queen is dead when you don’t see any new eggs or larvae during your routine hive inspections.
  • The queen is old. Queens live for 3-5 years and their ability to lay eggs decreases with age. Some beekeepers choose to routinely requeen every one to two years to ensure their queen remains healthy and fruitful. Requeening in September puts the hive at an advantage in the spring because the queen is already settled into the hive.
  • The queen is not performing to desired standards. Sometimes, you’ll find that the current queen is not laying as many eggs as she should and you may opt to replace her. 
  • The hive has an undesirable temperament. The temperament of the hive depends on the queen. If you notice that your hive is becoming aggressive or territorial, sometimes requeening can solve this problem. Replacing an aggressive queen can significantly calm down a hive.

In modern beekeeping, requeening is a tool used to maintain a hive. Requeening may not always solve a particular problem so be sure to analyze the situation and talk to expert beekeepers before taking action.

What Are The Signs Of A Weak Hive?

Analyzing the strength of your hive is an important skill for every beekeeper to have. You’ll often read about what to do if your hive is weak or strong, but you may not know how strong your hive is. Here are ways to assess the performance of your hive.

Population

You can open the hive to check the population. If your hive is strong, you will see bees hanging from the top of the frames and they will be packed together between frames. Check the honey supers. All of the combs should be capped and sealed. A strong hive will have no beetles or moths in their honey.

Honey

While it’s good to see that a hive is producing a lot of honey, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is strong. A strong hive will produce a lot of honey, but that alone does not make a hive strong.

Combs

A weak hive will struggle to protect its comb from moths and beetles. If you notice any destroyed combs, it means a predator is overrunning the hive and the bees are unable to defend themselves.

When you’re inspecting the hive, look at how much pollen is stored close to the entrance of the hive. A strong hive will have a lot of pollen stored because they have the energy to forage and produce honey.

Brood Pattern

A strong hive will maintain a strong brood pattern which can be observed by seeing the patches of all of the cells that are capped. You’ll be looking for a solid pattern, a majority of the cells should be capped. If they are not capped, it means that the larvae were unhealthy and worker bees had to remove them. 

Left- Poor Brood Pattern, Right- Excellent Brood Pattern (Photo Courtesy of BeeInformed.org)

Take the time to inspect the larvae. They should be white and in a “C” shape. Brood disease may be present if you see any discoloration or odd-shaped larvae.

If you determine that your hive is weak, it may be time to introduce a new queen.

When Is The Best Time To Requeen A Hive?

Early fall is the best time to requeen a hive, especially in the September. September is typically the beekeeping community’s favorite month for requeening. It’s viewed as the best time to requeen because it gives the new queen time to get settled into the hive before the winter season. If requeened early enough, she may even lay good brood before the winter. Winter bees will live longer because they are not working as much during the dormant season.

One downside to requeening in September is the low nectar availability. Bees are more likely to accept a queen during a time with good nectar flow. Find a time that works best for you and your personal goals with your bees. If you are satisfied with the production from your hive, then wait until September. If you feel that requeening is necessary sooner, then do so.

How Often Do I Need To Requeen?

A popular practice among beekeepers is to requeen a hive every year. This is particularly true for commercial beekeepers because they do not want a decrease in honey production. As a new beekeeper, it’s not always necessary to requeen routinely. If you are satisfied with your hive’s production, don’t change anything. If you have a thriving hive with an older queen, don’t feel the need to requeen.

How Do I Requeen A Hive?

There is generally one good way to requeen a hive. You shouldn’t simply release the new queen in the hive and expect it to be successful. Directly releasing the queen into the hive significantly increases the chances of the colony rejecting her. In which case, the colony will kill the queen and you will need to begin the requeening process all over again.  

To safely requeen a hive, you’ll need to slowly introduce the queen to increase the chances of the colony accepting her. Here are the steps to requeening a hive properly.

1. Get a New Queen Bee

Your hive will need a newly-mated queen bee. There are two ways to obtain a new queen bee: raising or purchasing one.

Raise a Queen

One way to get a new queen is to raise one. There is a great article from PerfectBee about how to raise your own queens. You will need to invest in a queen cage as you introduce the new queen to the hive.

Purchase a Queen

The best way to purchase a queen is to check your local beekeeping clubs for recommended honeybee suppliers in your area. If possible, you will want to pick up the queen to ensure she arrives safely. See my post for more information on how to transport bees in your car.

When your queen arrives, she will be in a cage similar to the image below.

Queen Cage
Queen Cage - Photo Courtesy of CurbStoneValley.com

She may be accompanied by attendant bees. Attendant bees are worker bees that are 7-12 days old with the task to care for the queen by feeding and grooming her. If there are attendant bees, you can open the cage and let them go.

Typically, the queen cage has a plug or cork made of candy on one end. This candy plug allows the worker bees to eat through it to release the queen (more info on this below). When you’re placing the queen cage in the hive, be sure that the candy is on the bottom of the queen. If the hive is too warm and the candy begins to melt, you don’t want the sugar dripping on the queen. This can be harmful to her.

2. Remove the Old Queen

If the old queen is still in the hive, remove her. For more information on how to identify the queen bee, see the section below in this article.

Unfortunately, removing the old queen means killing her. It’s not a fun part of beekeeping, but it’s necessary to ensure the survival of the colony. To quickly kill the queen, grab her by the wings and then use your fingers to pinch her head. Some beekeepers will leave the dead queen on the frames because it helps the colony realize that she is gone.

You still have a couple of options for the old queen. Some may opt to keep her alive in case the hive does not accept the new queen. You can also use the old queen if you plan to split the hive. Get in touch with your local beekeeping community and see if there is an opportunity to sell her to another hive.

If you plan to keep the queen, she must remain in her cage. Keep her well-fed and warm. The queen should be transferred to another hive as soon as possible, no longer than a couple of days

3. Install the New Queen

Wait 24 hours after removing the old queen to install the new one. This increases the chances of the bees accepting the new queen.

Many beekeepers opt to use smoke or other means to mask the new pheromone smell of the queen. If you choose not to use a smoker, see my post about how to calm bees without smoke. By masking her smell, you improve the chances that the bees will accept the new queen because her scent is gradually introduced, rather than abruptly.

Place the new queen, who is still in her cage, into some comb. There should be no brood in the comb and she should be placed in the center of the brood box so any fresh brood that hatch afterward can be familiar with her. Carefully push frames together around the cage.

Plan to leave the plug on the cage in for a couple of days. This introduces the queen to the bees slowly and increases her chances of being accepted. If the bees don’t accept her, they will kill her. 

4. Don’t Visit the Hive For One Week

Once you’ve installed the new queen bee, don’t visit the hive for about a week. This is a crucial time for the bees to accept their new queen without any interruptions. If you disturb the hive, you risk the bees blaming their new queen for their stress and rejecting her.

There is one exception to this rule. If you left a plug in the queen cage and it is not candy (aka the bees won’t be able to release the queen), you will need to return to the hive after a couple of days and remove the plug for them. After that, leave the hive alone for one week.

5. Inspect the Hive

After about a week, perform a standard hive inspection to check on the progress of the new queen bee. By this point, the bees would have reached the queen by eating through the candy plug. You are inspecting the hive to see if they accepted or rejected her.

Find the queen first. Sometimes, a queen can get stuck in the queen cage and you will need to release her. If you can’t find her, check the brood chamber to see if there are any new eggs present. If you see eggs, good job! The bees have accepted their new queen.

If you don’t see your queen, try to troubleshoot the issue. It’s worth reaching out to experienced beekeepers, either locally or on beekeeping forums, for advice. If you don’t find the queen, you will need to order another queen and start over.

6. Remove the Queen Cage

If the new queen is free and has started laying eggs, you can remove the queen cage from the hive.

Consider saving the queen cage in case you plan to split a beehive in the future. If you do decide to split a hive, you can use the cage to move a queen. 

What Do I Do If The Bees Try To Overthrow The New Queen?

Although the new queen has been accepted by the hive, there is still an opportunity for the bees to attempt to overthrow her and replace her with one with their own genetics. Supersedure cells are emergency queen cells that worker bees create to remove the current queen.

You can identify supersedure cells by its vertical structure that is typically found in the middle of the comb.

Queen Cell
Supersedure Cells - Photo Courtesy of Dodant.com

It’s important to inspect the hive sooner rather than later after installing the new queen (but you must still wait a week before returning to the hive). If you find supersedure cells during your routine inspections, you have to destroy them so the new queen to gain control of the hive. Over a few weeks, the old bees will die and the queen’s brood will take over.

How Do I Identify The Queen Bee In The Hive?

Beekeepers need to know how to find the queen bee for proper hive management. You should always attempt to look for the queen bee during routine hive inspections to ensure that the colony is doing well. By identifying the queen, you have a smaller chance of accidentally killing her when you’re working in the hive. Don’t worry, it gets easier over time.

Marking the Queen

Some beekeepers choose to mark their queen bees so they can easily identify her. Marking a queen helps you determine if the original queen has been replaced by the hive. It’s also easier to track the queen’s age and performance over time.

If you want to mark your queen, you can get queen marking pens and place a dot on her thorax. Plan to do this when a majority of the bees are out of the hive. Bees are most active in the late morning as they leave the hive to forage.

There is an International Color Code system for marking queens so you can keep track of what year you started with them.

  • WHITE: For years ending in 1 or 6
  • YELLOW: For years ending in 2 or 7
  • RED: For years ending in 3 or 8
  • GREEN: For years ending in 4 or 9
  • BLUE: For years ending in 5 or 0

Since queen bees can’t live longer than 5 years, you won’t have to guess which year you started with them.

Identifying an Unmarked Queen Bee

It can be difficult to identify an unmarked bee among the thousands of worker bees in a hive. Here are some tips to identify a queen:

  • The queen can usually be found in the brood nest because she will be laying eggs. Start looking in this section of the hive.
  • You can identify an unmarked queen based on her appearance. The queen bee has a distinct look compared to the worker bees. Queen bees are usually significantly larger than the other bees and have a pointed abdomen. The queen also has a barbless stinger.
  • Bees will form a circle around the queen. Check the behavior of the bees and see what area of the hive is most dense. From there, you can identify the larger bee that is surrounded by everyone else.  

Final Thoughts

Requeening a hive is a necessary skill for every beekeeper. There are several reasons why a hive may need requeening- the queen is old, the queen is dead, the queen is not performing, or the hive temperament is not ideal. Look for signs to indicate that your hive is weak such as a decrease in population, lack of honey production, or the brood is weak. A new queen should be slowly and carefully introduced to a hive or you risk her being rejected (and ultimately killed) by the bees.  

The Ultimate Guide to Requeening a Weak Hive

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