Is Your Hive Queenless? Or Queenright? (How To Check)

Queen on a frame

Updated on September 16th, 2021

Hive inspections disrupt the colony’s activity. Having a plan for each inspection can minimize the impact of your intrusion and assure that you accomplish your desired goal.

While you may have one specific goal for an inspection, you should always pay attention to signs that your hive is not queenright. A colony without a healthy, productive queen can quickly die out.

Signs that your hive may be queenless or not queenright are:

  • Lack of new eggs, larvae, or brood,
  • A scattered pattern of brood cells,
  • Multiple eggs in cells or a laying worker bee,
  • Negative turn in the colony’s disposition,
  • Honey or pollen stored where there should be brood,
  • Queen cells or queen cups forming,
  • A declining population in the spring or summer, or
  • A significant increase in the number of drones.

A queenless hive needs prompt attention to avoid the loss of an entire colony.

This article describes how to assess if the hive is queenright and what to do if it is not.

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What Does Queenright Mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, “queenright” describes a colony of bees as “having a queen in the hive.” [1]

Most beekeepers would define “queenright” more narrowly than dictionary. Being queenright means having a healthy, mated queen in the hive productively laying eggs to develop brood. Under this definition, not being queenright is essentially the same as being queenless.

How To Check If Your Hive Is Queenless Or Not Queenright

Seeing a queen is the most obvious way to know if a hive is queenless. However, see a queen, while a good sign, is not enough to satisfy yourself that a colony is queenright.

Also, queens can be tough to spot in a crowded hive for beginners and seasoned beekeepers alike. Searching many frames for a queen is not the best way to minimize your time in the hive. Other observations can indicate the status of the queen.

These other observations are meaningful if you understand the life cycle of the honey bee.

If you suspect a hive is not queenright, relatively frequent inspections may be necessary to monitor the situation and properly diagnose the colony’s condition before it deteriorates too far.

Before taking steps to replace a queen, balance the urgency of the situation with some patience to make sure of the situation.

Lack Of Eggs, Larvae, Or Brood

A productive queen is critical to the success and survival of a colony. Mated, fertile, healthy queens can lay hundreds of eggs per day, and possibly more than 1,000.

An egg looks like a microscopic grain of rice at the bottom of a cell. A queen typically lays only one egg per cell.

Eggs develop to larvae after 3 days. Therefore, spotting a tight pattern of eggs in the hive means that the queen was laying no more than 3 days ago.

Open brood and eggs
Healthy larvae and eggs in cells
Waugsberg (talk · contribs) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Larvae visible in uncapped cells developed from eggs laid between 4 and 9 days earlier, meaning the queen was productive in that time window.

Once capped, a larva develops into a pupa and emerges as an adult worker bee around day 21 or a drone around day 24.

Capped brood with nectar in the corners
Nice pattern of capped brood with nectar in the corners

With this knowledge, you can assess how recently the hive had a productive queen by examining the status of the brood.

Note: During a nectar dearth or late in the season, the queen may stop laying eggs to conserve food stores. Also, a new virgin queen may have emerged and needs to mate before it can lay eggs.

If the hive is queenless, you will notice the gradual loss of eggs, larvae, then capped brood as all the bees emerge.

Scattered Brood Pattern

A healthy queen lays eggs resulting in a tight brood pattern that is easy to spot.

These patterns will include small sections of honey and pollen for convenient feeding of the developing brood.

If the brood pattern is scattered and interspersed with large blocks of empty cells (or filled with nectar and pollen instead of brood), this indicates the queen may be failing or missing.

Multiple Eggs In A Cell (Or A Laying Worker)

If a hive is queenless, a worker bee may begin laying unfertilized eggs.

Unlike the queen, a laying worker may deposit multiple eggs in each cell. These unfertilized eggs can only develop into drone bees.

Laying workers are a sign of a hive in severe decline.

Negative Turn In A Colony’s Disposition

A queenless colony may become noticeably more defensive. However, a change in disposition can be related to other factors such as weather or recent disturbances by robbers or small mammals.

If you notice the change in attitude, check the brood for other signs of the hive not being queenright.

Honey Or Pollen Stored In Brood Cells

Queens will reuse empty brood cells for new eggs. If the queen is not laying, the colony may fill the empty cells with nectar, honey, or pollen.

However, during times of heavy nectar flow, the colony may focus on food storage over brood production. Brood cells full of food stores may indicate a need for additional space rather than a problem with the queen.

Queen Cells Or Queen Cups

A colony that loses a queen (or thinks its queen needs replacing) may attempt to raise a new queen.

Queen cells and cups are special cells designed to raise a queen. They are raised above the regular brood cells and are elongated to hold the queen’s larger body.

Queen cells may indicate a hive is queenless
Queen cells on the side of comb – Piscisgate [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

It is not uncommon to see some queen cups developing in the spring, and early summer as a colony contemplates swarming or a possible new queen. Later in the year, queen cups may indicate that the hive is queenless.

Declining Population

In early spring, the queen begins laying eggs to grow the colony’s population.

An initial bee package of about 10,000 bees can grow to 50,000 by midsummer.

If the population is declining during this period, check for other signs that the hive is queenless.

Later in summer and into the fall, the population will decline by design. The queen may cut back on production, and the drones are evicted from the hive as the colony prepares for winter.

An Increase In Drone Population

Drone bees generally make up no more than 20% of a colony. A significant increase in the drone brood or population indicates that the queen’s fertility has waned or that you have a laying worker.

How Long Can A Colony Survive Without A Queen?

How long a colony survives without a queen varies based on the brood status when the queen is lost. If the hive has the resources to raise a new queen, the colony may do fine. However, without a new queen, the colony will die out in the range of about 30 – 65 days based on the life expectancy of adult bees.

What To Do If A Hive Is Not Queenright

Options for dealing with a queenless hive vary depending on the colony’s condition and the time of year when you discover the problem.

If a hive has laying workers or the population is seriously depleted, you are unlikely to salvage the colony. Assuming the bees are otherwise healthy, the best option is to combine the remaining bees and their food resources with another colony.

If the queen is present but failing, consider dispatching (a beekeeping euphemism for killing her) and replacing with a new, mated queen. Adding open brood from a strong, healthy colony will help stabilize the colony while the new queen is accepted.

When the queen seems undoubtedly gone from the lack of eggs and larvae, there are two possible options. The most direct method is to proceed as if you dispatched an ailing queen and install a new queen in the hive.

Alternatively, you can add frames of open brood and capped brood from a healthy colony to see if the colony can raise a queen. It helps to provide a second frame of brood after a week, if available.

Note: Adding a new queen to an existing colony is akin to installing a bee package. A caged queen is put in the hive for the colony to accept and release gradually. If the colony is aggressive toward the new queen, you may have misdiagnosed the situation, and a queen is still present in the hive. Further investigation is required.

Conclusion

Whenever you inspect a hive, be on the lookout for signs the hive is not queenright.

A queenless colony can rapidly die out if you do not intervene in time.

If it is too late to salvage a colony, use the remaining bees and stores to strengthen other hives.

This article is part of a series on managing beehives, a guide to caring for honey bees over the year.

Additional Reading

LAYING WORKERS. IT HAPPENS. FIX IT. By Paul Hizsnyai in Bee Culture Magazine


[1] “Queenright.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/queenright. Accessed 29 Jul. 2021.

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