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Beekeeping is loaded with new skills to learn each and every year, or so it often seems. Perhaps that’s part of the beauty of beekeeping — always learning something new. For me, the first time I had to introduce a new queen, I was filled with both excitement and worry. The good news is, queen introduction is a beekeeping skill that anyone can master on their first try when they keep just a few tips in mind.
When introducing a new queen to a colony, she is in imminent danger of being murdered by the colony as soon as they sense her presence. The reason is simple: the new queen doesn’t smell like their mother queen. Therefore, the intruder must die. So, to prevent her destruction, beekeepers place new queens into a queen cage and place the caged queen inside the hive to await colony acceptance.
Queen cages come in a few different styles ranging from wood containers to plastic ones. Some have simulated queen pheromones added to assist in queen acceptance while others do not. Some have wooden screens while others use plastic screens. Some are rectangular while others are more rounded. DIY versions like this one (https://www.michiganbees.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Queen-Introduction-Cage_20120715.pdf) are also available.
All work well for queen introduction and function strictly as a safe place for the queen, so don’t stress over the type of container your queen is hiding out in.
Regardless of type, all cages have a few elements in common. The first is the size — all are small enough to easily be installed into any type of hive. More importantly, all contain tiny openings around the space the queen resides in which allows the bees limited contact with the new queen. This limited contact allows the bees to gradually become acquainted with the new queen via grooming and feeding practices. As the queen is groomed and fed, her pheromones are shared with those attendants who then share the pheromones with their nearby sisters. Over the course of a few days, the new queen’s pheromones are distributed throughout the colony, allowing all the colony members time to accept her as their new queen.
Installing the Queen Cage
After your colony has been queenless for a short period of time, they will be eager to accept a new queen. All that is needed is to place the queen cage with the queen inside between two brood frames, preferably somewhere between the top and middle portion of the brood frame. Gently push the cage into the wax or, if your cage has a hanger, hang the cage on the top bars between two brood frames. If using a wooden cage or another type that only has feeding holes on one side, make sure that section is accessible to the bees by placing the screened side down or perpendicular to the frames. Just be sure whichever direction you place the cage, the queen must be accessible to the bees via the screen.
One word of caution when installing queen cages. These cages also contain a source of food for the queen called queen candy. This candy is stuffed into a small section of the cage with the original intent being that the bees would consume the sugar over the course of three days, thus releasing the queen after she has been accepted. The problem is, nowadays our bees often take longer than the requisite three days and this uncontrolled release of the queen often causes her death.
Solution: tape or otherwise seal the exposed end of the queen candy to prevent the bees from consuming the candy and releasing the queen too soon. This allows the beekeeper time to observe the bee activity with the queen at his convenience so that he can release her when acceptance is obvious. This one step has saved many of my own queens as I find there are times it may take up to five days for acceptance. So don’t disregard this step out of hand.
Releasing the Queen
Releasing the queen is such an exciting moment. Until it isn’t. So practice patience when determining the best time to release the queen. Nothing is harmed by waiting another one or two days to ensure queen acceptance. So, observe closely and watch for the following:
On day three, or even day four, remove the queen cage and all of the bees clinging to it from the hive. Do not open the cage yet. Observe first if the bees appear aggressive towards the queen by biting at her, aiming their stingers down towards the queen, creating a vibrating ball on the cage, or any other signs of aggression. You can also place the caged queen on the top bars and observe the bees wandering around it for signs of aggression. Another option is to remove the entire frame with the queen cage attached (depending on whether your cage and frame will hold together) and observe all the bees on the frame with the queen.
You’ll know your queen is accepted if the bees are all moving slowly, attendants are feeding her, and no aggressive behavior is noted. When this is observed, you have two options. You can simply remove the tape or cap from the queen candy or replace the caged queen to its original location and allow the bees to consume any remaining candy to release her as normal over a few hours to a day or so. Alternatively, open the cage entirely and allow the queen to walk out of the cage on her own onto the top bars of the frames. She will quickly move to the darkness below and begin her queenly duties as their new reigning queen.
Queen introduction is both an exciting and worrisome event for many. Yet, just like most other beekeeping skills, not as difficult as we may first assume. So be patient and observe your bees closely. They will tell you when they are ready to accept their new queen.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops, articles, and blog at tenderheartshomestead.com.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.