Before you tear into your hive, disturbing the bees and disrupting their home, think about your mission. Most times, we don’t need to see our queen up close and personal, we only need to know she is alive, well, and laying a gazillion eggs.
In many cases, the brood nest can tell you everything you need to know. Eggs last only about three days, so if you see orderly rows of eggs, one to a cell, you can be fairly certain that all is well with the queen. At the very least, you know you had a queen within the last three days.
Failing that, the sight of very young larvae—the kind you can barely see at the bottom of a cell—tells you the brood is roughly four to five days old. It follows, then, that a queen was present in the last 4 to 5 days. Most likely, she is still there.
Older larvae indicate she was okay in the more distant past, perhaps up to nine days prior. Basically, the younger the brood, the more assured you can be of the queen’s presence. With older brood, you become less certain.
When you must find your queen
Although clues are usually enough, sometimes you simply must find your queen. Perhaps you want to split your hive and need to know where she is. Or perhaps you want to mark her, sequester her for a brood break, or even replace her. In such cases, you need to find her no matter how difficult it seems.
Although marking a queen helps, numbered tags can fall off and painted markings can wear away or become too scratched to see. And don’t forget, your queen could have left with a swarm when you weren’t paying attention. It happens. I have captured a number of swarms with marked queens even though I don’t mark my own.
Beekeeping is all about responding to situations as they arise, so some years you may not need to locate a single queen. In other years, you are looking for one constantly, or so it seems.
Practice makes perfect
“Perfect” is probably an overstatement because most of us have days when we gave up after several unsuccessful attempts at finding a queen. Nevertheless, it does get easier with practice.
If you search for queens often, you will develop your own style of queen spotting, and new beekeepers will watch you in amazement. The secret is learning how to look.
Start with the outer frames
Start your search by removing one of the outer frames. Scan it quickly—one side and then the other, before setting it aside. This gives you some room to work and makes it less likely that you will “roll” the queen as you inspect the rest. Although it is possible to find your queen on an end frame, it is rare. Usually, she will stay close to the center on a frame that contains some brood.
After the first frame is set aside, remove the next frame by sliding it away from the neighboring frame and lifting it gently. Scan one side and then the other. Work quickly because queens prefer to stay out of the sun. If you are working with your back to the sun, and the sunlight hits the frame you are inspecting, she may slip to the other side. She can do this lightning-fast while you flip the frame multiple times. Queens may look large and complacent but slow, they are not.
After inspecting each frame, slide it into the empty space left by the previous frame, being careful not the place the inspected frames too close to the uninspected ones. Too close and the queen might crossover to the already-inspected side.
Where she’s likely to be
Once you get to the edge of the brood nest, it gets harder to spot the queen simply because more stuff is in the way—more brood cells, more workers, more drones, more activity. In spite of all the commotion, the queen is more likely to be in the center of the brood nest—right where she’s hardest to spot.
Remember that queens are usually larger than workers, but sometimes the difference is slight. Queens can sometimes be accompanied by a retinue of attendants, but not always. A queen’s legs tend to splay out to the side, but hers may be hidden beneath other bees. A large bald spot on the thorax and a long pointy abdomen are indicative but may not be obvious in a busy brood nest.
Scan for the unexpected
When I’m scanning a frame, I don’t look at individual bees but I look for something different, something that doesn’t quite fit the pattern. I go pretty fast, trying not to focus on individual bees. Instead, I just search for the “thing that doesn’t belong.”
The process reminds me of those hidden image puzzles: if you try too hard, you won’t see the difference. Just let your eyes trail across the frame, and be on the alert for anything unusual.
Maintain a pattern
It helps to have a scanning pattern, one you use on each frame. Some people like to scan the edges first, and some like to start in the middle and work toward the outside. There are no rules here, just do what is comfortable.
Personally, I start in the upper left corner and scan across the top. Then I drop down a couple of inches and scan in the reverse direction in a zigzag pattern from top to bottom. After the last scan, I flip the frame up and zigzag in the same pattern on the opposite side, starting in the upper left corner again. I use the same zigzag pattern, even though the frame is now upside down.
Stay over the brood box
Always hold the frames over the brood box while you are scanning. If a queen should fall off the frame—and yes, it happens—you want her to fall back into the brood box, not into the grass or on the ground where you are standing.
Check both sides of each frame, replacing each (except the first) in the hive after you’ve scanned. You can go through the frames a second time if you don’t succeed on the first pass, but quit and close the hive if the second try doesn’t work. After twice through, the bees need time to calm down and restore order. You can try again on another day.
Never trust a queen
After scanning multiple times, I have found a queen on the hive cover, in the grass, on my arm, and sunning herself on the hive stand. Never, ever assume you know where the queen isn’t. Be careful when messing with them, pay attention, and don’t let yourself be distracted. As I remind people, it’s hard on the ego to lose a mind game to an insect. And it’s especially bad if you end up killing her by accident.