Bee-Engaged: An Average Joe’s Guide to Queen Marking

Bee-Engaged: An Average Joe’s Guide to Queen Marking (first published in the ABF Quarterly, Volume 78, No. 3, 2020)

Beekeeping is Local” but it is also dependent on the goals and objectives of the beekeeper. Practices used by Sideliners and Hobbyists may vary from techniques practiced by Commercial Beekeepers. Your experience, knowledge and skills will dictate the methods and processes you use in for beekeeping.

When it comes to marking Queens there are two sides to the story. With hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of hives, a Commercial Beekeeper may not receive any return on investment (ROI) from marking scores of Queens. From a business perspective, it may not make fiscal sense. But for the small-scale practitioner, Queen Marking may save money, and headaches, in the long run. There are both advantages and disadvantages to marking Queens.

Personally, I have been averse to Queen Marking for years. If I “inherited” a marked Queen, great!  But why would I pay between $3 to $5 extra on the rare occasion that I purchase a Queen, just for a dot of paint (or a glued-on tag)?  But I have recently changed my thinking as I work with more “New Bees” on Colony Management.

In social media, you can read numerous comments by new Beekeepers that indicates they cannot find their Queen. Pictures of drones will be posted with the question “Is this my Queen?” As experience grows, most people learn to find the Queen by movement and worker bee reactions.  My wife and I are adept at identifying the Queen but even with our beekeeping experience, at times, the Queen is shy and just does not want to be seen. Until the Queen spotting skill is developed, a marked Queen can help hone the ability to identify your Queen. Purchasing a package or Nuc with a marked Queen can speed the Queen identification learning curve but sellers often do not mark Queens as the time and effort to mark does not produce a reasonable pay back.

In addition to spotting the Queen, one of the advantages provided by Queen marking is in identifying that a colony has swarmed. As a Bee Swarm Rescuer, this Average Joe gets numerous calls from beekeepers with a swarm nearby. They swear it is not from their hive yet after further questioning, there appears to be no other hives in their area. By their reckoning, the number of bees in their colony has not changed so it could not have been their bees that swarmed. This subjective “measurement” can be deceiving. If they had a marked Queen and an inspection is performed about a week after they found the swarm, that look may reveal an unmarked Queen providing visible proof that the colony and the prior Queen has swarmed. When rescuing a swarm, a marked Queen usually indicates that the bees are from a managed colony rather than being a feral bunch.

Knowing a colony has swarmed facilitates record keeping and planning for future management activities. If you are beekeeping for honey production, you may use this data to estimate a lower yield due to worker bee loss in that swarm. Depending on the time of the season, the data may also point to the need for combines to build up colony size going into the fall. You also have a verified brood break indicating that a mite control method has been implemented in your hive which may change your mite mitigation strategy. As you can see, a marked Queen does provide advantages to the beekeeper.  For the rest of this article, I will discuss paint marking, not marking via glued-on tags.  As with any technique, tags have their advantages and disadvantages, but I will not cover those here.

Some beekeepers will not mark their Queen for fear of damaging or killing her. I have seen some “old-timers” just grab the Queen in their fingers, mark her and let her go. If you are a bit clumsy, like this Average Joe, you do not want to over handle this valuable bug that may cost you anywhere from $25 to $50 (or more) to replace. Tools such as plastic “pistons” with foam plungers and one-handed catch cages (photo on right) are available through various manufacturers to facilitate the marking activity.

A color-coding system exists to standardize the information for Queen marking.  Using the saying “Will You Raise Good Bees” helps remember the “code” of: Will (W) = White, You (Y) = Yellow, Raise (R) = Red, Good (G) = Green and Bees (B) = Blue.  Knowing that Queens live less than five years in most conditions, these five colors are a good indicator of the Queen’s age (see table below).

One means of practicing your marking technique is to mark some drones. You will be placing a dot of paint on the thorax of your Queen.  Getting the proper amount of paint in the proper position without painting wings, antenna or legs can take a fine touch. Being a bit larger than a worker bee (and without a stinger), there is little to lose in practicing on the drones. You can perfect your technique and build confidence with little risk.

When marking, it is important to allow the paint to dry before releasing your Queen lest the marking is rubbed off before your royal highness returns to her “subjects”. While you have your Queen in hand, before releasing her back into the colony, it is a great time to grab a half of a cup of bees and perform a mite count. Whether you prefer a sugar shake or an alcohol wash, a mite count goes a long way toward effectively managing your bees and you do not have to worry about shaking or worst yet, killing your Queen.

So, as you can see, there can be advantages to Queen Marking. It can assist in Queen spotting thus producing increased confidence in your inspection skills, it can provide definitive proof that a swarm occurred and provides information and data that can influence your colony management including mite monitoring and mitigation. If you perform your own marking, you can also save a few dollars on the cost of a replacement Queen. Despite the advantages, there are also disadvantages. There are some costs, including monetary, to marking that may include markers and caging equipment. Plus, there is always the possibility of damaging the Queen during the marking process. Additionally, there is the chance of rejection (and subsequent Supercedure) by the colony if the queen is mismarked with excessive paint on the wings, antenna, legs, etc.

If you never have had a marked Queen, perhaps now is the time to consider purchasing one or even marking her yourself!

Photos & Diagrams by Happy Busy Bees – Joe & Debbie Komperda