“Queen Problems Again”
Bee Culture (March 2006), Vol. 134 (3): 17-18


Malcolm T. Sanford


Each spring there seems to be concerns about queen quality.  I remember it was a focus of the American Beekeeping Federation’s meeting back in 1998 at Colorado Springs,
.  I reported on the results in my Apis newsletter in February of that year <

“There seemed to be a lot more problems with queens in apiaries in 1997, particularly on the east coast. Dr. Eric Mussen, extension beekeeping specialist in apiculture at the University of California, Davis, attempted to define the ‘problem.’ He asked three questions:


1.  Are the problems new?
2. Are the problems worse than usual?
3. Is there a verifiable special problem?

“The answers to these, according to Dr. Mussen, appear to be no. There are historical records of high queen losses; a 50 percent turnover in California commercial bees is common. Dr. Mussen also quoted as high as 55 percent loss in two months, reported by Washington State bee inspector Jim Bach. After gathering some facts on the reported losses, Dr. Mussen said he found little evidence of new problems. Most of the complaints centered around traditional causes associated with requeening and retaining replacement queens, including handling during processing and shipping, and subsequent introducing into recipient colonies.


“In a brainstorming session, participants at the symposium were able to develop a long list of possible problems that could have resulted in the reported observations. Generally they related to climate, malnutrition, unhealthy environments, and diseases and pests. Specific ones concerning queen acceptance and retention were those that caused stress during production, including queen handling, lack of drones and banking.


“Although there may have been repetition of well-known caveats concerning queen production and subsequent introduction, there were "nuggets" of information that came forth during the sessions. Dr. Marla Spivak (University of  Minnesota) quoted the late Dr. C.L. Farrar, "Poorly reared queens of productive stock will be inferior to well reared queens of less productive stock." She also said that nosema control was most important in mating nuclei. One reason is that sperm will migrate faster into the queen's spermatheca the less stress there is on a nucleus. This means that there should be no nosema, tracheal or Varroa mites, a tall order in these times. Finally, Dr. Spivak concluded that drone production must be emphasized more, especially now that Varroa mites prefer males and the lack of feral colonies appears to be narrowing the potential genetic base. She closed with an exhortation to producers to always rear more drones that you think necessary.


“A comment from Dr. Roger Hoopingarner, now retired from Michigan State University, got some attention. Many of the symptoms of the problems being described, he said, were reminiscent of those found by investigators looking at the effects of sublethal doses of fluvalinate on colonies.  Dr. Jeff Pettis at the USDA Beltsville Bee Laboratory said that a problem with current-day queen production is that producers are constantly asked to get the product out earlier. This can result in shortcuts and stress. Acceleration of expectations may also bleed over into the bee yard, according to Danny Weaver of Navasota, TX, who asked users not to ‘over manage’ colonies by pushing them too hard. This was supplemented by Pat Heitkam of Orland, CA, who said more observations, more management and more movement could equal more perceived problems.


“Another thread of conversation had to do with innovations in queen production. There is little information about what effects there might be from using plastic cups and cages (different sizes) or battery boxes. In particular, queen cages were described as smaller and, therefore, not able to hold the quantity of candy more traditional ones could. Finally, there was the great unknown called the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which also is continually changing its guidelines and procedures, sometimes without informing either producer or customer. A presentation by USPS officials at the convention indicated that as much as a 200 percent increase in charges might be applied to shipments in the coming season.


“Most participants agreed that there is a lack of basic information on a great many of the issues associated with modern queen rearing, shipping and introduction technique. Thus, as Dr. Mussen concluded, although the problems do not appear to be new, certainly many of the methods employed by queen producer and user alike are. Meanwhile scientific research in many of these areas languishes as funds are directed to more pressing issues such as mite control.”

Now comes word from England that at least one beekeeper, Roger Patterson, is so concerned especially about the poor quality of queens in terms of mating and laying eggs that he writes about it extensively in the Uk’s prestigious journal, The Beekeepers Quarterly (No. 82, Autumn 2005).  This was also summarized in the October-December issue of The Speedy Bee, the southeastern U.S. newspaper.  Finally, his writings can be found on a web site <http://www.bbka.org.uk/news/news/bbka/research-into-poor-queens.shtml>.

I was particularly struck by his introduction.  It emphasizes a historical slant that cannot be ignored when discussing contemporary problems.  I find this all the time when talking to beekeepers who recently have taken up beekeeping after introduction of mites and relating their experiences with those who were managing colonies before these phenomena raised their heads.  The experiences are often confirm the oft-used remark in statistics that it’s difficult to compare apples and oranges.

Mr. Patterson begins: “I started keeping bees in 1963 and at one time had 130 colonies, and have always raised my own queens on a regular basis. For a number of reasons I had a spell where I had no bees myself for about 15 years until restarting in 2002, but retained interest in my local Association, and continued to attend meetings. At one stage I could expect a success rate of getting queens mated from a sealed cell well in excess of 90%, but since returning to active beekeeping that success rate has dropped alarmingly, in my own experience to 50% or less.

“I believe the problem is very serious and poses a threat to beekeeping in this country, but of course it must first be recognized, which is not easy when so many dismiss it as being caused by the weather, or birds taking the queens on the wing, which are the traditional reasons for queens not getting mated or quickly failing. Firstly the weather has got far more bee friendly over my time in beekeeping, and results should be better, not worse, and secondly I don’t believe that birds are taking 4-5 times as many queens as they used to. If that was the case they would be taking workers as well and colonies would be much weaker.

“My initial warnings did not set off the alarm bells in the places I would have expected them to. There seemed little evidence that others had noticed the same problems I had, and when I spoke to beekeepers there was initially denial, then when I explained the symptoms I had a different response. In my locality many people are noticing problems in getting queens mated and laying properly, but only after I have alerted them. I have had correspondence from all over the country from beekeepers who have had problems. I have also had contact with beekeepers who keep records who haven’t experienced problems. These are just as important.” A summary of the problems identified includes:

1. Queens emerge with deformed or stubby wings.

2. Queens cells have dead and decomposing larvae.

3.  Queens emerge but never lay.

4.  Queens mate and produce many drones and they are retained much later in the season.

5.  Queens produce patchy brood.

6.  Queens lay eggs off center and often times two eggs to a cell.

7.  Queens are routinely superseded, even in small  colonies.

8.  Queens disappear

9.  Queens quickly become drone layers.

10.  Queens cease laying.

11.  Queens develop upside down in cells.

Mr. Patterson then asks whether the reader as a beekeeper has seen these kind of problems.  If so, he suggests the following:

A.  I see no problems in using queen cells that are built in a colony where the queen is laying a high proportion of drones in worker cells, but you must make sure that there are no drones in the cells. This goes against the normal theories, but if there is a problem with the semen from one of the drones the queen mated with, it doesn’t mean this is the case with all of them.

·B.  Put queen cells in cages so that they can be seen when they emerge, and the ones with deformed wings can be discarded.

·C.  When raising queens aim for at least double the number you need.

·D.  Try to keep basic records as you may have vital information that will help in any research. It could also help you sort out a problem.

·E.   Alert others to the problems and ask your local Association to make members aware of them. Make sure your officials follow the suggestions set out under “Advice and suggestions for local Associations” below.

· F.  Check the BBKA website regularly, and make sure you have the latest version of these notes.

· G.  Take photos of any of the above problems and send them to me preferably by e-mail <r.patterson@pattersonpressings.co.uk>. If you are unable to do it yourself then please ask someone who can.  Ideally I would like photographs of deformed queens, brood, and queen cells complete with the contents. Please also include the area of the country.

·H.  If possible avoid buying colonies before the winter, otherwise they may be queenless or have a failed queen in the spring.

·I.  I see artificial insemination playing a significant role. This could help produce a limited number of good laying queens. It could be useful in the research stages to help eliminate the possibility of such things as inbreeding.

He says that some non-Varroa related possibilities have made management techniques more difficult, but if he is correct that Varroa might be one of the causes three things need addressing.

· Reducing chemical residues

· Reducing varroa levels

· Reducing the population of parasitized drones.

Finally, he concludes: “I think that short term we ought to be developing ways of reducing the possible causes, rather than wait for those causes to disappear.” 

This takes us full circle.  As mentioned earlier, research on queen evaluation is almost non-existent as scarce funding  is going to more pressing  problems (mite and now beetle control).  In addition, the use of new technologies in producing, shipping and storing queens has introduced a host of other variables into an already complex system.

My profound apologies to Jim Fischer. I extensively quoted him in my last article on the state of bee science.  He wrote saying that either I or the editor should have given him time to look at my scribbling before it became hard copy.  He forgave me my trespasses when I sent him the following: “You are right!  I should have given you a ‘heads up.’   I apologize for not doing so and the article is poorer for this mental lapse.  I pledge to you this will not happen again.”  He brings up a good point.  However, because of deadlines and other factors, I am not always able to contact folks I quote.  I trust others will not be reticent to take me to task as he did, if they find good reason. I, like most authors, prefer to view my efforts as more dialogue than monologue.