Requeening a hive may not be the best answer
In my opinion, requeening has become a mania. What used to be a management strategy for replacing older queens has now become the answer for every problem a colony might have. Want to boost summer populations? Requeen. Your bees won’t move into the honey supers? Requeen. Too many mites? Requeen. Too much swarming? Requeen. Nosema? Chalkbrood? Deformed wings? Requeen.
To me, gratuitous queen replacement is not good beekeeping and it will not produce better colonies. In fact, it relieves you from having to learn the intricacies of honey bee biology. If the answer is always a new queen, perhaps you are not asking the right questions.
What is requeening?
First, let’s define the word. “Requeening” literally means to queen again. When you requeen you replace one queen with another. In other words, you take the extant queen out of the hive where she is living and put another in her place. If there is no queen to start with, you are not requeening. Instead you are simply supplying a queen to a queenless collection of bees.
Some good reasons for requeening a hive
A healthy queen can live a number of years, perhaps five or so. But as a queen ages, her productivity drops and she will lay fewer eggs than a young queen. For this reason, beekeepers often replace a queen every one or two years in order to maintain strong populations.
Along with egg-laying, pheromone production also decreases. It seems that high levels of queen pheromone play a role in preventing swarms, so some beekeepers like to keep fairly young queens in colonies that might swarm.
Another common reason for requeening is worker disposition. If a queen produces temperamental offspring that are aggressive, territorial, and sting-happy, requeening from different stock can solve the problem.
In some cases, a different line of bees may be more resistant to certain diseases and parasites. Chalkbrood is a disease that can sometimes be reduced with different genetics. And certainly mite resistance varies with genetic makeup.
Each of these are valid reasons, but they all come with caveats.
Requeening is a management tool
In modern parlance, requeening is a tool. But just as a mechanic doesn’t use a wrench for every job, a beekeeper shouldn’t be requeening each and every time he perceives a problem. A mechanic who uses a wrench as a hammer is an idiot, or else just plain lazy. The same could be said for excessive requeening. Each time you feel the urge to requeen, you need to ask yourself if it’s the best tool for the job.
Lately I’ve heard of requeening a hive to boost summer populations, to get bees to move into empty supers, to prevent backfilling, to stop bees going to swimming pools, to reduce the number of drones, to encourage comb building, to change foraging patterns, to keep the bees closer to home, and to get the bees to fly north instead of south. In some of these cases, a new queen might have an effect or might not, but requeening is a lot of disruption for a mere possibility.
First, a confession
I realize that my beekeeping techniques often fly in the face of convention, and my opinions on requeening a hive are no exception. I cannot remember the last time I requeened a colony, but I think it was about ten years ago. In spite of that, I have an excellent track record of bee health and overwintering success. How can that be?
I think the answer lies in management style. Although I never remove and replace a queen, I do other things to encourage healthy colonies and queen updates. One of my primary concerns is bee genetics. Since my bees seem to be well-adapted to their local environment, I don’t want to bring in outside queens. Instead, I want my bees to make their own choices.
To me, excessive queen replacement is similar to excessive inspection. Bees are much better at being bees than we give them credit for. It’s arrogant to think we always know best.
Requeening because of poor brood pattern
A substandard brood pattern is probably the most compelling reason for queen replacement because a colony without a strong queen is liable to fail. Still, when I find a weak brood pattern I often just add a frame or two of open brood from another colony. This seems to stimulate supersedure, and within days the problem is solved.
When we requeen, we usually make the assumption that the new queen will be better than the old one. But if you listen to all the stories, you know this isn’t true. The expensive new queen may be no better, may have different problems, or may not get accepted at all. It’s always risky.
Requeening because of temperament
Because I get so much mail, I hear many of the same things over and over, and this one amazes me. Someone will write and say their colony was gentle, sweet-tempered, and productive until one day last week when it suddenly turned nasty. So they requeened right away.
Huh? A colony that’s been gentle as a lamb and suddenly turns mean one day was upset by something in the environment. Since all the workers cannot change their genetic makeup overnight, the upset had nothing to do with the queen. It may have been caused by loud noise, a bad smell, an impending storm, high humidity, a hive inspection, or a predator skritching at the entrance. Usually, the bees will get over it in a few days.
When a new queen is introduced, the number of bees in the colony that are her offspring changes slowly. There will be none for the first three weeks, then there will be a few, and then gradually more and more. Eventually, the workers will be almost exclusively her offspring, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Some say it’s not only worker genetics but the pheromones emitted by the queen that dictates temperament. But even if that’s a factor, the suddenness of the change must be considered. I had one just last week. A previously gentle colony began chasing, head-butting, and stinging right after I removed honey on a humid day. I let them alone, and after three days they were back to normal. It would have been a shame to replace that productive and gentle queen with an unknown.
However, if a colony gets progressively more agitated as time goes on, requeening is in order. Analyze what is happening before you decide, and remember that logic is the most under-utilized tool in the beekeeper’s kit.
Requeening to control disease
Oftentimes we blame the queen for our own poor management. It’s true a disease like chalkbrood can sometimes be contained by requeening, if you’re lucky. But a better answer is good management. Chalkbrood is often the result of chilled brood or damp hives.
If your queen is a poor layer, and a shortage of workers results in chilled brood, then go ahead and replace her. But at the same time, do whatever you must to reduce moisture in the hive, remove excess space, and make the hive easier for the bees to manage. If you fail to fix problems within the hive itself, chalkbrood is likely to return regardless of the queen’s genetics.
Requeening to control swarming
Sometimes a new queen will prevent a swarm, sometimes not. Remember that swarming is a sign of a strong and healthy colony. If you have a robust colony it may swarm in spite of a new queen.
If you can allow your colony to swarm, or if you can create a split or artificial swarm, you will get a new queen in the parent colony, and most often the bees will replace the old queen in the split. When you split a colony or allow it to swarm, you seldom have “old queen” problems. Swarming is nature’s way of keeping colonies young and vibrant.
If you live where you can’t allow swarming, split them. You can always recombine later to reduce the number of colonies before winter.
Requeening for ridiculous reasons
If you’re requeening to prevent backfilling, to keep bees from drinking at swimming pools, to reduce the number of drones, to encourage comb building, to change foraging patterns, to make them stay closer to home, or to get them to fly north instead of south, you’re reading the wrong books. They are bees. They do bee things. Get over it.
Bees respond to changing conditions in their environment, they go to pools to get water, they raise drones to perpetuate the species, they forage where they find the best food. You simply can’t change the basic nature of bees by requeening.
Trying to requeen a dying colony, one no bigger than a handful of bees, won’t work either. The queen can’t do it by herself. Many bees are necessary to raise, feed, warm, and protect brood. Without a solid workforce, nothing the queen can do will make any difference.
Decide if requeening is the answer
Am I saying you should never requeen? Of course not. But I am saying you should evaluate the problem to see if requeening is the best answer. Maybe it is, but maybe it’s not. A good beekeeper works with the bees, not against them. Although requeening has its place, I believe it’s the most over-rated management technique in modern beekeeping.
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