Reasons for Queen Rejection
Honey bees reject queen bees for a variety of reasons. It can be as simple as they do not like the way she smells! Bees can sense when a queen is poorly mated, or she may be older and in bad health. They will reject and supersede a queen when they sense a problem.
The younger workers in a queenless colony may accept a queen, but then some older workers could come along and decide they do not like the new queen’s scent, and they will kill her.
Bees can sense when a queen is poorly mated or in poor health. Does your colony have a laying worker? The bees will accept the laying worker as their queen and kill a new one that you introduce to the colony.
We love our queen bees. She is the most important bee and the key to a colony’s survival! However, we often will not understand why bees decide to reject a queen. If you’re trying to introduce a new queen bee to a queenless colony, there are ways to help them accept her. If you simply release a new queen into a queenless colony, you run the risk of them deciding to reject her.
And when you’re honey bee obsessed like us, you may start your own little queen rehab program, or queen beehab as we call it. We tend to give our queens every chance to live long, successful lives.
Invasion and Defense
One reason a queen may be rejected is because she is perceived to be an invader that does not belong in the colony. I once introduced mated queens to six queenless colonies. Five of the colonies happily accepted the new queen. One colony also looked like they were going to accept her. The worker bees surrounded her and began to take care of her. Then I watched a few older workers approach and proceed to sting her. I quickly removed her, but she did not survive, and then I had a dead queen and a queenless hive.
The older workers are more established with the prior queen, and a new one may be perceived as an unwelcome intruder. The older worker bees decided to defend their hive by rejecting and killing the unfamiliar queen. To avoid this, it is best to use a method where you gradually introduce her so they cannot reach and kill her. Then the colony may be able to grow accustomed to and accept her scent.
Swarming and Supersedure
Supersedure happens when the colony decides to replace a queen. The colony may sense a problem with their current queen, and they will form supersedure cells to replace her. When new queens emerge, they may not immediately dispatch the old queen. So there are cases when you could see more than one queen in your hive. Don’t panic! The bees know what they are doing.
Sometimes you just don’t know why bees don’t like their queens. We’ve had a split with a newly mated queen who was laying a great pattern. But we also found supersedure cells. They wanted to replace what looked like a perfectly healthy queen!
In this case, you can always let the bees replace her and see what happens. The bees may very well sense something that we will never understand. When you’re bee obsessed and attached to your queens like we are, you may try to save (beehab) her.
We have been teased as having a “beehab center,” and it’s probably true that my husband has never met a queen that he doesn’t like. We love our queens, and we do like to give every queen a chance!
So when we see a colony that wants to supersede the queen with no apparent reason, we’ve been known to take the queen and introduce her to a failed split. I’ve seen the queenless colony readily accept her, and she is a successful queen with a long life! So sometimes I do think the bees just have a personal preference.
Swarming may also lead to the rejection of a queen. When a colony is running out of room in the bee hive, they grow swarm cells in preparation to split and propagate themselves.
I’ve seen colonies create countless swarm cells! If you leave all of those swarm cells, then you risk sending out multiple swarms! The young queens don’t always choose to fight each other to the death. They are sisters, after all. Instead, as those queens hatch, a retinue of bees may become attached to the various queens, and they will leave with her to create their own colony.
My daughter refers to this as a popularity contest. Some bees gravitate toward specific queens, and then they form their own group and take off to establish a new colony with their favorite queen!
We watched what looked like a really small swarm fly away from our apiary. When we checked the hive we suspected, sure enough, we found four virgin queens running around. In this instance, we caught three of the queens into separate queen cages and removed them to give to other splits. This likely prevented more small swarms, and all of those queens were able to successfully mate and grow their own colonies.
But when I do find multiple swarm cells in a colony, I will only leave two or three swarm cells. I may make splits with the additional cells. And then I will crush the ones I don’t want. Especially when they are capped, or almost capped, I will squish the smaller-sized ones and leave the larger cells. Smaller cells could mean a smaller, and perhaps less successful queen.
Packaged Bees Queen Rejection
A package of bees also runs the risk of rejecting the queen. For packaged bees, a bunch of bees from different colonies are shaken together, and a caged queen with a candy plug is thrown in with the bees. These bees have no connection to each other, and it isn’t uncommon for the bees to decide to reject the queen, even if she initially seems to be accepted and laying eggs. This is one of the many reasons I recommend buying nucs (nucleus colonies) over packages. You can read more about packages and nucs here.
Tips to Successfully Introduce a New Queen
Yes, the easiest way for you to requeen is to just pop a new queen into your colony and hope she’s accepted. We’ve done it, too. While this can work, you do run the risk of rejection. It is a good idea to take a more gradual approach. There are ways to help the colony to accept the queen.
Ensure the Colony is Queenless
The most important factor in introducing a queen is to be absolutely sure the colony is queenless! This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen it happen. Double and triple-check that you have a queenless hive! I’ve seen people buy and add a queen bee to just find her killed and kicked back out because there is a queen in the colony!
If you can’t find the queen, look for signs that she is there. Do you see eggs? Do you have young larvae? These are indicators that you have a queen, even if you can’t find her.
If you don’t see evidence, is there room for her to lay? I was 99% positive that I had a failed split because I didn’t see a queen. The new hive was filled with honey. I figured she failed to return from her mating flight so they continued gathering resources. However, they were so full of honey that a queen would have no space to lay.
I gave them another box just in case. I figured I could come back and process the honey, then do a paper combine with their original colony.
(A paper combine is when you stack two colonies together with a thin paper/newspaper between the boxes. The bees will eventually chew through the paper and combine. The paper slows down the combining process so they come to accept each other.)
I checked back a week later to do the paper combine, but I found a laying queen!
Check for a Laying Worker
If the colony has been queenless for a long enough period of time, a worker may begin to lay unfertilized eggs, or drones. This is a laying worker situation.
Once you have a laying worker, the colony will accept that worker as a queen. So any new queen introduced will be dispatched and kicked out of the hive. In a laying worker situation, unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to requeen the colony.
In this case, I would take the frames some distance away and shake them off. Any flyers will return to the hive, while laying workers will be unable to fly back. Then I would paper combine what is left with another hive. You can also simply paper combine them with a queenright colony that is much stronger than the queenless colony. The strong colony will eventually come through and dispatch the laying workers.
My husband once forgot to actually put the paper on when doing the paper combine. When he came back, it looked like a battle had taken place! But they had worked it out, the stronger queenright colony had dispatched the laying workers (and probably more), and they were combined and going about their day. While it worked out, I recommend that you don’t forget the paper.
How Long Has the Colony Been Queenless?
If the colony has been queenless for just a day or two, they need a little more time before they are prepared to accept a new queen. A queen gives off a pheromone that the colony recognizes. When she is gone, the pheromone will slowly fade. The colony needs time for the queen pheromone to fade away for them to recognize that they are queenless. You cannot remove one queen and then just add another. The best time for a new queen introduction will be after 3 to 5 days.
On the other side, there does reach a point where it has been too long to introduce a queen. The queen needs young nurse bees to be available to care for her and young larvae into adulthood. How long has your colony been queenless? Do you still have brood? If you no longer have any brood, then you have to realize that your workers may be getting older, and they won’t be around long enough to care for and raise a new round of brood if you bring in a new queen.
I’ve had hives that are still queenless after a good six to eight weeks after a couple of attempts to raise new queens. At this point, I have to realize that the girls are too old to successfully requeen, and it’s best to paper combine them with another colony. Then they can live out their days and help another hive for a short time.
Are there Supersedure Cells?
If you have a new queen for your colony, first ensure that there are no queen cells in the colony. Go through every frame and squash any supersedure cells, otherwise, they will not accept a new queen when they are growing their own replacement.
When introducing a replacement queen, you can always first introduce them to a honey bee colony from the safety of a queen cage. Lay the cage on top of the frames and watch how the bees react. Do they look like they are trying to care for her? Or do they seem angry and want to try to ball around her or sting her? You can leave the queen there for a couple of days to help them adjust to her.
If they seem to accept her, then you may be able to safely release her.
Push-In Queen Cage
A great option for a queen introduction is with a push-in queen cage. You can buy one, or you can easily make a small push-in cage with wire mesh fabric. This queen cage will serve as a temporary home for the queen while allowing the worker bees to become familiar with her scent.
When you put the new queen in, find an ideal area on a frame. I like to find a frame of brood with capped brood that are about to emerge so she will have new bees to care for her. I like when the space also gives her some room to lay eggs. The cage protects her from any workers that want to reject her, and this gives the colony a good chance of accepting the new queen. You can also lightly spray the area with sugar syrup to give the female workers something to lick and distract them.
Leave her in this cage for a week, and then come back and see how they are doing. Does it look like the worker bees are trying to attack her or care for her? If they are not showing any aggressive behavior toward her, and they appear to be feeding her through the cage, then they are accepting her, and it is safe to release her.
The push-in cage takes a little more time and effort, but it is a good way to ensure success.
Sometimes you really won’t know why a queen is rejected. I’ve seen colonies trying to supersede a young queen who is laying an excellent pattern. And I’ve also witnessed a queen laying a less-than-stellar pattern where her colony chooses to not supersede her. I’ve found different colonies have different quirks! It does sometimes seem like a popularity contest.
I once captured a queen in a queen clip during an inspection, and then I watched as her colony proceeded to ball and kill her! I have no idea why they did it, and I could only assume they somehow mistook her as an invader instead of their own queen. It made no sense, but then they went on to create emergency cells and successfully requeened.
When you’re honey bee obsessed, you can’t help but love your queens and their different quirks. We tend to try to save and help our queens, but it also makes sense to let the bees do what is natural for them.
Keep experimenting and enjoying your queens and colonies. Don’t be afraid to try something new; you never know what will happen. Enjoy your apiary!