April 27, 2023

Marking Queens (123)

Marking Queens (123)

On today’s episode, Kim and Jim discuss all the pros and cons about marking queens. Lots of questions come up when you mention marking queens. For most of us it’s a no brainer. “Look, there’s that yellow spot, there’s the queen!” MARKING...

On today’s episode, Kim and Jim discuss all the pros and cons about marking queens.

Lots of questions come up when you mention marking queens. For most of us it’s a no brainer. “Look, there’s that yellow spot, there’s the queen!”


Yes, but how does that yellow spot get there? Mostly, or at least often we just buy them marked so we don’t have to do it ourselves. Actually marking a queen can be a stressful moment in her life, and yours. How do you pick her up? How do you hold her? What paint do you use? What kind of brush or pen do you use? What about those contraptions that hold the queen for you? What if you get paint on her eyes? What happens if she escapes and flys away? And isn’t there some law or rule about what color you use this year as opposed to last year or next?

A marked queen makes keeping that colony happy, healthy, wealthy and wise is such a good idea. So this year, learn how. Here’s a trick. Practice on a couple hundred drones before you mark your first queen. You’ll be glad you did.

What do you think? Add your thoughts to the comments below!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 123 – Marking Queens


Kim Flottum: I was looking at one of my colonies just a little bit ago, Jim, and something distant just came to the top of my head. I wasn't looking for it, but there was a queen. I don't mark queens anymore. Do you mark your queens?

Jim Tew: Do I mark my Queens? Yes, I mark 55% to 60% of my queens. I think it's a good idea. Is this what you want to talk about today?


Kim: Yes, let's talk about marking queens and all the things involved with that.

Jim: All right. I like that. Good.

Kim: Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today, I guess we're going to talk about all the things involved, or at least some of the things involved with marking queens.

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, hosts Kim Flotttum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honey bees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Jim: It's a trick, isn't it, Kim, to mark a queen?

Kim: It used to be a religion for me. Every queen got marked, and I'd always go back to that. I don't even know where it comes from. What color your marker for the year it is. I think you can probably tell me more about that, but the older I get, the less sure of my hands I am, so I backed off. Rather than kill a queen because my hands are fidgety, I'll just spend some time looking for her. What do you think?

Jim: I'm trying to assimilate what you're telling me. Number one, I don't have the control of my hands that I once had. Still okay. Number two, the queens I don't mark, I don't mark because the moment is not right. What does that mean, Jim and Kim? That means that I've got a colony open. I've got frame scattered around. I'm worried about getting some robbing started. My smoker's going out. There's the queen. She's not marked, let's mark her. No. That ain't going to happen, Kim. At that moment, I'm not going to stop everything else and go get out the marking tools, come back, hope that queen's still on that frame somewhere, and then mark her.

When I'm marking queens, they're usually brand new queens that I'm introducing, or I am specifically out there only to go through that colony, to find her, to mark her, and I'm set up and ready for it. That's why about 1/3 of my queens are not marked because the moment just has never been right.

Kim: I can see that, and I have no idea. I used to have a box. Not a big box, but a box with a handle on it, that I kept my paint in, and my brushes, and the stuff that I cleaned the brushes with when I was done painting. I couldn't find it if my life depended on it now.

Jim: I used to use brushes in the earliest days. I know people who are accomplished, and they have those hands that you and I don't have, Kim. Those nice, steady hands. Their control of their fingers and thumbs is perfect so they can gently but firmly hold that queen. Then with a fine camel hair brush, dip, dip, dip, put a little dollop of paint on that thorax, and everything's fine. I gave up on the brush years ago, and I began to use pretty much a 1/4-inch dowel rod. In those days, I used flat toothpicks for grafting queens. I don't think you can find flat toothpicks anymore, they're all round now.

Even a round toothpick, break it off, flatten it out, and then use that blunt end and dip it in the end, the cap of the paint, the little paint jars, usually a model car paint testers or whatever. Then just use that dot, and then put that stick with that dot right down on that queen's thorax. It will take about one or two, three times maybe. Then what do you do? You just stand there holding that queen, blowing on that enamel paint. It's going to take about three to four minutes for it to dry. You try to think about other things, don't let those fingers get tired, don't crush that queen, don't let that queen roll over and smear that paint dot on your finger.

Blow, blow, blow. Is that enough? I hope so. I'm turning her loose. You have to be there, don't you, Kim? You have to be there. I don't use the camel hair brushes anymore, I use a stick. Not just any stick. This is not like when I got in trouble about scraping out dead bees from the bottom board using twigs. No, I specifically use a small dowel rod either about 1/8 of an inch, if I've got the dowel rod all the way down to using a flat toothpick or a broken toothpick.

Kim: I never thought of that. I might be able to do that. That brush thing was always-- the tip would be curved, or they'd be spread out, so I quit using those. One of the things you just mentioned, how do you hold that queen when you're marking her? No, let me back up. How do you pick her up off the frame, and then how do you hold her?

Jim: I'm not going to say the obvious, because that's an old joke. Of course, you're careful doing it, and you're nervous. If you're a new beekeeper, you're really nervous. For anybody who's really new, don't even think about trying this with gloves on. Those gloves have got to go away. Until you're comfortable taking your gloves off, don't even think about marking a queen with this technique. How do I physically pick her up? I try to catch her by her wings as she's running around. My right hand is my dominant hand, so I use my right hand. Using my thumb and forefinger, I try to grab all four of her wings.

Then I've got her by her wing. She takes a dim view of all of this. She's not trying to sting you, but this is not a normal thing for that queen to have happen to her. Then I try to use my left thumb and forefinger to gently hold her and get her high enough-- let me say that again. Get her high enough between my thumb and forefinger to then see her thorax clearly, and that's what you want to mark. I don't know of anyone who's ever marked an abdomen other than research purposes. Do you? Quickly. Don't get off the subject.

Kim: No, it's always been the thorax because the abdomen is fuzzy.

Jim: Yes. I can distinctly remember several research projects that had to have multiple marks, but they used the abdomen. We're off the subject. I've got this queen in my hand, I'm in my left hand now. She's squirming. I got a leg all distorted. It looks like I'm breaking her leg. Oh, my stars. Oh, my stars. Go back to the wing stage and hold her again. Get that leg out of the way. It is all wrong. She's struggling the whole time. Then you're thinking, "Whose idea was this? Just put her back in the colony." If you ever get the mark on there, then you're good to go. Kim, what do you do if you touch the top of her head with that enamel paint? It has to almost be enamel.

You can use other things, but it's usually enamel. It's a less persistent paint. What do you do if you touch the top of her head?

Kim: I've never known, and I have done it. I don't know if it hits her head, or if you get some on one of her compound eyes. There, again, you got some kind of problem. Then you think, "It's pitch dark in a beehive. Why does she need eyes anyway? She's already mated, so she's not going to go on a mating flight."

Jim: I know. I don't know if the bee is the special carrier of the day because the bee's a lot more like her stumbling around in the dark with her eyes painted shut. You can't get it off. It's like putting toothpaste back in a tube. You basically get one shot at this, and if you happen to hit her wrong, then that's a mark she's going to have to endure until she is no more. There's cages and gadgets, and they're available commercially. I bet you, you can find some at this source right here. Let's take a short break.


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Jim: There's all kind of cages and contraptions, Kim, that let you press the queen against the comb. Then while she's pressed with this nylon webbing that's got, I don't know, probably 3/6 of an inch space between the web lines. You can hit the queen just right and marker and never pick her up. There's ways to help with that if you're struggling with it.

Kim: When I'm teaching class and people ask you about, "Do I buy a marked queen or do I mark her myself or do I not bother?" Anymore I don't buy a marked and I just find her. Hopefully, I find her. I'm guessing that a marked queen's going to make your life a lot easier. It's going to make her more expensive when you buy her because somebody somewhere had to spend some time. I've watched people mark queens and I'm watching them mark one and in a blink of an eye, they've got 10 of them marked. They're that fast.

Jim: I hate those people. I hate them. The amazing thing is their thumb and forefingers are not covered in darts the way mine are. Clearly, they're better at this than I am. Work at a window, Kim. If you can work at a window and she gets away from me and she suddenly takes off and flies, it's going to scare you to death to have that queen flying around. I'm normally not sitting in a bee yard. I go back into my little barn and it has a window in the door and there's a small shelf there. If she drops or falls, she'll land on that shelf and I do the marking there. I can see her well. If I lose her, she doesn't just fly away. I would not try this standing outside by a beehive with paint bottles open, trying to mark a queen.

Kim: I think that's excellent advice. If you can pick her up and you can hang onto her, and you can get back to that building, get her marked, and then get her back to the hive, excellent advice. I don't have that luxury. I'd have to take her in the house-- I could take her in the house, sit in the kitchen table, and marking queens. I guess that'd be okay.

Jim: No, that's too much trouble. You got to go all the way in the house. You got to open doors, you got drying paint. You're not going to do that, so forget that. Don't do this because I have some personal experience. Don't think, "I'll go to my truck. Here, I'm at this distant yard. I don't have this glass window. I'll do it in my truck." Then you lose her. What happens? She goes down the vent system at the base of the windshield, and then you don't know where the queen is inside your circulation system on the truck.

You sit there and talk to yourself, Kim and it's a spirited discussion that you have with yourself when your queen's crawling around somewhere in the air conditioning system on your truck. I can't recommend that readily. The passenger side, the driver's side window. Doing it in a truck is a desperation method that you have to use when you're in an out yard.

Kim: That's a good point. The other thing that I do is, we brought it up here right at the beginning is what color of paint do you use? There's some group out there. I can't remember who it is that has-- I think it's a five-year cycle of on the first year, you use a color, second you use the other color. That's so that when I find that queen and I know that I put her in three years ago because of the color of her dot, I can make some decision based on that as opposed to a queen that has no mark at all, or they're all generic white or something.

Jim: Kim, you know she's the queen that you put in there. If she's in an out yard and you only go out there once every month or two, I know that you should be doing it more, but I can promise you that there's yards that some distance away, out of sight, out of mind, you have an idea that that colony has not swarmed. They've not superseded. It's the same queen that you put in there. That helps too. That color code for this year, 2023, is red. The colors that you would use are white, yellow, blue, red, and green.

I know that listeners are driving and doing whatever right now, so just look it up on the web. That queen-marking color code is out there. If you want to pull off the road right now and pick up some paint at your hobby store, then go pick up red. That's the color for 2023. Then next year, 2024, when the color is green and you see a red queen running around, you know that she was from last year. You wouldn't know that she's from five years ago because I got to tell you, most queens aren't going to live that long. It's a way for you to have an idea.

Kim: I know what color I'm going to mark her and I have a feeling how I'm going to pick her up. I talk to people and they say, "I'm not going to go into that colony just cold and try and pick up a $20 bug. I want some practice." You can practice on workers. You just don't mark them the same color you're going to mark your queen.

Jim: I'd practice on drones. If I'm brand new at this, workers too, but workers are going to sting me if they can. That'll excite you, that'll motivate you, that'll make you be careful, that'll make you not crush. That might be a better story than marking drones. I'll take those poor drones who are just the brunt of all beehive jokes, aren't they? We need a sacrificial insect to practice marking on and not get it all over your compound eyes. Let's go for a drone. They don't sting you. They're easier to pick up. They're bigger. The thorax is bigger.

Just seems like an easy shot to practice on there if you have drones available. Practice on them. Don't use gloves. If you use a cowboy hair brush, use one of the smallest ones you've got. I've already been through my episode. I'd rather use a blunt stick probe kind of thing as the marker. Not because it's the greatest thing going, but I use model car paint that I get at hobby stores. It comes in the primary colors. Other people have used marking pins, enamel pins. Those things work really well too.

You can get these brightly colored hobby pins that are enamel paint. You shake them up, they have a marble in it and it goes, clank, clank, clank while you're shaking it, and then mark them with that. It only takes a little bit. Don't be thinking house painting here, a primer coat and three top coats. It's just going to take a small drop. The main thing is, let it dry. It's really demanding on your patience to stand there holding her while that paint dries. I bet you someone's going to write us and tell us that they found some magic marker that's a latex product that dries almost immediately.

I'm looking at that dot, having to stay on there for I hope at least a year, maybe two. It can't be anything that the bees can work off because they're going to clean that queen. If they can get that mark off, they are. Any product that somebody comes up with has got to be persistent. What do you know about those marking dots? They're physical plastic dots that you glue to the bee.

Kim: Way back when I used to use them when I was working and doing research at the Bee Lab, they work pretty well. It's the same thing, finding them, picking them up, putting the dot on, or putting them in some sort of cage that holds them so that you can put the dot on. The people that I was working with had a neat trick. It was a regular three-hole queen cage with most of the screen missing. They would take your toothpick with a flat end basically and put just a dab of sticky stuff on it. Then they would pick up that dot. They had another one right in the hole too at the same time.

You wait until that queen gets above the hole and then you put the dot, or you put that piece of plastic with a number or a color or something on it right on her, and then you push the other stick down, and that pushes the dot off of the stick that it was sticking to and you're done. I used to watch them. There were three guys working in that lab and they could mark 50 queens in 20 minutes.

Jim: I hate them too, Kim. I've got a lot of people that I'm disliking here who are good at marking queens in a hurry. Those little dots are so cute though. They has a tiny number five on there, number 15. I'm always intrigued when a non-beekeeper says, "Did that queen come that way?" "No, we actually did that. That's a tattoo we put on there or something." It's interesting to see that little dot that's glued, but it's got to be glued soundly because if the bees can get it off, they are. They're going to take it off.

Kim: Speaking of taking off, did you ever have one fly away? You're sitting there-- you walk back to your house or your garage and you got a window with a shelf and things in it there, but you're walking back there and that grip on her wings doesn't hold. Suddenly she's right in front of you heading in a different direction.

Jim: You made me think of Where's Waldo. When she's flying away from you into that field of all those other flying bees, you're thinking, "Don't lose her, don't lose her. Keep your eye on her. Don't lose her," and then poof, she's gone. No, that's a different subject, Kim. That's a different agony. [chuckles] That's a different angst but when you're handling a queen, that is something that's on your mind. You've got her outside the colony, she doesn't know where she is. You just picked her up, moved her out. She's not been taking orienting flights. You do hope she can find it again.

I guess to some other point, we can talk about that. The things to do if you lose the queen outside, what could be helpful. I've had that happen and it is an agonizing moment. A bit ago, you said a $20 queen. I wish that I could find $20 queens now, most of the part-time. That's an expensive bug flying away and I feel incompetent when I have one get away from me. That can happen when you're marking her. What have we left out? We know what the color schemes are. We've got some idea of how to go about it. We got these plastic dots you can put on her.

I do believe, Kim, this is just me conjecturing, I think that dot is going to become much, much more critical to future beekeepers. I think that dot is going to be like these orientation devices now that you can put on your luggage and put in your wallet and put in your hat. I think that in the future, you'll know exactly where that queen is because you're following her on an app on your phone with that dot transmitting from her thorax. I think you'll know from the truck that she's in that colony, but that dot does not yet transmit. I bet you that that dot will have a lot of information for future beekeepers besides just visual color. That's just me hoping I'll live long enough to see it.

Kim: There's a day I'm waiting for. You're exactly right and if you do it right or if I do it right, if it gets done right by people way smarter than me, you might be able to pick her up on your phone at home.

Jim: Yes, that's exactly where I'm trying to get to. I've got a gadget on my freezer to tell me when that old freezer stops working. This technology is already there. It's just too big but now we're really off the subject. What's that got to do is stopping by the hobby store, and picking up a marking pen or model car paint or something. I mark my queens. I think it's a good idea. If you've got an observation hive, a marked queen just makes that colony so much better because people want to see the queen. She's the one with a red dot on her thorax.

It really helps those people. In research, colony management, there's reasons for essentially tattooing your queen in a way. It's not a real tattoo, but it's in the same category.

Kim: It does what you need. I think it's a good idea. I'm guessing I'm going to have to find that box and take out that paint and that brush and see if I can do it again.

Jim: You got to get young again first, so you'll have that stability to do it, and then find that box. I would wait until you're young again before you go rummage around looking for that box. [chuckles] I am going to mark my queens just here, they're marked already but I'll check the others. I enjoyed talking about it. Thanks for letting me reminisce.

Kim: Hey, good. I'll catch you next time.

Jim: All right. All the best.


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