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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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Is requeening a hive really necessary?
Ask yourself if requeening a hive is really necessary. Is it the right solution for the problem you are having? Pixabay photo.

Comments

Dawn
Reply

I envy your distance from the Africanization we have in southern California. My local mentor (full-time beekeeper) says that 60% of local swarms are Africanized, and probably about the same for bee removals. That means that I cannot allow an unknown hybrid supersedure, as I am in a very urban location. I have dealt with Africanized bees, and they are not fun. They are probably even less fun for my neighbors.

Even more important, is that the more Africanized (there are degrees of Africanization, believe it or not) you allow them to become, the less likely you are to be successful with requeening, according to my mentor who does this all the time. So while I agree that gratuitous requeening is never justified, when you are in area of Africanization, and your known marked queen may have been superseded, you may need to consider requeening earlier than other regions.

Rusty
Reply

Dawn,

As I clearly state in the post, “You should evaluate the problem to see if requeening is the best answer.” Obviously, supersedure in an AHB (Africanized honey bee) area is a situation where requeening is desirable. If you read the post, you will see that I am asking beekeepers to think about what they are doing, not necessarily to change what they are doing.

Dawn
Reply

No argument from me, Rusty, your article just didn’t come across with quite the perspective we have gained this year. Visualize us as beekeepers in full gear being chased a hundred feet from the hive while now wearing a “black veil” of bees. It was hard to get far enough away without impacting our neighbors.

We beat ourselves up about concept of destroying a queen for over a week before we decided to requeen. We should not have hesitated, but we wanted to give the bees the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we had picked a bad time? However, it was mid March, and a hive scale on a different hive showed a strong nectar flow. Sometimes our emotions get in the way of doing the right thing, and in our case, we waited too long.

When you are very experienced in you region, everything is clear. We have 30 years of beekeeping in the UK. It was all obvious there, mostly. However, Californian beekeeping is quite different. So if you are dealing with a situation new to you, you may need an outside opinion to help you evaluate the problem, and see whether requeening is the right answer. Obvious, I know, but it didn’t seem obvious to us at the time. 🙂

Aram
Reply

I will second requeening for temperament. They absolutely will chill out much faster than 21 days; usually about a week. I have done and observed it many times myself. I won’t venture to say whether it is the queen, or the pheromone profile of the brood she produces, but the change is noticeable and quite dramatic. Will they be nasty at night or in the rain? I am pretty sure they will, but unless I am feeding in the spring, I got no business being in the hives at those times anyway.

Jeff, bottom of NZ
Reply

I think a lot of the modern hype behind re-queening is driven by clever marketing by the good folk involved with massed queen breeding and selling. By honey producers, not bee keepers. By those with not a lot of experience, but access to the internet so they can spread their form of the “gospel”.

“You’re reading from the wrong books”. I loved that quote, although perhaps not from books but from the internet. If beginners went back to reading books that were written early last century, some of the more basic inspection and management mistakes may not be made as often.

Annie Myers
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I have spent this season experimenting with making what you would call “cut down” splits in order to produce more hives, make new queens, create brood breaks and get a honey crop! It has worked beautifully and much of it I owe to you and the information in your website, so thank you!

I (well I guess I mean the bees) have been able to turn six nucs into twelve productive Langstroth hives and a single overwintered TBH into three without purchasing a single queen. It’s amazing what they can do if you just make sure they have what they need.

If I ever buy a queen again it will only be because I want to add to the gene pool.

I have also found this publication very helpful….. Simple-methods-of-making-Increase-Final-reduced1.pdf

Thanks,
Annie
Vashon Island, WA

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Annie. I will check out the publication, too. By the way, I’m having a good year as well. Lots of comb honey!

Paul
Reply

Rusty,

Your posts are always so timely for me. I have a hive that I started from a nuc which came from an almond pollination operation. I have no idea what age the queen is and so I have been thinking about re-queening. My fear is that my queen could fail come spring and there won’t be queens available. I’m thinking this might be the best time to do it. I would appreciate your thoughts on my rationale.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

I would look at her brood pattern before I did anything. I read recently that something like 20% of new queen introductions fail. I don’t know if that is accurate, but it is something to consider.

Mike
Reply

Earlier this spring one of my hives came out of winter so aggressive I was wondering if A H B had reached Washington state. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry tho because this was the best performing hive I’ve had in a long time. Thinking about requeening but they solved it by swarming. Maybe just chill and let them solve there own problems. Now they are fine and still very productive.

Alex
Reply

Rusty great read thanks 😝

Steve Gibbs
Reply

Good points you make. And I also am jealous of your ability to let the hive raise a new queen. In our africanized zone I have to spend many hundreds of dollars buying queens every year just to keep things under control. The angry hives here cover you with bees and they manage to sting through leather gloves and double layers of fabric. Takes the fun out of beekeeping, honestly. When I open a calm hive where the bees are just milling around ignoring you, it is wonderful like a bite of chocolate pie.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

Love the chocolate pie analogy. Some things might cause me give it up, and AHB is one. And maybe small hive beetles. Varroa mites alone feel like a full-time job.

cyrus
Reply

I have not introduced a new queen into my hives since I started beekeeping five years ago hoping that by doing so I’ll have bees that are more adapted to my region. However this doesn’t hold true if my neighbour requeens with queens from New Zealand or California every year or so and my queens mate with their drones. Everyone needs to produce their own queens if this is going to work.

Ray
Reply

Incisive and thought provoking as always Rusty, thank you.

Pedro
Reply

This adept of republics still hasn’t come round the idea of executing queens.

John Mountcastle
Reply

Hi Rusty, “Love your show, Babe”, if you haven’t “re-queened” in ten years, you’ve either got a lot of geriatric queens or you have an effective technique for inducing supersedure. Could you discuss that.

I plan to become a beekeeper next spring. I took a local club course, in March/April and while I wait for next season to get started, I read your every post. They make such good sense. Thanks, John

Craig
Reply

You really shoudn’t need any convoluted strategy to induce supercedure. The bees figured that out eons ago.

You should be able to just step back and let the bees be bees. I’m thinking that any attempt to try to induce this would be detrimental, in most cases.

Dan
Reply

Africanized bees are better adapted to the environment they have colonized in the south! As such a stronger effort should be placed in exploring what will happen if more and more beekeepers opt to weed out undesirable traits rather than look for the “best ones”. Looking to “manufacture” that elusive bee with the best traits will most likely result in failure. Local selection of bees in tune with a ecosystem by getting rid of undesirable traits while maintaining as high a genetic variability as possible will in all likelihood “bee” more productive and sustainable be it honey production or pollination

ARNOLD RAYMOND
Reply

I got a package of bees from California this spring. Carniolans, very gentle. At first. Now with the new hatchings the hive is more and more agressive. When we opened the hive yesterday they attacked immediatly on exposed flesh and through clothing. My helper got five to seven stings. I got none. As he fled I closed the hive and all became quiet again. There is a somewhat of a derth going on here. They have not attacked when feeding them. My inclination is to wait a while to see if they are more tractable when there is bloom. I am new at this and have had very little mentoring. Ideas any one? Araymond@wyoming.com

Jeff, bottom of NZ
Reply

Sounds like they are being defensive no aggressive, protecting what they have from what they perceive as an aggressor. When there is no new food coming in, they tend to get fairly possessive of what they have already gathered.

Different forage types can cause a similar mood change. Over here it is Kamahi tree nectar and Black Currant nectar that seems to swing their mood from one day happy and placid, to nasty little critters the next!

Charley
Reply

I recently commented to the previous post regarding frequency of inspections stating that my girls have always had good temperment. I attribute it to minimizing inspections to only times when I sense something wrong by a change in activity at the hive entrance. I also minimize the use of smoke.

Wouldn’t you know that, through my own mistake I altered their temperament. For almost two days my wife and I and our greyhounds were unwelcome from exiting our back door. We would immediately be met by two or three girls that were hell-bent on buzzing us and getting in our faces. One was successful in “touching” my wife just below her nose causing some swelling and giving her a bit of a birds beak.

My mistake was not using any smoke while checking each of our two hives two supers and then jostling them to place escape screens under them. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I rarely use smoke because my inspections are usually limited to looking under the outer covers and observing the girls visible through the screened inner cover. The girls are back to their gentle ways and have remained so after using the smoker during the process of removing the supers yesterday for harvesting. I must say it was scary for those 36 hours and it took me a while to realize the mistake I made. I can’t imagine an AHB situation but would certainly try requeening to solve it if I was sure the aggressive behavior was not due to something I had done to initiate it.

Keith in VA
Reply

I wonder if some of the advise to solve problems by requeening comes from beekeepers who are fanatics for one particular race of bees. Often you see the requeening suggestion followed by a pitch for bees from the author’s preferred stock.

It sounds like you live in an area where there is a feral bee population that is well suited for your purposes. I’m in the same situation. We are very lucky that we can just go with the flow and let our colonies raise their own queens and let the mate openly with the feral colonies. There are probably some hobbyists and a lot of commercial beeks who don’t have that luxury.

Allison, Que Canada
Reply

Thank you very much for the well-written article. After experiencing a very strange spring and summer in Quebec, I have left 2 of my 5 hives to re-queen themselves. One after a swarm and one after a re-queening failed with the queen dying in the cage. I have purchased 6 new queens with horrible results. I am learning and taking notes for next season. I am most grateful to have found your site. I was also given a bee book dated 1905 and will read it this winter. NO more re-queen for me..I have learned my lesson. thanks again…

Tina Sebestyen
Reply

Kudos on a well-thought out, and well written article!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Tina.

Kris Soule
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Here, here. Love your column.

Ages ago I saw a clip about some workers that had come across a 10 year old bee hive. The hive was very strong, tons of bees, and honey bursting at the seams. According to the clip, no one had done anything to it. It was abandoned by human life form.

The hive after all those years was desperately in need of repair. They hired a few beekeepers to replace some of the deeps, that was it. When I became a beekeeper, I had already decided to let the bees tell me how they worked, and what they needed. After all, they’re just like humans. They do not want their home broke into. They want to go where they please. They want to be healthy, and they’re going to have their bad days, and good days.

Why people want to take that away from them is just crazy. Yes, I feed them when need be. I check for mites, and diseases.
However, I leave their honey in all winter, and process the following spring.

I do leave them alone most the time. The bees are happy, I’m happy.

I’ve never requeened. Why would anyone take their job away from them is beyond me.

The only thing I do on a weekly basis is I stand 20 feet away and watch them come and go. If the bees are not doing that, then I would have to take a peek. Never had any problems.

I would never change what I do. I love it.

Take care
Kris🐝

Tyrel
Reply

I think sometimes that the “requeen every year” mentality, especially in the commercial bee breeders, is partially to blame for the poor queen problem many are having. How many times have we heard that queens used to live 5+ years, and now they are lucky to live 6 months. I think we have inadvertently bred away from long-lived queens. In nature, the oldest queen would have produced the strongest genetic presence that then mated with other “old” genes. We have removed that variable, and by not selecting our breeding stock from longevity, we’ve selected against it.

Rusty
Reply

Tyrel,

Excellent point. I’ve wondered about that too. As you say, we are, in essence, breeding against longevity, so it’s not surprise that it is disappearing.

Ken A
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Very interesting your blurb on re-queening, I now have two hives going and next spring I intend to split the older hive (which has two deeps and a medium for brood). My intention is to take half the frames and replace with new frames and start a new hive with the frames I have removed. By my reckoning one will be queenless and the other will have the original queen, I have been thinking about just allowing Mother Nature to take her course and allowing the queenless hive to supersede. Have you any thoughts on what I should be doing to ensure supersedure? I’m a big fan of Dadant’s writings but can’t really find anything specific to this topic.

Thanks Ken

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

Your plan to split is logical. It is basically the way I do it. However I don’t understand what you mean when you say, “ensure supersedure.” The old queen may get superseded at some point, or maybe not, depending on how strong she is. The queenless portion cannot supersede since there is no queen in there to start with. All you need to do is make sure the queenless portion has eggs and very young larvae. With those, the workers can begin to raise a new queen.

Ken A
Reply

My bad, still learning the beeks lingo, can’t supersede if there’s nothing there, maybe if I had put my brain in gear before writing.

Ken A

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I wouldn’t worry over it since we all do it. I just like to straighten out the confusion for others who might be reading the question/answer and not understanding.

Sara
Reply

I had one odd occurrence this year where the old queen (a very good queen with productive offspring) resisted what seemed to be her children’s attempt to replace her. During an inspection of this colony, I found a single capped queen cell- it had a hole in the side. Inspecting further, I found the old (her second year), marked queen going about business as usual, beautiful laying pattern. Haven’t the faintest idea what was going on there as usually if the girls want to swarm they make many, many queen cells, but whatever it was obviously Queenie was having none of it.

Kevin inglin
Reply

I have had a sense that so many talks, so many articles, and now so many conversations between beekeepers, profess the holy grail of queen genetics that beekeepers have been given a quest for an ultimate queen. So many times they may have a perfectly good queen but as you rightly pointed out they do not employ sound management practices. Well written and timely message. Thanks for the sage guidance as always.

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