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Why clip the wings of your queen?

A few days ago I stated that clipping a queen’s wings was a “barbaric” practice. In response to this comment, another beekeeper said I was emotional and irrational. He said I was overreacting because clipping wings is like cutting hair or nails—completely innocuous.

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, some beekeepers clip away part of their queen’s wings. I’ve heard at least three reasons for doing this. First, it will keep the colony from swarming. Second, it can indicate the year the queen was produced, and lastly, it can be used to mark a particularly valuable queen. (Right, whenever I get something particularly valuable, I start cutting it up.)

The idea behind swarm prevention is that once the queen’s wings are clipped, she won’t be able to fly. When the swarm realizes the queen isn’t with them, it returns to the hive. In the short term, this can buy you some time. But the colony retains the impulse to swarm even if the queen can’t come along. Eventually, the swarm will leave anyway, perhaps with a virgin queen. A swarm with a virgin queen has a long row to hoe: before it can start building population, it has to get the queen mated. If that doesn’t work, the swarm is doomed unless it’s rescued by a beekeeper.

In the comment where I used the word “barbaric,” the beekeeper saw her swarm leave, saw it return, and found her clipped queen in the grass being stung to death by a number of workers. Obviously, the queen couldn’t keep up with the swarm, but instead of making it back to her hive, she fell to earth where she was attacked by worker bees from somewhere.

It is interesting to note that all the normal swarm preparations occur within a colony, regardless of whether the queen is clipped. The queen ceases egg laying, she gets skinnied down by the workers, cells get backfilled to reduce the nest size, nectar and pollen collection are reduced. With her or without her the colony will swarm, so little or nothing is gained by mutilating the queen.

Some beekeepers mark the age of the queen by clipping the right wings on even years and the left wings on odd years, reasoning that when a dot of paint wears off, the information is lost. While many beekeepers see no downside to this practice, others believe that workers sense their queen is “defective” and supersedures come more quickly.

For now I want to go back to the emotional and irrational comment. Yes, at times I am both. But here’s the thing: wing clipping is not like hair cutting. Bee wings contain rigid veins that strengthen the wing and carry hemolymph from the body cavity, through the wing, and back again. Some of the veins also have nerves running through them. Although we don’t know for sure, the presence of nerves probably means the queen feels pain when her wings are cut. We know for a fact that hemolympth often oozes from the cut veins, at least for a time, and this can’t be good for the health and vitality of the queen. The workers have it right: a clipped queen is defective.

Furthermore, accidents happen when queens are clipped. Legs have been accidentally deleted and the occasional abdomen has been nicked. It remains my emotional and irrational opinion that there are better ways to mark a queen or stop a swarm.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Queen-bee-on-comb
Queen with pristine wings. Pixabay photo.

For more information on wing morphology, see Honey-Maker by Rosanna L. Mattingly (2012) chapter 11. For more on clipping practices, see The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (2007) p. 788.

Comments

Jennifer
Reply

I agree! This isn’t swarm prevention it is mutilation.

Wendy
Reply

All good points Rusty! If education and management of the apiary is increased, then people will be more informed and less likely to face as many complications.

AramF
Reply

It is an interesting discussion point, because from a production point of view, the cost of the queen is much less than cost of lost work force and harvest. So it would make sense to clip a queen. Yet I don’t think that most commercial guys clip their queens. I don’t think most of them even mark their queens unless they come pre-marked. I cannot imagine that it would be too hard to mark and clip a queen in a small spring colony.

On the other hand, all of my swarms I have missed literally by 1 to 3 days. If the queens were clipped, I would have 6 extra days from their first swarming attempt to correct the situation.

They have special front cages that makes use of excluder gradient to catch a swarming queen. It kind of looks like your pollen catcher, but with wider gradient for workers to pass through during their usual foraging activities.

https://www.thorne.co.uk/hardware-clothing/hive-hardware/swarms?product_id=5136

Deb C
Reply

Thank you for explaining that to everyone, I hope they understand I do not like my wings tampered with in any way! Love Queenie

Max
Reply

Rusty
I totally agree with you regarding the clipping of queen wings. It is a useless practice designed solely to aid the beekeeper not the bees. I see it as little to no benefit even to the beekeeper.

Chuck
Reply

Let me start off by saying I am not a honey bee keeper. I have mason bees because I like the early pollination for my flowers. I like to attract hummingbirds and butterfly’s. I read your blog because I find honey bees interesting and I find your blog to be very informational. I am writing because I think cutting queen wings is barbaric also. Your common sense approach to bee keeping is admirable. Anyone who believes in mutilating a creature for profit is in my book cruel.

J. Vaughn
Reply

With over 35 years as a beekeeper, I agree completely.

Pat
Reply

Thanks for a very informative article on clipping. I always thought it was barbaric too, but I didn’t even consider it being painful. I think as long as beekeepers are interested in getting maximum honey production, swarm prevention will be at the top of their list, and yet swarming is bee colony’s natural way of reproduction.

Matthew
Reply

Interesting post Rusty, thanks as always. I am a new beekeeper. First hive arrived 10 days ago with a clipped queen. Just seems to be the norm round here. I can see the merits of what you say though.

Rusty
Reply

Matthew,

Lots of places still do it.

Pedro
Reply

Last week I had an ‘accident’ while inspecting a colony where I inadvertently bumped a frame with new wax I was removing. The frame had very few bees that mostly fell to the ground but I paid little attention to them.

I inspected the colony looking for the new queen (I had divided a big colony that had swarmed once and looked like it wanted to have another go, so was checking to see if there was a new queen and if she had started laying). I was very happy to find eggs and larvae aplenty but couldn’t find the queen, which is not that unusual for me. Nevertheless something made me look back to where those few bees had fallen and there she was on the ground! In the midst of some panic I tried to persuade the queen to climb into my hand so I could return her but, to my surprise, she was having none of it and simply took the air! I waited to see if she returned, she missed the colony and landed on the ground again and this time I marched her carefully back to her batallion.

My point is that queens who can’t fly probably can’t make it back to their colonies if ‘accidents’ (I was just clumsy…) like this happen.

Another point is that bees use their wings for balance and to communicate. It’s not hard for me to imagine that a wingless queen will find it harder to do both within the confines of the colony.

Having said that, I don’t find barbaric clipping the wings of the queen. But it must serve a specific point and I agree that there doesn’t seem to be one. A study on the life expectancy and productivity of clipped versus unclipped queens would be interesting, if there isn’t one!

I admire how you are prepared to question and put to the test longstanding beekeeping dogmas. It makes us think! Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

That’s a great story. Once I was trying to release a queen from a cage right over the hive, thinking she would just drop in. Instead she flew off. She circled round once over the top of the hive (I could see her red dot in the air) but she kept going. Then she came round again, and I batted her with the palm of may hand (gently) and she fell into the hive where she lived happily ever after.

Bill Abell
Reply

Rusty,
It is at the least ineffective if not barbaric. The only reason to do it is swarm prevention and that will not work as you point out. ArmF points out a swarm prevention device. Brushy Mountain has the same device for 8 and 10 frame hives. I thought I might give that a try but then you would have to have one on each of your hives (cost prohibitive for me) unless you knew ahead of time which hive was going to swarm and in that case you wouldn’t need the device you could just do a split. Although I guess it could be used to buy you a little time if you discovered swarm cells but needed to be away for a day or so.

Bill

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

There are two problems with swarm guards. First, they trap the drones inside the hive, so they can’t be used for long periods. Second, if your queen should die or be superseded, the new virgin queen cannot leave to get mated. But they work great for short- term swarm prevention. I used one just last week. I was getting ready to leave for the day when I noticed a colony on the verge of swarming, ready to leave any moment. So I quickly added a swarm guard until the next day. By then I was ready to do a split, which I did with no problem.

I keep two swarm guards ready to go, and I’ve used them on many occasions. You don’t really need more than that because you use them so seldom and for short periods only. I’d say that over the years they have saved me dozens of swarms.

Mrs Deb-Bee
Reply

I don’t clip my queen wings or mark them. I try to keep my queens as natural as can be. Clipping wings and marking is only for us humans. We are already manipulating them by keeping them in wooden boxes. Give the queen and hive some dignity. Let them be Bees!

Bill
Reply

Thanks for all you’ve said. I would add one thing — when explaining to a vegan why we are not enslaving the bees, I point out that if we mismanage them, they are able to abscond. Clipping the queen’s wings would impede that and lend credence to their arguments. And that on top of making me emotional!

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Good point.

Walt
Reply

I have to laugh when I see clipped wings. “What a good lookin’ queen, oh wait…” I have had people swear by it. I once read in Jay Smith’s book on queen rearing, that he had an old queen (6 years if I recall correctly) that he had clipped. She performed well to the end miraculously. It is their bees, so their rules.
I will not be clipping anything off mine, I mark the year on them(usually before they are even mated, this way I know when one winds up in the wrong nuc) and keep notes on performance. I also don’t kill my “mean queens,” they’re bees, they sting, I would be dissapointed if they didnt.

TERRY
Reply

RUSTY—I WOULD LIKE YOUR THOUGHTS ON MARKING A QUEEN
I SEEM TO HAVE GREAT DIFFICULTY WHEN TRYING TO SPOT MY QUEENS–AGE HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THAT–OLD EYES I GUESS??? I HEAR THAT MARKING YOUR QUEEN HAS SOME DRAW BACKS—-THANKS FOR YOUR RESPONSE

TERRY

Rusty
Reply

Terry,

I think marking your queen is a fine practice. A dot of paint on the thorax works well, but some people like the glue-on numbers even better. I’m told they don’t rub off the way the paint does. The downside is mostly a matter of being careful. You don’t want to get paint or glue anywhere except on the back of the thorax, right in the middle. If you use one of those queen marking tools that holds the queen still, it is easy to make a decent job of it.

dan3008
Reply

Interesting read about clipping wings. Personally, I do clip my queens. But its simply that I’ve never questioned why, etc. Having read this I’m reconsidering why we do it. While I’m still learning, I have to follow my mentor, but worth thinking about.

Gale
Reply

Hi, in the 5th paragraph you said cells get back filled to reduce the nest size. I don’t know what that means. This is concerning the clipped wing article. Thank you

Gregory Radcliff
Reply

As a new beekeeper I found this article to be very informative. Although I never considered the practice, I don’t think it is something I care to do for the reason you listed. Thanks Rusty.

Richard Mincey
Reply

After having read several books by beekeepers from long ago (Brother Adam, Doolittle etc.) it seems that they all clipped the queens. Brother Adam had landing boards that clipped onto the front of the hive that were a foot or so wide and met the ground at a gentle angle which often allowed the clipped queens to make it back into the hive. After determining the queen was back in the hive, he then proceeded to cut out queen cells until the urge to swarm passed. He allowed that this was not a perfect system and he also raised his own queens and could deal with queen less situations that might arise.
In Brother Adam’s book “Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey”, on pages 47 and 48. A direct quote of the book “We never introduce a queen without first clipping her wings. Needless to say, this will not prevent attempts at swarming, but a swarm can not decamp without a queen.” Also direct quote ” I have in no case been able to observe any harmful results traceable to the clipping of wings in sixty years of beekeeping”. He kept 2,000 production colonies and 2,000 nucleus colonies. I have related all of this for those of us who are sincerely seeking a solution to deal with the swarming impulse. I believe in animal welfare, not animal rights so I have no problem clipping a queens wing as part of my husbandry. Thank you for your website, it has been a help to me over the last few years as I have been a new beekeeper.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

You are correct that many famous beekeepers of the past clipped wings religiously, just as many famous physicians of the past practiced bloodletting to cure disease. I read that doctors practiced bloodletting for over 2000 years, and some cultures still do. Still, if I were to come down with a disease or infection, I would prefer my doctor skip that part.

The biggest problem with wing clipping is that it doesn’t address the real issue. The instinct to reproduce is the strongest instinct in the animal kingdom and it is absolutely imperative for the survival of any species. So when a colony develops the urge to swarm, that urge won’t go away until it is satisfied. Clipping wings may buy the beekeeper some time, but eventually the colony will swarm anyway.

We have much more data available to us than ever before, and the data does not show wing-clipping to be worthwhile. Of course, you can find anecdotal evidence that shows it works miracles, just like wonder diets and get-rich-quick schemes. But personally, mutilating any animal from the design created by nature doesn’t sit well with me and I do not condone it. But if that’s what you want to do, by all means go for it.

Granny Roberta
Reply

The guy who said “clipping wings is like cutting hair or nail” … I’m pretty sure clipping wings is more like amputating a leg. A wing is a limb you use to move through your environment, not a bit of extra protection or adornment you could do without.

sheila obrien
Reply

This practice seems horrific and cruel is there any way it could be stopped?

sineadcunningham66@gmail.com
Reply

Clipping the wings of the queen bee is unnecessarily cruel.

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