Finding The Queen
Generally this poses a problem for beginners, as indeed for some of the more seasoned beekeepers, who are not accustomed to examining their colonies on a regular basis. Perhaps the ability to spot the queen may be described as a gift, which comes with experience in the routine handling of bees.
The best time to find the queen is in April, at the start of the season when there are only a small number of bees in the colony. It is generally much easier to find the queen in a colony with a small population of bees as is usually the position in Spring or early Summer.
Alternatively, if you are buying a new queen or a nucleus of bees, then it is worth asking the bee supplier to mark the queen for you if you are nervous about doing it yourself.
Holding the Queen
Many experienced beekeepers mark a queen by holding onto her legs or thorax with one hand, and quickly dabbing the paint with the other hand. Others prefer to use one of the many “queen marking cages” that are sold by beekeeping suppliers.
To use a marking cage, once you’ve captured the queen, you drop her into the plastic tube and insert the sponge-covered plunger part way. Then you hold the tube so the mesh end is up and the stick end is down – the way you would hold a lollipop.
Once the queen is sitting on the sponge with her back toward the mesh cover, you slowly push the plunger until the queen is captured between mesh and sponge. Squeeze just enough to hold her still—and no more. The sponge will give and keep her from getting squished, but don’t push your luck. Just enough is enough. Now you are ready for paint. – you should put a dot on the back of her thorax.
A variation of the queen marking cage is the “Turn and Mark” cage. This has a physical stop, and prevents you squashing your valuable queen by mistake. You can also turn the plunger to easily align the queen with the slots in order to mark her – very handy when you have a queen that is reluctant to stay in the right position for marking!
Another device, that looks rather sinister, is the “push in cage” or “crown of thorns”. Having found the frame with the queen on, lay it down gently on top of the brood frames. Lower the Crown of Thorns on to the queen. Make sure you don’t spear her! Allow workers to escape from between the spikes – the queen is too big. If possible do this on soft new comb. Lower the Crown of Thorns a little more. This will hold her gently against the comb and stop her wriggling, and she can then be marked.
Personally, I dislike these, as it is all too easy to inadvertently stab bees with the ‘thorns’, or even your queen, as some of them run pretty quickly across the frames to hide.
Queen Marking colours
A different colour is used for marking honey bee queens each year, based on the year in which the queen is reared. Five different colours are used as standard on a repeating cycle and as queens do not live for more than five years, there is no confusion.
Marking queens in this way serves two purposes, first marked queens are easier to find when inspecting the colony and second, the colour code enables the beekeeper to keep track of the age of the queen in the colony.
A simple way to remember which colour to use is with the mnemonic “Will You Raise Good Bees” (White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue)
POSCA marker pens are very popular with beekeepers as they are easy to use and will not dry out. They are water based and non toxic to bees or humans.
My personal preference is for the small plastic dots, numbered 1-100, coloured with the 5 International colours (white , yellow, red, green, blue), and glue. They come in fluorescent colours for easy identification of the queen. I have found the best glue to be super glue gel, not the liquid kind – or the glue which comes in the kits, as I’ve found this to generally be rubbish.
I use a special tool (pictured above) to apply a small dot of the glue to the back of the thorax, then a quick lick of the opposite end, dab it onto the disc which will adhere to the spit, and apply it to the glue. Press the disc down for a few moments to make sure it sticks. These numbered discs are ideal for keeping track of queens, if like me, you rear your own.
Other products used to mark queens include nail varnish and enamel modellers paints.
Whichever product you use to mark your queens, it is important to let the paint or glue dry well before reintroducing the queen to her colony. Failure to do so could result in the queen being rejected or killed due to her unusual smell.