How to keep queen bees in reserve

Every spring I re-queen my strongest hives in order to reduce swarming. A colony is less likely to swarm when the queen’s pheromones are strong, and the pheromones are strongest in a first-year queen. In fact, according to most sources, a new queen is the single best deterrent to swarming.

However, it seems ridiculous to take your very best queens, kill them, and replace them with others. And if the new queen is rejected, you are left with nothing.

So a few years ago I started keeping those queens instead of killing them. To do this, I remove the queen along with a frame of brood and a frame of honey and put them in a two-frame nuc. Then I introduce the new queen into the hive. If anything goes wrong with the new queen, I can always re-introduce the old one . . . or I can keep her “in reserve” for some other purpose.

For example, one of the swarms I caught last week appeared to be queenless. The swarm built comb in which it stored only honey, and when I sifted the bees through a queen excluder, I found nothing. So I took one of my reserve queens and introduced her. Once she starts laying the colony will probably supersede her, but without her to get things started, the whole swarm would die.

When I first started saving queens, I wondered what I would do when the two-frame nucs got too populous. But I found that these small colonies tend to expand to fill the available space and then remain constant. When you think about it, they aren’t big enough to swarm or even to abscond. So they just stay small. In the past I’ve kept these “reserve” queens all summer long.

Sometimes I just put a swarm cell, brood, and honey in the small nucs. It seems to take forever, but the bees eventually produce a laying queen and I just leave her there . . . in case. If one doesn’t succeed, I just start another. Since I’m using her only as a backup, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Emily
Reply

Hi Rusty,

This idea is very interesting, thanks. What happens to the reserve queens and nuc bees at the end of the summer, would you kill the queen and recombine the bees into a strong colony?

Jason
Reply

I have a question about keeping a nuc with a queen in it. What do you do with it over the winter months? Second, how can I ask you questions about other things . . . just post them in the comment box or is there a better way? I’m seeing things I’ve never read or heard about in my hive and and I would like your opinion on them.

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

I tried to answer your first question in today’s post, “How to over-winter a nuc.”

As for other questions, you can put them in the comment box, or you can click on the “Contact Me” tab (above the header photo on the right) to send an e-mail. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Paul
Reply

Last year I bread some queens to re-queen my hives that all went ok. I was left with some queens but I gave them away. This year I want to breed again but how do i keep the leftover queens for sale in the hives? Do I make two frame nucs, place the sealed queen cell into each one, and do it that way? Look forward to hear from you.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

Small nucs are the best way to keep queens for long periods. Queens can be kept in banking frames for short periods, perhaps up to three weeks. A banking frame holds several individual queen cages. The queens are put in the cages without attendants, then the frame is put into a queenless hive or a queenright hive above an excluder. The queens will be cared for by young workers. If the bank is put in a queenless colony, you must add new frames of brood every week so there will be a constant supply of emerging bees to care for the queens. I’ll take a picture of a banking frame this weekend and post it (I hope) within a day or two.

Paul
Reply

Hi Rusty. Thanks for the reply. Did you manage to take the pictures?

Rusty
Reply

It’s coming.

Ted Matthews
Reply

Hi Rusty, I’m new to beekeeping and computer. Is their a place to join your blog or whatever it’s called? I enjoy and also need to read every thing possible about bees. Thanks, Ted

Rusty
Reply

Hi Ted,

No, there’s nothing to join, you can just “drop by” anytime you want. If you prefer, you can get the daily posts delivered by e-mail. The sign-up is on the the left side of your screen.

Other than that, just feel free to comment or ask questions. If I can’t answer your questions, there are a lot of beekeepers reading this site who probably can.

Congratulations on becoming a beekeeper. You will love it.

susan
Reply

This is probably a very stupid question, but is it possible to keep a swarm cell on hold until you need it?

Rusty
Reply

Susan,

You can put it in a nuc with a frame of bees and hold it that way. Once the queen hatches, she will need attendants.

Mark Caretr
Reply

Thanks for the e-mails.

doug&sandra
Reply

Not sure if my post made it through. Just wanted to know how long we can keep a split hive closed while waiting for a queen delivery.

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Remember that bees are routinely closed up, put on trucks, and moved long distances over the course of many days. As long as they have food, water, and good ventilation they will be fine. I can’t put an exact number on it because there are too many variables, but I’m wondering why you have to keep the splits closed up? After a few days, nearly everyone will stay put–with a queen or without. And if a few foragers go back home, it doesn’t make much difference.

Tim Nelson
Reply

I installed 7 packaged bees this year. The last package was without a queen. I had to reorder another queen for the hive. The question is how do you store the queen until I can get to the site to install her?
Would it be OK to put her in a nuc box with other bees from another hive and confine it until I get to the location?
Could I just raise a small colony in the nuc box?

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

How long do you need to keep her? If it’s just a few days, read this: “I love bees but beekeeping not so much.” Twice a day, just wet your finger and run it along the screen to give her a bit of water.

Tim Nelson
Reply

Just Tim again. Thanks for the advice. I will tell you my plan; let me know what you think. I built a five-frame nuc box to add two frames from two hives, total of 4 frames, mainly to just have the bees from the hives to add to the nuc box. Now I will have a small nuc then introduce the queen via slow release using the candy that is in the queen cage. Close up the nuc box with a feeder in the top, to keep them confined for about four days or so.

My hope is to get them established, then check the hive that I suspect is queenless. If no eggs are present in a few weeks I would then use the paper method to combine the nuc and the hive.

What do you think? Do you have a different way?

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

When you establish the nuc, use brood frames that are entirely coated with bees. These nurse bees will not leave the brood, so you do not have to close up the hive. Only the foragers will return to the parent hive and that isn’t a problem. As the nurses become foragers, they will orient themselves to the new hive. Since they’ve never been outside before, they won’t become confused about where they live.

Don’t wait too long to correct the queenless hive, the longer you wait, the greater the chance of laying workers and the harder to correct. To prevent laying workers, you can put a frame of open brood in there right now.

Charlotte
Reply

My husband bought two nucs this year. We put them into the hives and all was well…at first. Then one of the hives began to wane. Robber bees played havoc on that hive. We made the entrance smaller, gave them a hand with the robbers and they began to regroup. Then he tells me they are in trouble again. After checking them, twice, and combing through the bees several times I found that they had no queen. We ordered a queen but she couldn’t be shipped right away. When she finally arrived the bees were gone and moths had taken their place. We tried unsuccessfully to create a hive but they killed her workers, but left her alive then ran back home. She was weak when found, but is now moving about. I cannot stand the thought of losing her. Help!

Rusty
Reply

Charlotte,

I don’t understand what you mean by “they killed her workers?” Who killed them? Robbers? You need to split your existing hive in two, equalizing the stores and the brood and the nurse bees, and then slowly introduce the new queen. Keep the entrance very, very tiny so the bees can defend it, or better yet, install a robbing screen.

Julia
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I’m new to beekeeping but have noticed that my hive seems to be getting weaker. It is spring in Aust so I am able to inspect the hive each week. I have never spotted the queen, but today saw pollen and a few larvae plus at least two frames of honey. I understand that the queen is two years old, but she doesn’t seem to be producing a strong brood pattern. Would your advice be to buy another queen? Many thanks Rusty.

Julia

Rusty
Reply

Julia,

You should be seeing lots of larvae right now. I would definitely replace the queen if the bees aren’t doing it themselves.

dan3008
Reply

Hi Rusty

Does a 2 frame nuc really not swarm/abscond? That is amazing… I would have thought it was ok for a few weeks but when they fill the nuc they’d leave?

Sounds really handy to raise queens to re queen every September.

Rusty
Reply

Dan,

I’m not saying it would never happen, but so far I haven’t seen it happen. Maybe they can never get a large enough population to chance leaving. I don’t know.

dan3008
Reply

Thanks for that (and editing out my mistake)
Sounds really handy, I could split my 5 frame nuc box into 2 2’s

Darwin Groves
Reply

Question? I’m a 3rd year beekeeper and seem to have lost an abundance of queens this season. I had 13 hives and have replaced 9 queens, 3 different times and am getting ready to order another 1 today. 2 of the queens were from packages that had bad queens and 3 were from nucs I got about a month ago. is this the norm? 1 of the guys I bought queens from said a lot of others in the area are having queen problems? What am I doing wrong?

Rusty
Reply

Darwin,

Your are certainly not the only one with this problem, and you are probably doing nothing wrong. There is much speculation regarding weak queens and I don’t think anyone knows the real issues. The questions raised often center around weak genetics, poor forage in queen rearing establishments, pesticide exposure, even handling practices. Whether it is any of these or all of them, who knows?

Over the last 6 or 7 years, I have had extremely poor results from purchased queens. The only queens that thrive and give me strong colonies are those that my colonies raised themselves. Why this is so is unclear. It may be because they are adjusted to the local environment, perhaps they are mating with feral drones or at least drones from a variety of sources, they self-select in the hive rather than being protected by human interference. Again, who knows?

If there is any way of avoiding a purchased queen, I go for it. This year, because of a bunch of commitments that kept me from working my bees, I actually bought three expensive queens from a reputable establishment. I did it because I felt pinched for time and it just seemed easier. One of the three made it. The others were immediately superseded by their colonies.

Kim
Reply

Any suggestion for the equivalent of your 3 2-deep-frame nucs with medium frames? And if someone were to sell nucs in medium frames, what would be the best configuration? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Kim,

Honestly, I have little experience with medium nucs. I keep all my brood in deeps, so I don’t have any decent advice.

Marysia2
Reply

Hi Rusty…can you clarify please? Do you use custom-made nuc boxes that hold only 2 frames, or are you putting 2 frames into a 5 frame nuc? If the latter, do you ever add additional frames? Do you feed these nucs? I wouldn’t have thought that 2 frames worth of bees would be enough to sustain a colony. As always, your site is a great source for info. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

I use a two-frame nuc box purchased from BetterBee. It has a feeder on one end and an entrance on the other, and it is only wide enough for two frames. The Queen Castle is from Brushy Mountain and is a standard-size deep that is divided into four two-frame sections, each with an entrance on a different side of the box.

I do not add additional frames because there is no room for them. I feed each with a frame of honey from somewhere else, so one frame of brood and one frame of honey goes in each.

You can’t sustain a colony forever in such a small container, but up to 6 or 8 weeks is certainly doable. When the nuc begins to fill out, I move the frames to a five-frame deep nuc box.

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