June 16, 2022

Dealing with Marginal Queens (078)

Dealing with Marginal Queens (078)

Pretty much every beekeeper, at one time or another, ends up with a queen that’s not doing what they think she should be doing or - not doing what all the rest of your queens are doing. So, what is happening and can you do anything to get her going?...

Pretty much every beekeeper, at one time or another, ends up with a queen that’s not doing what they think she should be doing or - not doing what all the rest of your queens are doing. So, what is happening and can you do anything to get her going?

Marginal queens are tough to identify. There is one easy fix: You just replace her. That said, how long do you wait to make a decision?


Perhaps it is not the queen that’s marginal.  Maybe something else going on. Once you figure that out, when do you fix it? Or just let it go until you can combine it with a better colony? Maybe that will just spread a problem.

Marginal queens are a conundrum and the answer lies somewhere between your goals, the time of year and ultimately, Mother Nature and what she thinks should happen.

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Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 78 – Marginal Queens


Jim: We have a pretty good idea of what to do with good queens and how to nurture them. We've talked quite a bit about bad queens and what to do with them but what I want to talk with you about today is what do you do with those queens that are in the middle category?

Kim: I too often don't do anything.

Jim: Well, I can't disagree with that concept. Too often [laughs] I don't do anything either, but I'd like to talk about it and see when do you do something and when do you not do anything? You up for that?

Kim: Sure. Yes, Let's take a look at-- What did you say? Marginal queens.

Jim: That's what I'm going to call them. Marginal queens could have been better, could have been worse.


Kim: Okay.

Jim: Hi, I'm Jim Tew

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum

Jim: We're here with Honey Bee Obscura today, and we want to know more about what Kim and I should do, could do, need to do with queens that are not good but they're not bad.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world in an engaging and informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Kim: How do you know it's a marginal queen?

Jim: Yes, that's exactly, I was going to wait to trip you up. What is a marginal queen?


Kim: Exactly. If you have four or five colonies, you can compare and contrast, if three or four of them have 10 frames of bees and one has only three, then you can say that you need to watch that one. That's where I get into trouble because I spend more time watching than doing. I let her go for a week, maybe 10 days and I come back and check, check the others and see where they are. I let her go another week and pretty soon it's fall.

Jim: You got to the same location, fall, that I got to but we took a different path. I would be out there on those rare occasions when I've got my bees open and you're doing that work and the birds are singing, the skies are blue. You're getting good work done and you go through one colony and it really looks good. All the frames are packed out with brood and you'd go through two or three or four looking like this and then you get to one with a shotgun pattern, you know that spotty pattern where only about half of the cells are filled and you find her and she looks pretty good. She's got a good attitude, smile on her face, looks like she's carrying herself regally but the visual results of her output just are not impressive compared to what I've just seen in other colonies. At that moment, you got to think, at that moment, how unimpressive is she?

Kim: You mentioned an issue, you said, "Spotty brood." My feeling more often than not is it's not the queen, it's something else that's causing the spotty brood. I'm going to wait another week and see if it clears up.

Jim: That's an excellent point, Kim. I think that's a good way of wording it. It's not the queen, it's something else. Then you got to say, "Well, if it's something else and it's not the queen, was it the queen indirectly? Was it something she was doing with genetics?" Then at that point, I'd do exactly what Kim Flottum does, I think I'm going to wait a week on this but the reason I get to fall in a different way than you is that my week turns into a month. I end up cutting grass, maybe taking a short vacation, hanging out with the grandkids, or something and my intention to go back and to check this marginal queen turns into, can I say a month, three weeks, a month. What do you do? I keep thinking I'm going to check on this queen, I have the best of intentions. I do the mark on the top of the colony and laying the brick a certain way so that it means some kind of code. Then I forget the code, I forget what I've done but I do remember that that queen was not particularly good.

Kim: Yes, there's another side to this story. Something I've been exploring more and more recently. Bees have been putting food on my table for over 30 years. I have for the most of those 30 years tried to make sure that people who have bees are able to have those bees put food on their table. Since that's no longer the case for me, if these bees die or if they don't thrive and make me any honey, I'm caring less, because bees are going to be bees, and I'm watching them be bees. Now, there's an upside to this and a downside that from my perspective, the upside is, they'll just keep on keeping on. The downside is, why is this a marginal queen? You touched on that, is there something wrong with the queen's genetics? Is there a disease present? Is there small hive beetle mites? Whatever it is, it's causing the hive to not thrive. I have to find that out before I do anything.

Jim: Let me tell you what I'm thinking to see if it's what you're thinking. We've got a queen, she could be doing better. We don't know why that she's doing what she is. When do we pull the plug, Kim? When do you say, "Alright, this is worth a $40 investment and about a two and a half, three-hour drive to my local supplier to pick this queen up?" When do I decide to invest well over a half a day and $40 to $50? What did she got to be doing that is so bad? In my case, she's got to really be a bad queen. She's got to be bad but importantly Kim, I got to have some of the season left. If I go buy this new queen, and bring her back and get her installed, get her producing, does she have enough time to get that colony into winter-able condition? One of the things that I'd be looking at is what time of the season is it that I finally made the decision to pull the pull?

Kim: Like I said, if bees are putting food on your table, and you're looking at a midsummer honey flow coming up, and you're looking at a queen that's just not doing what all the other queens are doing in terms of producing brood. If I need to get 60 pounds of honey off this colony, then I got to do something now. If it's later in the season, then you can take a look and say, "I can just let them go downhill and see if they're there in the spring," because I don't want to spend a lot of time and money on a colony that isn't going to get up to speed soon enough to survive winter probably.

Jim: Thought you really are in a different place. This really is an evolutionary path for you. Not that it's wrong, I'm kind of there with you. A lot of this is because of my ever-increasing age every year, begins to accumulate. The energy I used to have to go out there and just work bees all the time and do what it intensively took, I'm more protective of that energy now. Maybe I'll let this go on longer. Maybe I'll justify just natural bee biology, maybe I'll use the cost of the queen as an excuse. As a younger man, I would look at those excuses and reasons differently that I use now when I look at that same situation.

Kim: Do I want three colonies next spring or do I want six? That's one of the other things I'm looking at is where do I want to be next season? You just hit the nail on the head. I'm not getting any younger, these boxes aren't getting any lighter. How much work do I want to do here? Scaling back, this is a natural way to scale back is to let this one ease off the planet. I'll just keep what's left.

Jim: I can understand that. Let me think about this for a few minutes and I'll get back to you with fresh thoughts right after this commercial break.


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Jim: You know Kim, all the bee books have routine recommendations for how to combine colonies. I think the one thing that you said a bit ago, "Do I want 3 colonies, do you want 6 colonies? Do you want 10 colonies? Do you want 1 colony?" Well, here's the deal. I want one or two hives of bees three or four. I got 10 or 15 right now, that's more than I want but I just want bees next spring. If I need to, if it gets to it, let's just combine this colony with another one. Just write it off. "Well, this one didn't work. This was a walk-away split, and the queen that resulted from it just was not a good day for the bees when they produced her and she didn't work out. We'll try again next time maybe next year." Just combine them, the numbers that you have. Do you have 10 colonies, so you have 30 colonies. Do you have three colonies? Those numbers should be irrelevant. What are the good colonies that you got? They're the ones you want to worry about? Not so much just the total number.

Kim: Combining it with a stronger colony is a way to not the colony die and a way to let I guess I could say to let nature fix the problem. I don't have to worry about either one but I'll go back to why did she have spotty brewed and you got to make sure that it's not something that you're going to take from that colony and put into that other colony that you're joining it with.

Jim: When you said, "Let nature take its course," nature is pretty harsh on some bees in the wild. A lot of times nature takes them out of the gene pool. Almost lowering my voice here because it seems so heartless but sometimes the question has to be asked why would I mix these old bees with a perfectly good colony? If these bees are run down, they're tired. They tried to raise a queen, it didn't work. They've got some dead brew there. It's just messy combs. What did a good colony sitting next door to it do to deserve being given this deep of mess for them to clean up?

Kim: That's where I was going with this. That's exactly right. Am I going to make things worse for that colony also by joining them and or I will go back to just let nature take her course and let that colony decide its fate one way or the other and I'm not going to step in and get in the way or help it along.

Jim: Well I want to say two things. Number one I agree with you, let nature take its course. Having said that then I want to ask the second thing. Are there people listening to us who will say boy that's really sloppy beekeeping. Are we sloppy beekeepers or are we, practical beekeepers?

Kim: Well there's a third alternative there. Are we old beekeepers and--

Jim: Oh, God. How many times can we play that part? Yes as a young guy I would've cut this grass and reclaimed that colony and you wouldn't have believed how good my bees it'll look then. Sure, they'll look like trash now but that's because I'm an old guy.

Kim: That's exactly it and I'm going to be any younger later this summer or first thing next spring. Nature wins on all three counts here on keeping the bees out of the genetic pool and not messing up another colony and making life a little simpler for me the rest of the time I'm here.

Jim: The bright light of reality, Kim, we're not really doing anything that nature doesn't do on many occasions. If there's a colony there that just did not make it, then cruel that it seems, they go away. If you just can't live with it and it hurts you then combine them with another colony. You probably did not help that other colony, and the bees that you combined were going to die in a few days a week or so anyway. All you really did was made yourself feel a little bit better at the moment.

Kim: I hate marginal colonies. That's why I hate marginal-- They make me think and I can do nothing and the colony will probably expire or I can work a lot and the colony may still expire but I'll go back to what I said in the beginning, bees aren't putting food on my table anymore in terms of honey production, and queen production, and bee production. I'm not so worried about the outcome of that colony.

Jim: Well, this is where I am on this Kim s we wind down. If it's early spring and I've still got major parts of the flow coming up, and I've got a queen that's just not doing what she should be doing. I will consider making the trip and then activating the entire system of performing hive surgery on that colony. She did not have a good brewed pattern. She had this thing they call it spotty brewed there's dead bees everywhere or there's empty cells. The population didn't build up. It just doesn't look like a happy colony and it's still early spring. I'm sorry, she's done. If that same colony only begins to show those symptoms mid to late summer, early fal,l it really isn't worth it, and at that point played different cards.

Would you agree combine them or just let nature do that thing? Sometimes combining them at least you get the equipment cleaned up and the good Bees can do that for you. If you just let nature do its thing then that colony sits there. It dies out, and then maybe the mice or the wax moles get to it before you do. Maybe that's a selfish reason for putting that colony, that box on a stronger colony is let them keep the mice and the wax moles out of it.

It's just my whole point for talking to you on this subject is that you know a beautiful queen production output when you see it, and you know the really bad production output when you see that. What do you do with that queen who's right in the middle? She's okay, but she could be better, but she could be worse. That was the one I struggle with all the time.

Kim: It's a conundrum and the answer lies with you in terms of what you're doing with those Bees and with nature and what she thinks should happen to those bees and who wins.

Jim: I like that exactly. The answer actually lies with nature. You can try to jump in and save it. Wash your personality. You can just stand back, let things take its course but ultimately you got to keep the good ones and keep them healthy, and ultimately you got to deal with the ones that didn't make it. Is this a gloomy topic? Help me in this thing on a bright note Kim.

Kim: Well one of my empty colonies from last year just caught a swarm. How's that?

Jim: Well, what does her brew pattern look like? Yes, it looks good, doesn't it? That's the good thing about not looking at your bees and your heart and mind. They look great until you go out and confirm the fact that wasn't the way they looked. Well thank you for letting me slog through this. The point is sometimes you got queens that just are not going to make it and you decide how much labor you want to allocate to that colony. Ultimately, that's not going to be one of your best colonies.

Kim: Yes I think that's the end of the story there.

Jim: It didn't really end, it just collapsed, didn't it? Hey if you're listening to us and you got an opinion on this if we should do more, if we should do less to save these marginal column is what would you do? Let me know, leave us a comment. Tell us what you would do. We'll talk about it later if you let us know what you think.

Kim: If you think of it, pass us along to friends that don't know about our podcast here. We've got pretty good listeners numbers but hopefully, people are getting enough out of this that they'll come back. Pass along and maybe we can help some other people.

Jim: Very good. Bye-bye.


[00:18:13] [END OF AUDIO]