Queen marking

You don’t need to see the queen during your weekly inspection of the colony. There are clues that are usually enough to tell you the colony is queenright. These include the general temper and demeanour of the colony, the presence of ‘polished’ cells ready for the queen to lay eggs in and, of course, the presence of eggs.

Of these, temper can be influenced by weather or forage availability 1 so might be less trustworthy.

Queenright?

Queenright?

And, of course, eggs only tell you the queen was present when they were laid … so sometime in the last three days.

Seeing is believing

If you really want to be certain there is a queen present – for example, because you need to put her in a specific place for swarm control using a Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method – then you need to find the queen.

I’ve discussed this before so won’t cover the subject again.

Having found her, how can you make it easier to find her again?

The obvious (pun intended) thing to do it to mark her in a way that makes her distinctive. She will therefore be easy to see amongst the thousands of her daughters running around the hive.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

There are additional advantages to marking the queen.

The presence of a blob of paint also provides some temporal information.

If you find an unmarked queen in a hive that you know was previously occupied by a marked queen then:

  • the colony has swarmed and requeened itself … and your inspections are too infrequent!
  • the marked queen has been superceded 2. It’s not unusual to find an unmarked queen in a hive at the first inspection of the season, suggesting that the colony superceded the queen late in the previous year, or …
  • the paint has worn away 😉

If you use different coloured markings for different years you can even determine the age of the queen.

Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca

You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax.

Tipp-Ex (typing correction fluid) works perfectly well though the usual applicator brush is a bit too broad. It dries rapidly and the aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents it contains do not appear to adversely affect the odour of the queen.

Tipp-Ex is only available in white. Contrasting certainly, but this gives no opportunity to indicate the year the queen was reared.

As an alternative you can use one of the ~180 Humbrol Enamel paints. These are used by model makers to paint their locomotives, toy soldiers or Airfix kits and so are available in a wide range of not very useful shades like Dark Camouflage Grey or RAF Blue.

Fortunately they are also sold in some rather strident yellows, reds and greens that should be visible in the hive.

Humbrol Enamel paints are sold in small, rather fiddly little tins. Not ideal when you’re wearing gloves and a beesuit. They need shaking/mixing before use, open easily with the thin blade of a hive tool and can be applied with the end of a matchstick.

Despite the solvent base of Humbrol Enamel paint, it doesn’t dry particularly fast. I’ve only used it a few times and abandoned it in favour of …

Posca are water-based art pens. Their model PC-5M has a bullet tip ~2.5mm in diameter and so combines paint and applicator in one easy-to-use package. These pens also come in a wide range of colours.

Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.

Beekeepers use different colours to indicate the year a particular queen was reared. Since queens rarely live more than 3 years a total of 5 different colours are sufficient to age-mark queens without confusion.

Amazingly 3, as far as I’m aware all beekeepers use the same queen marking colour scheme.

Colour Use in Year ending
White 1 or 6
Yellow 2 or 7
Red 3 or 8
Green 4 or 9
Blue 5 or 0

Queens reared this year (2019) should therefore be marked green.

Any colour as long as it’s white

Or blue.

I’m red-green colourblind. This means I struggle to discriminate between some reds and greens. It also means that I ‘trust’ colours (or my ability to distinguish between them) less. Subtle differences are often ignored 4.

A bright yellow dot on the thorax of a queen is easy to see … except in a colony that is piling in lots of OSR pollen, when every fifth worker is loaded down with bright yellow corbiculae.

I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.

These are both colours that I find easy to see, that are rarely present in pollen baskets or elsewhere in the hive, and so are very distinctive.

I used to alternate odd and even years until my blue Posca pen stopped working 🙁

Failing Posca queen marking pen

My white Posca pen has just starting playing up. If you search you can find them for about £5 for three and they last for years.

Easier said than done

I started an earlier section with the words “You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax”.

Beginners can find this a daunting task.

After all, isn’t the queen the most important and precious member of the hive?

What if you squash her by accident? Or the other bees don’t like the smell of the paint and attack her? What if she flies away?

OK, the first of these is a disaster 5, but is relatively easily avoided using one of the methods described below. The second is unlikely if you let the paint dry properly and very unlikely if you use a water-based Posca pen.

The third is also unlikely … (mated) queens are generally reluctant to fly and, if they do, they fly poorly. You can generally pick her up from the grass near your feet 6. If you lose sight of her, close up the hive and carefully leave the area (watch where you step). She will usually return to the hive.

So, although it is easier said than done, marking queens is not that difficult and is a very useful skill to become competent and confident at 7.

To mark the queen she must be immobilised. There are essentially three ways to do this:

  1. On the frame, using a press in cage. Also called a crown of thorns (or crown of thorne’s, depending where you purchased it 😉 ) cage.
  2. Off the frame in a handheld queen marking cage.
  3. Off the frame simply holding her between your thumb and forefinger.

Crown of thorns or press in cage

Press in cage

Press in cage

The press in cage is a wood, plastic or metal ring with spikes protruding from one side. Over the top is a thread (or plastic in cheaper versions) mesh. You find the queen on the frame, place the press in cage over her without spearing her, or her retinue, push down gently to immobilise her and then apply a dab of paint to her thorax.

This is easier said than done.

Firstly, there are usually lots of bees on the frame the queen is on. Isolating her from her daughters can be tricky. The more you chase her around the frame the faster she runs … and then she disappears around the side bar and you have to start all over again.

You need three hands. You cannot hold the frame, the cage and the pen. The cage needs to be held when you use the pen. You therefore must place the frame down horizontally (usually on the top bars of the other frames) and the bees on the underside may not appreciate this.

As soon as you’ve isolated her the workers clamber on top of the press in cage, obscuring your view of the queen.

Your view isn’t good anyhow as you are hunched over the frame, almost certainly blocking the light and making everything more difficult to see.

Is it obvious I’m not a big fan of the press in cage?

I know I still carry one as I periodically stick the spikes through my fingers when rummaging around in my bee bag. However, I’ve not used it for years and far prefer to use a handheld queen marking cage.

Handheld queen marking cage

The simplest of these consist of a cylinder with one end covered in a thin open mesh made of thread and a foam-topped plunger.

Alternatively, and my favourite, the thread mesh is replaced with a series of horizontal plastic bars that are too narrow for the queen to crawl between.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

You pick the queen off the frame, drop her into the cylinder, insert the plunger, immobilise her gently against the mesh/bars and apply the paint to her thorax.

Hold on.

Wait a minute.

You pick the queen off the frame?

That’s the easy part. Queen bees are naturally equipped with two convenient handles.

The wings.

The thumb and forefinger of an ungloved or thinly gloved hand are fabulously dextrous. It is easy to pick up the queen by one or both wings, move her away from the frame, put the frame down, pick up the queen marking cage and drop her in.

From frame to cage in a few seconds

I’m right-handed and this description is for right-handers.

Hold the frame (usually by the lug) with the queen on it in your left hand. Gently rotate the frame so the face is well-lit 8. Wait for the queen to be away from the edge of the frame. Wait until she’s walking towards you. Gently clench your third, fourth and fifth fingers, extending you ‘pincer-like’ thumb and forefinger. Slowly approach the queen from behind with this hand as she calmly walks across the frame 9.

Without grabbing or snatching calmly grasp her by the wing (or wings) and lift her from the frame. If you miss and just nudge her or she turns away at the last moment don’t harry her across the frame trying repeatedly.

Let her calm down.

Get your breath back.

Try again.

Gently put the frame down. Ideally, place it protruding at an angle in between the frames of the brood box. Take your time. Don’t drop the frame or allow it to tip over. If you balance it nicely with the lug wedged inside the box edge and the bottom bar balanced on the runner you’ll easily be able to reintroduce the queen after marking her.

Once your left hand is free pick up the cylinder of the queen marking cage. Drop the queen in. Cover it with two fingers (holding it between your thumb and fourth and fifth fingers). Pick up the plunger with your right hand and, after gently shaking the queen to the bottom of the cage, insert the plunger. Invert the cage, gently push the plunger up to trap the queen – thorax uppermost – and hold the plunger in place between your fourth and fifth fingers and palm, while holding the cage cylinder between thumb and forefinger (see the image further up the page).

There she goes ...

There she goes …

You can then use your right hand to apply the paint.

Handheld

Once you have learnt to pick the queen off the frame it’s an easy transition to do away with the queen marking cage and simply hold her on the back of your left forefinger, trapping her legs – so immobilising her – with your thumb and third finger. Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey has a good description of this 10.

This is easier without gloves. Even very thin nitrile gloves makes holding the queen immobile more difficult 11. Since I always wear gloves to reduce propolis staining and potential pathogen transmission I use a handheld queen marking cage.

Final comments on handling the queen

Picking the queen up with gloves on is straightforward if the gloves are thin enough. It’s easy with nitrile gloves and possible with Marigold-type washing up gloves.

Don’t try it with the large leather ‘beekeeping gauntlets’ as they give you hands like feet as a PhD student once said of the dexterity of my laboratory skills 🙁

If you hold the queen by both wings she will wave her legs in the air and curl her abdomen, but be unable to do much else.

If you pick her up by one wing she usually manages to swivel round and grab your thumb with her feet. Don’t worry, you won’t pull her wing off.

But thinking that will might make you lessen your grip … at which point she will calmly (or not so calmly) walk up your thumb. Don’t panic. She won’t sting and is very unlikely to take flight.

Queen marking

However you immobilise her the actual marking is straightforward. The goal is to place a small dab of paint on the top of her thorax.

Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.

Small means 2-3 mm across. Don’t overload whatever you are using to apply the paint.

If it’s a matchstick just touch the surface of the paint (or Tipp-Ex).

If it’s a Posca pen, press the nib a couple of times against a firm surface (hive lid, thumb etc) to load the pen, check that it delivers the right amount with a light touch and then mark the queen.

I like to step away from the hive to mark the queen, perhaps to a corner of the apiary in light shade. This separates me from the flying bees and so I can focus on the job, literally, in hand 12.

Releasing the queen

Allow the paint to dry for a few minutes before releasing the queen.

If you’re holding the queen you’ll have to stay holding her while this happens (or put her in a matchbox). Enjoy your time with her … she’s going to be working hard for you 🙂

With a handheld queen marking cage I move the plunger down an inch or so and place her in the shade while I get on with something else for a couple of minutes.

With a press in cage just leave it a couple of minutes before gently lifting it off. This is the easiest and least traumatic way to release the queen (and one of the only advantages of this marking method). The queen is already on the frame and surrounded by bees, so there are no shocks or surprises.

The important thing to avoid when releasing the queen is to suddenly drop her onto the top bars or into the hive. There’s a possibility the the workers will ball and kill her.

Gently offer her to a gap between the top bars, or to the face of the frame you left protruding from the top of the hive. With the handheld cage it’s easy to just rest it on the top bars and watch.

She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.

Calmly walks in …

Job done.


 

 

Footnotes

  1. Or careless and clumsy manipulation of the colony by the beekeeper, making the bees defensive.
  2. Or might even be being superceded right now. Check the colony for the marked queen as well!
  3. Though of course this is sensible as it enables queens to be sold without confusion, whether being bought locally or from the other side of the country or continent.
  4. Don’t worry, I’m not living in a dull, lifeless, monochromatic  world. I still see lots of colours, I just can’t tell whether it’s a shade of red or green that 92% of you would have no problems with.
  5. Particularly for her.
  6. Don’t rush about in a panic if she does take off. Stand still and watch her.
  7. Not least because marking the queen means you must find her first, which is also a useful skill.
  8. Depending upon your strength you might need to place the other lug on the top bar of an adjacent frame to provide support.
  9. Since she’s walking towards you your hand does not obscure the view of the queen.
  10. Which I couldn’t improve on so won’t repeat it here.
  11. And if you take these sort of gloves off they’re almost impossible to put on again.
  12. I also clip one wing of my queens to prevent, or at least help prevent, the loss of swarms. I’ll deal with this subject in the future.

18 thoughts on “Queen marking

  1. Kevin Dolan

    Great and informative article on marking queens. I am going to be taking an introductory queen rearing course at the end of this month and we will be doing a lot of this so very timely info. Last year I used drones to practice marking and got used to catching and holding them for marking. I found it took quite a bit of practice to get over the fear of actually holding and putting a dab of paint on. I used the posca marker and am glad you said to push it first a few times before marking queen – I didn’t and got lots of paint on the poor drone before learning to do that. Still am a little fearful of handling queens and squashing so looking forward to the course. I am also a fan of the push cage but have not seen the plastic bars over the bottom of the cage but will look for that.
    Many thanks for your great info.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Kevin

      I’ve commented on using drones for practice elsewhere. It’s a good way to practice but the multiple white/yellow/blue or whatever marked bees can drive you insane at later inspections. Remember that 33% of drones in a hive came from a different hive. Mark the drones in one hive in an apiary and they’ll be in all the other hives before too long 😉

      The great thing about the push up cage with the bars is that you can orientate the queen to lie along the ‘gap’ and easily mark her. As she backs around the cage you can also easily clip off a projecting wingtip to help further with swarm control.

      I hope you enjoy your queen rearing course.
      Cheers
      David

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Janet Wilson

    I am a big fan of queen marking…and beekeeping glove-less, which makes a lot of beekeeping tasks easier, including picking up queens.

    I have found that the Posca pens come in a much wider range of colours than those carried by bee supply companies: and the bee supply folk choose the darkest shades of the green, blue and red available, which are especially hard to spot (especially if you have dark/Carniolan bees). So in those years I go to an art supply shop (or Amazon) and buy a brighter shade of green, or blue, or red. One that is much easier to see. In red years I use a bright candyfloss pink, in green years the Apple Green, in blue years a bright turquoise.

    I also think the formulation of the Posca pens has changed. A decade ago they marked well and pretty permanently. Now they seem to wear off readily: I often have to touch up the queens through the season. Applying two or three coats, allowing the Posca mark to dry between coats, helps.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Janet

      I’ve just ordered 3 white Posca pens from Amazon for less than £5 which is what the bee shops charge for one. ‘They’ arrived yesterday … one fluorescent pink Posca. D’oh! I might kept to label the queen in an observation hive.

      You might be right about the formulation changing as the marking can wear off. However, it seems to vary from colony to colony as some lasts as long as the queen does.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Michael Head

    I very much enjoy your posts. Question (unlikely of bearing an easy answer): How does one acquire the privilege of working with bare hands with abou 150,000 bees within 20 feet. I am not an oaf, but neither am I Tinker Bell. I work slowly and carefully and usually while the workers are foraging. But I dare say, were I to take of my thick but nimble neoprene gloves I would get “injected” at least once (per finger). I’m a big boy and a beekeeper (3rd year) so I know I will get stung. But I don’t like it.

    MFH

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Michael

      If you wear the thinnest gloves possible you get almost no protection from stings. You get almost no stings either as you have a much better sense of touch. Neoprene sounds pretty thick. Try nitrile or latex (though some are allergic to the latter). Once you have confidence with thin gloves try with bare hands on a small (nuc?) gentle colony. Some people rub a drop or two of clove oil into their hands before inspections.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Neil

    David,
    A very comprehensive post. Queen marking whilst holding the queen looks really easy on videos, when starting out I opted to forgo using a cage, what a mistake that was, during numerous attempts I’d drop the queen into the hive, onto the floor or have her crawling over my hands. I bought a cage and completed the task. I was determined to master the process in my second season. I was given a tip from the more experienced beekeepers in my association: practice on drones first.
    Neil

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Neil

      Practicing on drones does work. However, use a different colour from the pen you’ll use on the queen. Drones move from hive to hive and it drives you nuts if you keep on seeing yet another marked bee in the hive upon inspection.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Calum

    Learnt to mark queens by marking drones, but dont use the same Colour you plan to use for marking the queen. 😉
    When you have marked 20 drones, to your satisfaction, you are ready to start on queens…

    I got a bit of kit (splashed out on a birthday present to myself) for queen marking, that you can use to grab her of the frame, and press her under a grill one handed which is very handy. It was 14€ – i went overboard.. I’ll share a photo when I get back to my home country (on a business trip).

    Also you can get coloured plates with numbers on (0-100) them for gluing to the queens thorax, maybe a help for your Colour blindness?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum

      Is it one of these? Advertised here as a one handed queen catcher.

      I got great satisfaction this evening from finding, marking and clipping a queen from a very strong double brood colony that was boiling over with bees. There is no way I’d have been able to do it with one of those medieval-looking crown of thorns press in cages … I’d have impaled a dozen workers as well and that would have upset them (and the colony 😉 ).

      Have you seen the Apinaut system? A magnetic numbered disc to stick to the thorax. There’s also a small magnetic pen which you can then use to pick the queen up. Very clever.

      Enjoy your trip.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Calum

        HI David,
        “one handed queen catcher” the very same, but cheaper than Holtermann.de – I was not aware that Thornes had anything cheaper – must be a pricing mistake (or I am falling of my chair in surprise. .
        The apinaut system, yes I had heard of it, but a bit expensive, myself, I am only starting to mark queens again now after a 5 year break, only because I am selling so many colonies. I find them easy enough without painting them…
        BR
        Calum

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Calum
          Cheaper?! That must be a record 😉 I can usually find queens easily enough … except when I really need to. I’ve noticed over the last few seasons that I’m not very good at spotting them in the first few hives I inspect each year. It’s as though I need to be subconsciously reminded what I’m looking for. Of course, it’s during those inspections that you discover the hives the superseded the queen late in the season … after looking for the white-marked queen for 10 minutes 😉
          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  6. Alastair Morley

    Timely and hugely informative as usual. Thanks for this!

    I am getting better at all of the above – or so I thought until I went to inspect last weekend and I couldn’t find any of my three marked queens. Either they were very well hidden, or the paint had worn off as I don’t think I left it long enough to dry. Too anxious to return the queens to their hive.

    I know what to do next inspection. Thank you!

    Al

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alastair
      Considering the hassle it is to find her sometimes I always err on the side of caution … make sure the paint is dry and take care re-introducing her.
      They can still hide of course 😉
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Richard

    Very good article and good advice. All I can add is that I have been using marker pens (posca) that you can buy from any beekeeping equipment supplier BUT recently I found out that posca do luminescent range of same model pens. I can’t stress enough how much easier it is to see queen marked with luminescent colour.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Good point Richard … they also do some metallic colours which are nice to mark a queen with for an observation hive.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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