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Mean to Serene

Re-Queening a Feral Hive

By: Charlie Agar - CharlieBee.com

So, you’ve captured a swarm or done a bee removal and now you’ve got yourself a wild, Texas hive in your apiary. Congratulations and welcome to the tribe of “Free Bee” chasers!

“But now what?” you ask. “Can I just raise the colony with their own feral queen?”

Since the early 1990s when the first Africanized swarms arrived in Brownsville, beekeepers in Texas have been wrestling with a hybrid, Africanized strain in our wild bee populations. Some beekeepers favor these spicier bees, which are at once very defensive but also tend to be honey productive and resistant to mites.

The defensive disposition of Africanized or hybrid Africanized wild hives is just one characteristic that makes them challenging to me though. I really struggle with the tendency of feral bees to swarm at all times of year or just simply abscond at the drop of a hat.

Beekeeping can be heartbreaking enough without losing hives so readily. I also place hives on ranch property to help folks achieve their Ag valuation and just can’t in good conscience put that kind of liability on my clients.

So, while there is nothing stopping you from raising hives with feral queens, I typically pinch and replace.

When I capture any wild hive, I set them up in my “BeeHab” yard, which is far from any human habitation, so they won’t be a danger to anyone. I give the bees plenty of sugar water and the right amount of space to draw comb, then wait for the queen to start laying. Once the colony starts to grow, they show their true colors.

What I look for in a wild hive is whether they respond to smoke from my smoker and how persistent their defenses are. Do they pour out of the front of the hive when I approach? Do they layer up around my nose and mouth on my veil?

Do they keep on attacking even when I move far away from the hive? If so, it’s likely time to requeen.

First step is to source a queen. I need to be sure there are gentle queens available. The folks at Texas Bee Supply seem to always have plenty on hand.

Next, I must pinch the original queen. Even for experience beekeepers it can be hard to find a queen, especially in a feisty feral hive. Blake Shook has some great videos about queen finding on the Texas Bee Supply YouTube channel. I typically just move through the hive frame-by-frame and usually can find her. If I go through the entire hive and don’t spot Her Majesty, I will typically shake all the bees onto the bottom board – a technique I learned when shaking packages for a commercial beekeeper – and typically spot the queen there and dispatch her.

Once the original queen is gone, I can now replace her. Some beekeepers like to leave the hive desperately queenless for a few days to facilitate new queen acceptance, while others requeen immediately after pinching the old queen. In my experience, either approach works just fine.

Remember that a queenless hive will kill any new queen you introduce because they don’t know her smell. In order to help the bees accept a new queen, I use a push-in cage to protect the queen and give the hive time to get used to her.

A push-in cage is just a small wire box with one side open. You can buy one at any bee supply, but I make my own with #8 hardware cloth and zip ties. You place the new queen inside the cage and push the open side into the comb. That way the queen is inside the hive but protected from the confused, queenless bees who might kill her.

I select a good frame of brood from my queenless hive, best with open cells where the new queen can lay a few eggs and thus facilitate acceptance.

I take that frame, shake the bees off, and install the queen a short distance away, usually on the seat of my vehicle nearby. If the hive is surly, you might end up with a bunch of guard bees making your life difficult. In this case, I’ll even get in my vehicle, start it up, crank the AC and crack the windows a bit, making it uncomfortable for the guard bees and easier to do the precise work of installing my new queen in her cage.

Video Description of Queen Cages

Purchased queens arrive in one of two types of protective mini cages of their own – either the plastic, manufactured pod cage or the wood-and-screen small box – and this is where it gets a little tricky. You’re going to have to get the queen out of the mini cage she arrives in and release here under your push-in cage on a frame. That means you’re going to have a queen “on the loose” between the two cages for a few seconds.

If you’re not experienced handling queens, this can be a bit of a scary proposition.

First, just relax. Take a few deep breaths. You got this. I’ve fumbled a few queens and even lost a queen inside my vehicle while trying to install her in a push-in cage (I just waited and found her on the dashboard few minutes later and picked her up).

Whichever mini cage your queen arrives in, find the end of the cage that is not stopped up with fondant.

You need to remove the cork on that end, or, with the wood-and-screen box, I sometimes just pry off the staples on the wire cover to let the queen loose.

Sometimes queens arrive with attendants inside their mini cage or loose in the larger box the mini cage arrives in. I try to introduce a few of the attendants under the push-in cage because that helps with queen acceptance but be careful not to let any random loose bees in there as they are not affiliated and will not tend to the queen (or might even try to kill her).

As soon as I open the mini cage, I cover the opening with my finger, then I slip the mini cage under the push-in cage on the frame, closing it up quickly after I drop the mini cage. I then wait for the new queen to figure out that her mini cage is open and find her way onto the frame. Once she is released from her mini cage inside the push-in cage, I can put the frame back into the hive.

Be sure the requeened hive has plenty of sugar water and maybe part of a pollen patty. Well-fed bees are happy bees and more likely to accept the new queen.

I close the hive and wait three or four days before I return and inspect. Sometimes, even with a good push-in cage, the bees can get to their new queen. If after a few days the push-in cage is full of bees and the queen is alive, you’re in good shape.

If she is dead inside the cage, you’ll have to get a new queen and try again. If the hive is completely ignoring the queen under her push-in cage or still “balling” up on the outside of her cage trying to kill her after a few days, I just leave her locked in there for a few more days before I release her.

If the bees are carefully tending the queen at the edges of the cage on that first inspection, that is a good sign they’ve accepted her, and I will remove the push-in cage and release the queen.

Once I’ve released the queen, I’ll give them a week or so before I go back and confirm that the new queen is alive or at least that I see evidence of eggs or young larva which tells me the colony is queenright.

Successfully requeening new hives relies on good timing and plenty of food, the rest is up to the bees.

Charlie Agar - Owner, Charlie Bee Company Director Texas Beekeepers Association and Volunteer Mentor for Hives for Heroes

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