Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tips for finding the queen

When discussing how to look for queens, textbooks always show a close-up photo of a queen right smack dab in the center of the photo with a dot on her back and the most perfect retinue you've ever seen. Shoot. A blind man can find a queen like that.

My first year, I looked and looked, but couldn't find a queen to save my life. I even photographed each bar during inspections so that I could search later on the computer. No luck. However, each year since, I've gotten better and better at it. I'm still no expert, but I can now almost always find queens -- even in a hive chockful of bees. The lighter ones are especially easy to spot. Dark queens are still more elusive, but I'm getting better with those, too.

This past weekend, Aaron Morris from Double A's Bees in NY gave a talk on making nucs at our local bee club. One of the things he discussed was how to spot the queen. Basically, he said to forget the whole thing about looking for a retinue surrounding a queen. In real life, you just don't usually get  a textbook photo because bees don't read the books. My experience has proven him right about this. My queens are usually scurrying around the edge of the comb to duck out of sight. Or I see bees that look like they could be a retinue, but then... no, they're not.

Dang, I've never seen this!

Instead, Aaron showed a page from Where's Waldo and recommended using those books as queen-finding practice, which seems a wildly clever idea. (BTW, I found Waldo within seconds, so apparently, finding queens also improves Waldo-spotting skills.)

My own approach is very much like Aaron's and is something that I developed based on Scientific America's tips for finding 4-leaf clovers. After reading the article (it was an article then, not a video), I actually found a 4-leaf clover and figured, "Hey! Those tips should work with bees, too!"

Basically, these tips boil down to two things:

  1. Know where to look: The queen's job is to lay eggs, so frequently, I find queens on the bars with the youngest brood.
  2. Scan, don't focus: I start in the center of the comb and scan in concentric circles outward from there. I try not to focus too hard on any one area or on details. Instead, I'm just kind of looking for something that jumps out of the overall pattern. Things that would break the pattern include the queen's shape and color. Obviously, she's bigger and more pointy, but since queens are not as patterned as workers, they make bigger blocks of color. Queens move differently, too. I don't know how to describe it, but they're just not as buzzy as the other bees. To me, they seem more languid.

Are any of you really good at finding queens? Do you have any secrets to share?

P.S. -- If you're still looking for Waldo, go no further. But if you're dying to know where he is, I posted the answer below.

scroll down...

keep scrolling...

a little more...

almost there...


  1. I think the workers formed a retinue around the queen in the picture because they're all wondering why she's got a 58 on her back! Like you, I've never seen anything like that in my hives or others I've looked at. I thought I was getting better each year, but last year, I could hardly ever find my queens. Your tips are good and I would add to look on fresh comb drawn comb as well - she likes to lay in new comb. Still, I'm much better at finding 4-leaf clovers, but there I have over 50 years experience. ;-) Maybe in another 46 years, I'll be good at spotting queen bees.

    1. You are definitely a master at finding 4-leaf clovers! Wish I were so lucky!

      That's a good tip about looking in fresh comb, too. Thanks for sharing that one!

  2. I look for a shiny thorax (a good reason to NOT mark your queens). The light will sometimes bounce off it and "highlight" her for you.

    1. That's a good one! I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. She is definitely a lot shinier. Thanks!

  3. I was unable to find the queen during my first year of beekeeping. An experienced beekeeper dropped by during my second summer to requeen one of my colonies that had become nasty. He spotted the queen immediately, pointed her out to me and let me watch her run around the frame for a few minutes, and after that I was able to spot the queen almost every time.

    I've spotted the queen on every type of comb --- honey, capped brood, empty foundation, places where she shouldn't be --- but I usually see her over areas of open cells that are ready for laying.

    I do a general scan, too, and keep an eye out for FAST MOVEMENT because the queen usually tries to skirt away as quick as she can.

    1. Love that story about how you spent some time watching a queen in order to spot her. That's such an important lesson that lots of new beekeepers don't grasp. Too many of them want to put their bees in a box and not ever disturb them because they want their bees to have a more "natural" life. No doubt that's fine for the bees, but it doesn't make for better beekeepers. Better beekeeping requires lots of time spent simply observing bees.

      My queens try to scurry around to the other side of the comb, too. But their rushing is a different kind of movement from hurrying workers. Maybe I spent too much time watching alligators in S. Florida, but queen bees remind me of gators on the run (which can move surprisingly quickly when they want to!)

    2. The queen moves differently than the other bees, though I'm not sure how I'd describe it. Maybe she runs more in a straight line whereas the workers tend to zig or zag or walk in a curve? Not sure. But there's a difference.

      I don't like to see worker bees moving fast. It usually means they're agitated, which sends me the message that something is wrong. Something could be wrong with the queen, or maybe they're saying it's time for the human to leave.

      While I understand the desire to let the bees exist as naturally as possible, I have my doubts about many so-called natural beekeepers who don't seem to do anything with their bees other than stick them in a box. But to each their own, I suppose.

    3. Gosh, I hope I didn't offend you by communicating my thought poorly. I love your story because it's exactly what I tell people all the time. Watch the bees! From your blog, I know you're a highly responsible beekeeper! But I love that you learned to find queens by watching a queen!

      I've met too many people who have no idea what's going on in their hives because they never take time to observe them. Drives me nuts!

    4. Whoa, what's going on? I didn't for a second take any offense. I might be the one who communicated poorly. But nope, it's all cool here.

      Now about bad beekeepers, that's something that's bothered me for a while. I've helped my fair share of new beekeepers in the past few years, but many of them have turned out to be inattentive beekeepers. They just don't pay attention to their bees. Two or three years in and they still don't know what they're looking at when they open the hive. When I said to each their own, I meant to say I don't want to be judgemental. But I'm annoyed by how many people I've met who basically ignore their bees.

    5. I had only reread my original response and thought, "Oh crud -- It doesn't sound right." LOL!

      We're definitely on the same page... except, I'm ok being a little judgmental. ;-) LOL! We all make mistakes (especially me), but when people ignore their bees and then can't figure out why things have gone pear-shaped -- that drives me bonkers.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!