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Differing opinions: when to release the queen

One of the common concerns when installing a package is how long to keep the queen caged. Experienced beekeepers have very different philosophies on this subject, ranging from “just release her with the package” to “keep her confined 7 to 10 days.” Several readers have asked why I recommend 2-3 days.

You can’t make a hard and fast rule, partly because there are many unknowns. For example, you don’t know how long the queen and the bees in your package have been together. It will depend on several things, including how far they were shipped.

The bees age while you wait

The primary reason I don’t wait 7 to 10 days is this: spring/summer adult bees live an average of 4-6 weeks which is about 28-42 days. You don’t know the ages of the bees that were packaged, but let’s say they average 4-5 days old. Some will be older, some younger, but on average they will be fairly young. Let’s add three days for shipping and make them 7-8 days old when you receive them. Now let’s say you add 7 days holding time for the queen, which means the workers are 14-15 days old before the queen is released.

The released queen may wait a few days before she starts to lay. Let’s say 3 days. Now your workers are 17-18 days old when the first egg is laid. So now add 21 days before the first worker brood starts to emerge. Now your original workers are 38-39 days old. Recall that your spring/summer workers are going to live an average of 28-42 days.

Release the queen while workers are young

What is happening is that your original package has almost died off before your new bees start to emerge. Your colony will take a huge dip in population during this period in any case, but the longer you wait to release the queen, the worse it will get.

You want to have enough bees to care for the queen, build comb, prepare the nest, feed the larvae, defend the hive, keep the brood warm, collect water, pollen, nectar, and propolis . . . and perform all the other myriad hive tasks. So, although you want to be reasonably sure the queen will be accepted, you don’t want to run the colony numbers too low. This is why I advocate that you estimate how long the bees have been with their new queen, and then add a few days until it totals about 5-7. In my case, I estimate 3 days in transit and add another 2-3, then I release the queen. I’ve never had a queen rejected using this method, nor have I ever run a hive population so low it couldn’t easily recover.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Bruce
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’ve never seen this occur before and I would like your advice.

I installed a package on Saturday. I checked the hive today and discovered that the queen was released. I’ve always pulled the cork upon installing the package and wait 3 days to check to see if the queen has been released. I had trouble locating the queen, until I saw the pile up of bees on one of the frames. From what little I know about “balling” I thought the workers balled themselves around the queen and smothered her.

What I saw was more of the queen on top of the pile with workers all around her. I did not intervene, because I wasn’t sure as to what I should do.

At this point, is a replacement queen in my future? I live in Ct. It’s too early for me to even graft from another hive. I’m sure I can obtain a replacement from GA. if needed.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Thank you!
Bruce

Rusty
Reply

Interesting, Bruce.

My guess is that she will be okay. I saw something similar one time and I intervened by putting the queen back into an empty cage for a few days. But looking back, I don’t think they were trying to kill her as much as trying to get to know her. Especially if she was on top of the pile and not in the very center, I suspect she’s okay. Balling is pretty quick and violent; I don’t get a sense of that from what you say.

My advice would be to take another look–tomorrow, if possible. Whatever is going to happen has already happened. She’s either been accepted or not and there’s nothing else you can do at this point.

Let me know how it turns out.

Bruce
Reply

Thanks Rusty, I thought the same. If they were or are gong to kill her, the damage is already done. I will take a look tomorrow.

I also want to thank you for your daily updates. I look forward to reading your articles about beekeeping. You should really write a book!

Thanks again!

Bruce

Bruce
Reply

Hi Rusty,

It appears that the queen is now missing in action. I was unable to locate her today. The foragers don’t appear to be bringing in pollen and the hive is quite noisy. I also didn’t see any evidence of egg laying. I’ll try to check the hive again tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll make arrangements for a replacement queen. If I do find her, I’ll start up a nuc with the replacement.

Bruce

Rusty

Hi Bruce,

That’s a bummer and I’m surprised. I really did think she would be okay. Let me know if something different happens. Did you happen to check the landing board? The times I have found killed queens they’ve always been left there. I don’t know whether they are too heavy to fly out, or if the bees are making some kind of statement: “Foreign queens are not welcome, so don’t even try it, you fool.”

Bruce

Hi Rusty,

I did check the landing board and found only dead bees from the remnants of the packaged bees that didn’t make the journey.

I’m hoping I’m not going to have further issues introducing a new queen. I ended up in the hospital. I’m hoping I can put a replacement queen into the hive this weekend. I’m wondering if I should wait a couple of days before I pull the cork out? The queen has been in the cage longer than I would like; I wasn’t able to pick her up on Tuesday as planned.

I’m going to setup a queen bank as soon as possible. Most hives here in Connecticut only have capped drone cells, so it’s a little to early to start grafting.

Thank you again for your suggestions. I would happily pay to subscribe to Honey Bee Suite/ you’ve been more knowledgeable than most books I have purchased on beekeeping.

Rusty

Bruce,

Definitely wait a few days before pulling the cork. She will be fine in the cage because they can tend to her through the screen. You want her scent to disperse before you release her.

And thank you for the vote of confidence!

Phillip
Reply

What about how to release the queen?

I remember you saying before that it’s not necessary to remove the queen’s attendants from the queen cage. But I read in another book that the attendants should be removed first so that any aggression towards them isn’t transferred to the queen.

I requeened a colony last year and removed the attendants, but I’d be content never to do it again if the eventual risk to the queen in minimal.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Read this post about removing attendants and follow the link to Strachan Apiaries for their queen introduction write-up. I do not remove attendants and have not had a problem.

David Ladjack
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am new to your site and new to beekeeping. I went down to the hives and as I opened them to take a look the queens were still not released so I tried to help out by driving a small nail into the candy side. Well that did not work out the way I planned. The candy fell into her cage. Question is will she survive. Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely, David

Rusty
Reply

David,

It sounds like the queens have been in their cages for awhile, so most probably they are ready to be released. The candy falling into the cage is no big deal. You can do two things: Either let the bees continue with the candy until the queens can fit between the bits, or just open the cage and release them into the hives. If it’s been more than three or four days, they will most probably be fine.

Matt Heritage
Reply

Hey Rusty,

Ive got a couple of questions I’m hoping you can help me with. I’ll try to keep it brief and to the point.

Back story … I installed my first two hives May 25th. I checked the hives 3 days later and released the queens. Checked again 3 days later and 1 hive was going gang busters, building comb, very busy etc. The other hive seemed to be on pause. I also couldn’t find the queen. Was told to leave them alone so I waited another week. Checked again and good hive had 6 frames (foundationless) drawn and eggs laid. Bad hive had 4 inches of comb on 2 frames and no eggs with no sign of queen. I ordered a new queen. She got here June 11th. I installed her and waiting to check later today. When I installed her there seemed to be VERY FEW bees compared to the other hive. The good hive had 6+ frames drawn and bees everywhere. The bad have had just enough bees to cover about 5-6 inches of comb on 2 frames. I’d estimate about 1/5 (20%) the number of bees as in the good hive. I know that no brood has hatched in the good hive. Here are my questions (sorry I know this is long)….
1. Could a large portion of the bees from the small hive have switched over to the good hive? The hives are 4 feet apart. There is a HUGE difference in bee population in each hive.
2. Does the small hive really have a chance at this point? It seems like the original package bees will be dead way before the queen can lay and hatch any brood.
3. If they don’t have a chance (I don’t see it happening), what can I do with this queen? I don’t want to waste the $50 bucks she cost to buy/ship. I thought about transferring a frame of brood from the first hive, but I don’t want to risk the success of a good hive (they seem to be doing very well so far), trying to save what might be a lost cause.
4. I would really like to work at least 2 hives this year… is it too late to get another package installed?

Any ideas would really be appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Matt,

First, this is not unusual so don’t panic.

1. Yes, that is exactly what happened. With no queen pheromone in their own hive, the bees drifted to a hive with a strong pheromone.

2. The weak hive will have a chance because you will equalize the two hives. Take some brood from the strong hive and give it to the weak one.

3. You will not hurt your strong colony by taking some brood. Young queens are egg-laying machines; the strong hive will quickly replace anything you take. But you need to make sure the weak hive has enough nurse bees to care for the eggs the new queen lays. If it starts too slowly, it won’t catch up, so give it everything it needs to catch up.

4. You will be in a much better position once you get the second hive going. Another package (even if you can find one) will just slow you down. You’ve got everything you need already: two queens, plenty of brood and sufficient foragers. Get that new new queen laying by giving her some brood, and your two hives will equalize in no time.

5. Manipulating your colonies to make things work is what beekeeping is all about . . . it’s also the fun part.

carol
Reply

We bought 4 packages and placed them in the hive. When checking 4 days later to see if the queen had been released, I found 2 was released and 2 queens had died before being released. Now what do I do?

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

Take one frame with newly laid eggs from each of the queen-right hives. Leave the queens where they are, just take two frames with eggs and give them to the queenless hives. It will take awhile, but they should be able to raise queens from the eggs. Other options include buying mating queens, which will produce results much more quickly. Or you can combine the queenless colonies with the queen-right colonies.

Sally
Reply

Six days ago I installed a bee package. Today I checked as to whether the queen made it out of her cage. She was gone and I could not find her, but it is obvious the bees are beginning to gather nectar and pollen. One thing that concerned me was that I saw a couple supersedure cells. Do you think the bees may have made those cells while she was in the cage or should I be concerned that she is dead?

Rusty
Reply

Sally,

Two things. 1) Nectar and pollen are normally collected whether a queen is present or not, so that by itself doesn’t tell you much. 2) Some species build supersedure cups (queen cups) just in case they need them later. If the cup is fully drawn out into a queen cell it is a better indicator of an impending supersedure. Your best bet for assessing the queen is to look for eggs or larvae. Hold the frame up with the sun at your back for the best view. If you are not accustomed to looking for cells, they can be hard to see. If you still see nothing, you should order a queen.

mary
Reply

I’m not sure you’re still answering posts here but I’ve been devouring what I can find on your website. As a new beekeeper it’s really helpful. I installed a package of bees yesterday in a Warre hive (upstate NY) I removed the cork to the queen thinking all would be ok but this morning when I checked (through a window) there were no bees around the queen’s cage. They were all clustered at the top of the box. I don’t want to open the hive just yet but I’m wondering if the queen has either been released or perhaps didn’t make it through the night in the cool weather? Any advice?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

You really need to look to know for sure, but it sounds as though she was released and they are clustered around her at the top of the box.

Michelle kinkead
Reply

I did a bee removal and have my queen safely in a clip in the hive how long do i wait to let her out these are not packaged bees they have tons of larva and comb already i just dont know if i still wait to release her?

Rusty
Reply

Michelle,

If she’s been with them the entire time, you don’t need to wait. If she was separated from them for any length of time, then she should be reintroduced by waiting three or four days.

Kristen Farmer
Reply

My husband and I picked up an order of packaged bees this past Saturday. We waited to transfer them into the hive until the next day due to inclement weather. When transferring them into the hive, I accidentally pushed the cork on the side without the candy inside of the queens cage. As soon as this happened, a couple of worker bees entered the cage with the queen. I didn’t know what to do, so I finished transferring the bees and returned to check the queen cage 4 hours later. When I checked the queen cage, she was still alive inside and the few worker bees were still inside the queen cage with her. They appeared to be moving the cork out of the way of the cage entrance, but it was difficult to tell for sure. I don’t want to upset the hive further by re-checking them too frequently. Do you think my queen will live or do you think they will attack/kill her? How should I go about re-queening if we need to do that?

Rusty
Reply

Kristen,

It sounds like everything is fine. Just remove the queen cage.

Kristen Farmer
Reply

Thank you so much Rusty! I really appreciate your help.

Jim Laingen
Reply

I just got two new packages of bees and put them in on Friday. One bunch went into a Langstroth hive. I had 4 frames from a failed hive in there, still with honey, and 2 with plastic foundations. I accidentally let the queen out immediately, but the hive seems to have gone immediately to work. I opened it up today to put the remaining 4 plastic foundations, they had already built some new honeycomb in the open space, and they looked they were very busy in and out of the hive. The other package/queen I put into a top bar hive that I made. They have just been clumping at the far end of the hive and haven’t done anything. There was a little clump around the queen but it was minimal. So earlier today I released the queen to see if that would help, however as of this evening they are still just clumping in the same place. I checked for the queen but don’t see her body anywhere so have to presume that she has joined the clump of bees. Any thoughts? Should I be worried? Why is the one hive so active and the top bar hive completely inactive? Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

It sounds like the Langstroth is old and the top-bar hive is new. If so, that is the answer to the question. It’s often hard to get bees started on new wood. It doesn’t smell right and it’s not homey. I recommend taking one of the frames with used comb and a cutting a piece to fit the top-bar hive, tying it onto a frame with string, and giving it to them. That should fix it.

Jim Laingen
Reply

Great, thanks for the advice. I did as you said and will let you know what happens!

Jim Laingen
Reply

Thanks for the advice on the bees in the top-bar hive. They appear to be quite active now with workers bringing in supplies. There are many bees still lumped in the back but I think they are building comb, I just can’t see it. One question: I still have a queen guard on the front of the this hive. When is it safe to remove it?

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

You don’t want that queen guard on there. Your drones will be trapped inside and will soon die and the workers have no way to cart them out.

Jim Laingen
Reply

Oh dear…I will remove it now. Hopefully that is not too detrimental to the hive as a whole?

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

The colony is probably fine, but you don’t want to make the mistake of leaving them on long term.

Sean Govan
Reply

Rusty, how is it that a queen can survive for days in a cage with no attendants, when the cage is surrounded by bees that hate her and want her dead? Do some nurse bees always feed her while the other bees are trying to sting and bite the cage?

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

I think it’s a division of labor thing. Nurse bees nurse without delving into the politics of who should be there and who shouldn’t. There are always nurses around to take care of the young or the queens, while other bees, older ones, make the tough decisions.

Sean Govan
Reply

Rusty, I have a saga to tell which I will abridge; and some questions which I dearly hope you will have the time and patience to answer. I installed two packages in mid-April. Four weeks later, one hive had laying workers (Hive 1), which I gave up for lost, and the other hive had a laying queen (Hive 2).

Four weeks after that, I got two swarm calls. One swarm had no queen. (It was at a truck stop. I figure a bee truck spent the night and one of the hives in transport was leaky.) I combined the queenless swarm with my queenright colony in Hive 2.

The other swarm was a normal swarm with a queen. And I made a mistake. I shook out the laying workers in Hive 1 and dumped the swarm into their hive, thinking that the laying workers wouldn’t or couldn’t fly back. They did. Too late. I hoped they wouldn’t kill the queen in that swarm.

At that point, I decided to give them a frame of brood from the queenright hive to help them out. If laying workers killed the swarm’s queen, a new one could be raised. So I went through the queenright hive’s frames looking for brood. And to my utter dismay, I discovered that it wasn’t queenright after all. No eggs… no larvae… no capped worker brood… and a very few cells of highly scattered capped drone brood. Ouch.

I felt pretty desperate. These are the only bees I have. So I stacked the hive with the queenright swarm and the laying workers on top of the hive that I had thought was queenright, with nothing in between but a screen. I figured that soon everybody in all the boxes would be smelling queen pheromones and open brood pheromone, provided the swarm queen wasn’t killed by the laying workers that had flown back home. My thought was that this might help prevent a second set of laying workers until I could figure out what to do. (I called this tall hive “the United Kingdom” because there was one queen for four sets of bees.)

Since there were capped drones and no capped workers, that hive had been queenless for between 21 and 24 days, right? So unless the original queen was a drone-layer to begin with, those bees had only been without open brood pheromone for about two and a half weeks. They might accept a new queen.

So the next day, I separated the boxes again, bought a queen, and put her in the hive that I used to think was queenright. Today, four days later, I checked on her, and they still are biting and stinging her cage. How long can I keep her in her cage? In your experience, what is the longest amount of time that non-laying workers will stay hostile before finally relenting and accepting a new queen?

I also discovered today that the queen in the swarm was NOT killed and is laying. She laid half a frame of eggs in the four days since installation (that is one half of each side). I put that frame in the hive with the caged queen who is disliked, hoping it would speed up acceptance somehow without hurting the new colony too much. (If the workers had been laying, I would have given up right away. But since they weren’t, I thought it was at least worth a try. After all the trouble I have had so far, I want to go into winter with at least two colonies.)

If those workers’ ovaries are too far gone to accept that new queen by the time my swarm has open brood (hopefully within four days), can I stack all the boxes back together again, with a screen in between to allow smells to pass between colonies but not bees? Then remove the screen after a couple of weeks, when all worker ovaries are fully suppressed? And, if I do that, what can I do with the queen that I bought? I don’t think the swarm is big enough to do a split, although I really don’t know how big a split has to be to have a good chance of building up for winter. But I don’t want to waste that queen, and I do want at least two functional colonies.

If I hear back from you, I will be thrilled.

-A bummed beekeeper

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

TL;DR. No, actually I did read it but, honestly, most mornings I have about 40 to 50 questions in my in-box and the long ones get pushed to the bottom of the heap. If I can answer ten in the same time it takes to read one, I’d rather answer ten.

I don’t know the answer to your questions. As I’ve said so many times, laying workers are not worth the hassle. The only mistake, I think, is you should have moved the hive after you dumped the laying workers so they wouldn’t have re-entered the hive. You seem to know the biology of it all really well, so you can figure it out. Anyway, you lost me around the eight paragraph.

Sean Govan
Reply

Yeah, my post sure was long! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer it, though. I really do appreciate it. And Honeybeesuite has been a godsend for learning the biology of bees.

By the way, the queen of the swarm was not killed by the laying workers, much to my relief. And as for the hive with no eggs, larvae, or capped worker brood–they are now queenright again! There must have been a newly mated supersedure queen that hadn’t started laying yet! All that worry for nothing. Ha! In fact, I bet I would have seen eggs if I had looked again the next day! It was just unlucky timing.

Sean Govan
Reply

That is reassuring. Thank you, Rusty.

Melinda Rabbitt DeFeo
Reply

Hi Rusty – thanks for this forum! I need a bit of advice regarding my queen and setting up a temporary observation hive…

I have an Ulster Observatin Hive that I usually install using a nuc for approx. 2-4 weeks in a school classroom. This year I could only obtain a package so I installed in my Langstroth the end of May. Now it is time to bring bees to school. I need it only for two lessons two days apart.
1. Is it okay to remove queen and one frame for the day and return to hive after school and then pull it out again two days later? Or
2. Would it be wiser (less distruptive) to keep it together for the three days?
3. Perhaps I should leave queen behind?

This is the type of observation hive I have:
https://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com/Ulster-Observation-Hive

4. It has no feeder port so I plan to put entrance feeder in the bottom box – is there a better set up? I probably should have bought a division board feeder – hind sight is a wonderful thing but now I don’t have time to purchase – I live on an island so no local source…thanks in advance for your comments!

Rusty
Reply

Melinda,

I have never set up an observation hive, but maybe someone else has.

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