&   SEARCH
David A. Cushman logo
Queens-Poor Mating And Laying...
By Roger Patterson

An update July 2006... This document supersedes Issue 002

Editors note... The images are large files for clarity and may take some time to load on slow connections.

The intention is for this update to report what has happened during the first half of the 2006 season in the U.K. The weather in the spring was very cold and bees in most areas were rather backward. In my area of Sussex there was a flurry of swarms in late April up until mid May, then a break until mid June, when it started again. I know of several instances where colonies swarmed twice, the second time with the young queen produced as a result of the first swarming attempt.

The pattern of problems is so far different than previous years. There have been many more early supersedures of 2005 queens, and far less drone brood in worker cells. I have had several people who had problems in previous years tell me they have had none so far in 2006.

I have added several new photographs to help people identify the problems. Most of them are my own and I give permission for them to be used for the purposes of educating beekeepers.

The major changes from Issue 002


I started keeping bees in 1963 and at one time had 130 colonies, and have always raised my own queens on a regular basis. For a number of reasons I had a spell where I had no bees myself for about 15 years until restarting in 2002, but retained interest in my local Association, and continued to attend meetings. At one stage I could expect a success rate of getting queens mated from a sealed cell well in excess of 90%, but since returning to active beekeeping that success rate has dropped alarmingly, in my own experience to 50% or less.

When restarting I obtained 5 colonies from various sources and rigorously culled the poorer queens. In doing this I realised there was a problem in achieving the level of successful matings I had previously enjoyed.

In the Dec 2004 issue of BBKA News I wrote an article on my experiences, and asked if the problems were related to varroa. I received several replies and these fell largely into two groups, those who had kept bees for around 15 years or more, and agreed with me that there was a problem, and those with less experience who indicated that my experiences were "normal", which is understandable if that is all they had known. One person who regularly raised a large number of queens appeared to have a success rate as low as 15%.

I received references to research work that had been done abroad, and there were indications from what I considered to be reliable sources that varroa and it's treatment may be a contributory factor, and in a variety of ways.

Drones that were parasitised by varroa as larvae may have reduced sperm and lower viability if, indeed, they managed to survive to sexual maturity, and it appears that some treatments may accumulate in beeswax, and possibly cause the following problems:-

I am not qualified to make comment on the above findings and they may well be superseded by later information. We should also remember that the work was done abroad and may have involved treatments that are not cleared for use in the U.K.

I had become convinced that varroa was the main cause because the queen mating problem appeared to have gone up the country at roughly the same rate as the spread of varroa, and there were no problems before it's arrival. I accept that in normal circumstances something occasionally goes wrong, but not at the current rate. If you think about it bees will not survive many generations with such a low reproductive rate, and we must have had spells of weather during the time bees have been in this country that were very much worse for successful mating than we have had over the last few years.

Since issue 001 of this document appeared on the BBKA website I have had a lot of correspondence from all parts of the country from concerned beekeepers telling me they have had similar problems to me. What is significant is that some of those who had previously told me there was no problem have changed their minds, simply by comparing their experiences with mine.

There have been three further possible theories put forward and these are listed later.

The reason for this document

I believe the problem is very serious and poses a threat to beekeeping in this country, but of course it must first be recognised, which is not easy when so many dismiss it as being caused by the weather, or birds taking the queens on the wing, which are the traditional reasons for queens not getting mated or quickly failing. Firstly the weather has got far more bee friendly over my time in beekeeping, and results should be better, not worse, and secondly I don't believe that birds are taking 4-5 times as many queens as they used to. If that was the case they would be taking workers as well and colonies would be much weaker.

My initial warnings did not set off the alarm bells in the places I would have expected them to. There seemed little evidence that others had noticed the same problems I had, and when I spoke to beekeepers there was initially denial, then when I explained the symptoms I had a different response. In my locality many people are noticing problems in getting queens mated and laying properly, but only after I have alerted them. I have had correspondence from all over the country from beekeepers who have had problems. I have also had contact with beekeepers who keep records who haven't experienced problems. These are just as important.

I had done nothing different than I had always done and I was sure that if I had difficulties then others were as well, it was simply that very few people had noticed them.

Judging from my own experiences and having a mathematical brain I could see real difficulties ahead, especially for those with only a handful of colonies.

It quickly became obvious to me that there was possibly a big problem, and if nothing was done a large number of colonies would be lost. If it was related to varroa I couldn't understand why there was little mention from other countries where they had varroa some time before us.

I hope these notes will firstly alert beekeepers to the threat, and secondly offer advice in order to minimise the effects until the problem can be investigated thoroughly. It is in a form that can be easily printed so that local associations can distribute to their members.


It does not seem to matter if the cells are swarm, emergency, or artificial. They can all result in failure, and in roughly the same proportions. When raising queens myself my preference is for the punched cell method and the "take" has still been very good. I normally have 10 cells in a cell raising colony and it has always been normal to lose one or two.

I list below all the things that I have experienced:-

  1. Queens emerging with deformed or stubby wings. This has now become quite common.

    Fig 1

    Fig 1

    Fig 2. shows one from a batch of 18** sealed cells that was raised in my local Association apiary, see picture below. I believe this may be a virus similar to Deformed Wing Virus, although I have had queens like this that have been raised from colonies where the workers show no visible signs of DWV, as this one had. It is obvious these queens can't fly and I am sure that many virgin queens that "disappear" have been sufferers and not been noticed.

    Fig 2

    Fig 2
  2. Queen cells with dead and decomposed larvae in them. Fig 3. shows three cells from a batch of 10 that were raised in the same colony. They are all dead and in different states. The two on the right have both coloured up, but are different sizes.

    Fig 3

    Fig 3
  3. Instances where a queen has obviously emerged, but never starts to lay. This could be connected to 1. above.

  4. Queens getting mated, but laying a variable amount of drone eggs in worker cells. The amount can vary from the odd few to 100%. These are easy to see due to the raised cappings. Make sure they are actually worker cells though. Don't forget it is rare for drone cells to be on their own, they are usually in patches. Fig 4 shows an example, and it is obvious that these drones are in worker cells.

    Fig 4

    Fig 4
  5. Patchy brood. I am not sure why this is as the cases I have seen are not always linked with something obvious such as chalk brood. The egg laying pattern is often good, suggesting that the eggs are not viable and are removed by the bees.

  6. Recently mated queens laying eggs either off centre in the base of the cell or two eggs in a cell. This is not to be confused with laying workers. Often there are other problems as well such as drone brood in worker cells. Often the larvae develops off centre as well. This may be because the queens are smaller than they should be and they are unable to locate the correct part of the cell.

  7. Queen cells being built soon after a queen commences to lay, in some cases in small colonies. This is sometimes in colonies where there appears to be no visible problem with the brood. I assume that for some reason there is a problem with the queen substance or the amount that the queen is producing.

  8. Queens "disappearing". This happened twice in one week in my local Assn apiary with the current seasons queens (2005), one in a colony on 4-5 frames and one with 7-8 frames. In both cases there was a problem with the brood. I also had the same in my own apiary with two colonies, one with a current seasons queen (2005), and the other with the previous seasons (2004), both with perfect brood. Both colonies had given around 60-80lb of early honey and had 4 full supers on. They had both yielded around 150lb of honey. In none of them was the timing right for a queen to be lost or killed during manipulation.

  9. Young queens freely laying drone eggs only, but both sides of a brand new wire Q/E! This suggests that queens are smaller than they should be.

  10. Young queens quickly turning into drone layers.

  11. Some young queens laying in drone cells only.

  12. Queens stopping laying. If they restart it is usually with a high percentage of drone brood, and often total drone brood.

  13. A high percentage of undersized drones in colonies. This I think must be the result of drones being reared in worker cells. Figs 5&6 show both small and normal sized drones.

    Fig 5

    Fig 5
  14. Brood cappings that are domed more than normal worker, but less than normal drone brood. I have not investigated this much to find out what bees are produced.

    Fig 6

    Fig 6
  15. Drones being retained much later in the season. This has previously been an indication that the bees are not happy with their queen, and it seems logical that this is the reason, but in many more instances.

  16. Queens developing upside down in their cells.

  17. Previous years queens being superseded, many with what appears to be "perfect" brood. This is different than 7 below.

    Fig 7

    Fig 7

Other photographs

Fig 8

Fig 8
Shows a brood frame that I think is acceptable. The few gaps could be for a number of reasons, but in my view is not worth worrying about. Compare this with Fig 7. which does not appear to be good. Several people have told me this is a genetic problem. It might be, but is anything else causing it? Could it be that the bees are detecting the cells with varroa in and removing the brood? Before jumping to conclusions we should investigate all possibilities, as it could be we would replace that queen when it might be showing good characteristics.

Fig 9

Fig 9.
This was a comb from a swarm that I understand had not been opened since it was hived in a BKA apiary several weeks previously (4-5 from memory). The queen had obviously "disappeared" and there were emergency cells. So often I hear similar stories of queens disappearing after the swarm is hived, which seems odd as you would think the queen is good if she has built up a colony large enough to swarm.

Fig 10

Fig 10.
Is one of the cells from the colony Fig 9. is taken from. It could have been the one that was left behind by the beekeeper after all the others were cut out. The colony would then be doomed unless remedial action was taken.

Fig 11

Fig 11.
This queen came from a swarm cell in a large producing colony. She laid well for 2-3 weeks then turned drone layer. The "Q/C's" on the bottom of the frame contain drone larvae. I have found that a good Q/C given to a colony in this state usually does the trick, especially if they are given a couple of frames of sealed brood a few days after the queen emerges, to build up the numbers as they have often been without emerging workers for several weeks.

Fig 12

Fig 12.
There are a few obvious drones in worker cells. Young queens often do this for a few weeks, then settle down. Keep an eye on them and if it continues it may get worse, or the queen go off lay for 3-4 weeks then turn drone layer.

Fig 13

Fig 13.
Appears to be a good ripe Q/C, but it isn't. There are many beekeepers who would leave this to emerge, as I did!

Fig 14

Fig 14.
The contents of Fig 13.
There were 5 Q/C's that were used from this batch of "swarm" cells. This one, the queen from Fig 15, and 3 that were mated and laying "normally".

Fig 15

Fig 15.
This queen was from the same batch as Figs 13 and 14. Although she emerged at the start of the good weather and had plenty of opportunity to get mated she failed to do so. She appeared to be full size and with complete wings. She was removed and the colony requeened with a nucleus. The "Q/C" contained drone larvae. Note the scattered unsealed drone brood.

Fig 16

Fig 16.
A comb from the same colony as Fig 15.

Fig 17

Fig 17.
This comb is O.K. The patch of drone brood in the top centre is clearly in drone cells.

Fig 19

Fig 18. & 19.
Both from the same colony. The queen laid "perfectly" for 3-4 weeks then turned drone layer. There were no supersedure cells at all, the ones shown contained drone larvae. Fig 18

These are a selection of photographs from colonies I have seen or managed. I know all these symptoms will occur naturally, and there is always someone who will tell you why it is happening. What they won't tell you is why it happens so often! There are many beekeepers who will not see anything wrong and for a variety of reasons. It may be they don't look at their bees as often as they should, or they don't recognise a problem, or perhaps they have sought advice and been told there is nothing wrong. I hope the photographs and descriptions will help beekeepers, especially beginners.

I would welcome photographs, especially with a description of what has happened.

Have YOU seen any of these problems?

If so please contribute to the forum or contact me. I have set up a facility for problems to be recorded. On the BBKA home page under "Site Navigation" click "Support Boards" then "Beekeepers Forum" then look for "Report Queen Problems". Just explain your experiences as best as you can.

Possible related problems

In 2006 the following have either been reported to me or I have seen myself. I list them in case there is a link.


I have experienced this myself for the first time. A 4 frame nucleus was made up and given a Q/C which emerged and the queen started to lay well. The colony built up to around 8 frames then absconded. All that was left was a few of handfuls of bees, which were augmented by emerging brood. All eggs and young larvae that couldn't be covered died. The queen was clipped and the colony was in a lightly wooded area, so did not get very hot. A varroa check was made and surrounding colonies had a natural mite drop of 1 or less per day in July.

I have subsequently spoken to other people about this and it appears that several have recently had the same problem. One person told me he had taken some very large swarms and he had got the impression they contained the whole colony, obviously minus the non-flying bees.

In recent years we have heard a lot about the "Mary Celeste" syndrome, and I am wondering if we are seeing the same thing, but at a different time of year.


I have had several reports of colonies swarming either with unsealed queen cells or no queen cells at all. I have only previously had this on one occasion, the day after I had moved a colony, and that was 30 years ago.

I have also noticed a rise in the number of "swarms" or "casts", some of them very small, with virgin queens. I can't believe there is a rapid rise in the number of clipped queens which is the usual cause. I think the reason might be the original queen in the colony has "disappeared", emergency cells have been built, and one or more virgin queens have gone off with one or more "swarms".

When answering calls from non beekeepers who have a swarm one of the questions I normally ask is "how big is it". This year many of them have been small, some no bigger than the size if a cricket ball, often several in the same area.

What are the causes?

I must keep an open mind and am open to any reasonable suggestions. I think we can largely discount the weather, and it seems logical to me that there is a possibility that the problems are partly caused by varroa or it's treatment in some way. The problems on the current scale have only appeared since the arrival of varroa, and travelled up the country at roughly the same rate as it's spread.

There are several issues involved and they may not be related, which is why it is important to establish the reasons at an early stage.

The main issues I think we should concentrate on are:-

Since the release of Issue 001 of this document there have been three other reasonable possibilities that I have been made aware of. All seem feasible so I mention them here, together with my own thoughts in italics. I have to stress that no work has been done to date, but these are all suggestions I think are worth further investigation.

There has appeared on the BBKA website Support Board "Beekeepers Forum" a posting, "Possible Impact of Pesticides on Queen Rearing/Mating". This was a contribution from a Berwickshire beekeeper called Graham White, who goes under the name of "Border Beeman". This concerns a generic product called IMIDACLOPRID. There is also a follow up posting "Imidacloprid - Letter to Advisory Committee on Pesticides". Since they appeared Graham has written another item, and details are also on the BBKA website. Click on "Articles" under site navigation on the home page, then on No 15 "Concern over Imidacloprid".

This is rather fragmented and not easy to follow, but all the links should be visited. This should be of interest to all who have a concern for the environment, and I am amazed that it does not appear to have been picked up before. Graham has obviously done a considerable amount of work in tracking this lot down. I have had some of his findings checked, and it seems that the references are from reliable sources, many from the manufacturers themselves. What is alarming is that it appears that this chemical is being used in the UK, when it is banned in France. As far as the connection with the queen problems is concerned it seems quite feasible that this compound could be contributing to queens appearing to be lost on their mating flights. R.P

I have had several people contact me about the so called "gender bending" chemicals. These apparently affect many species including humans. They are called Endocrine Disruptors and seem to affect the male reproductive parts by mimicking the female hormone oestrogen. They are present in many synthetic items used in daily life including plastics, pesticides and even shampoo.

The reports I have seen have mentioned reduced sperm levels, and reduced sex drive as well as alteration of male reproductive parts. Just typing "Endocrine Disruptors" into a search engine is frightening. From one website I visited I quote, "Scientists now fear that seals, dolphins, otters, birds such as peregrine falcons and even honey bees are heading towards a uni-sex existence that would lead to extinction". This should be investigated as it is possible that the laying of drone eggs in worker cells could be caused by this. I am slightly more cautious of this theory because I would have thought that it would have had an effect earlier than it has, due to the length of time they have been in existence. R.P.

As the result of mentioning the queen mating problem in a beekeeping column I write for my local paper the West Sussex Gazette, I had a telephone call from a gentleman who is an ex-beekeeper. He is concerned at the rapid decline in the insect population in his area, where he has lived all his life, and been keeping records for over 30 years. He has been doing some investigation into the effects of the emissions from mobile telephone masts. The theory seems to be that the emissions are affecting the fertility of a whole range of creatures, and he thought this might explain the problems beekeepers were having.

I have had one fairly brief meeting with this person and he has clearly done some research, and his findings seem relevant to our problem.

I know nothing of the technology involved, but I guess that the emissions may be similar to microwaves. It is known that they are used for pest control in some situations.

I see two possibilities that could be quite easily investigated:-

It might be that larvae are slightly "cooked", and I wonder if some minute changes are made in the larval stages of the queens, and that could be a reason for their reproductive parts being affected in some small way. Are drones being affected when flying in drone assemblies where they may be receiving a constant bombardment of emissions?

A considerable amount of work in this area has been done at the University of Athens by Dimitris J Panagopoulos and Lukas H Margaritis. I suggest the reader punches their names into any search engine, and looks for any relevant literature.

I gave a talk at a convention and mentioned the stronger wavelength system called TETRA that is used by the police. Afterwards a gentleman approached me and said he had recently retired from the police force and there were concerns about policemen's wives and partners having problems conceiving.

It seems to me that this is the easiest theory to prove or disprove and could be done quite quickly and relatively cheaply. R.P.

I am not qualified to make further comment on any of the above, but have done further reading and it seems possible that the problem is much more complex than I originally thought. All of the suggestions so far, except the endocrine disruptors are relatively new, so perhaps my thoughts on linking the problem with varroa due to the timing are also appropriate to the other suggestions.

Without investigating too deeply there does seem to be a hint that the more remote areas of the country are having less of a problem than the rest. This actually fits in with all the suggestions.

The addition of these three possibilities might make a solution much more difficult to achieve as they are all out of the hands of beekeepers.

I have had other suggestions including one concerning organo-phosphates that are apparently put into aviation fuel to make the engines run quieter and more efficiently.

I have of course had some people tell me there are no problems at all. I have also had others tell me what it is and what it isn't. A much more helpful piece of advice came from a scientist who told me to chuck everything into the pot however crazy it might sound.

What is being done?

I have been in contact with both NBU and BBKA. It seems to me that BBKA are the organisation that should drive any investigation, although we must accept that apart from paid staff all other work is done on a voluntary basis. They do of course have connections and these will be vital.

This document will be updated when there is new information, and there is a link to the forum where beekeepers can make a contribution.

Beekeeping magazines will be kept updated, but I don't know them all, so if you are an Editor then please e-mail me so I can put you on the list. Information can be sent to Editors, but there is no guarantee they will print it, and if they do sometimes it is changed.

Until we have scientifically proven information I am willing to speak or demonstrate at major gatherings of beekeepers as much as anything to highlight the problems. We need to inform as many beekeepers as possible, and I see this as meaning a convention/conference situation rather that a local group of a dozen people.

I am building a network of reasonably serious and responsible beekeepers throughout the country, preferably who raise queens, in order to gain information that can be put on a standard form. It is not my intention to make much more work than would already be spent, and I am sure that most beekeepers records would be adequate. The intention is for contributors to keep very basic records that can be referred to if necessary. It does not matter if they have had no problems, as this might help us understand more. I would like to make contact with anybody who is willing to take part, but it is important that they have e-mail access otherwise it makes much more work for me. This can be done with the help of another beekeeper.

We are in a very early stage and I hope there will be swift progress.

What has been done to 07/06?

I have given a presentation to the Bee Inspectors Conference at NBU. Many Inspectors said they had recently seen an increase in the symptoms I had described. They agreed to help beekeepers report any problems they might see, but it must be remembered that in general the Bee Inspectors only see a colony once. Their help is valuable in helping to gather information, but it is the beekeepers who know the progress of their colonies and it is unreasonable to rely heavily on the Bee Inspectors.

I have given talks and demonstrations. This has proved quite useful and on occasions I have been able to show people problems they didn't know they had. At one meeting I walked into the room and the person operating the computer and projector was showing a short loop he had made about making up an observation hive. I immediately saw on the frames drone brood scattered about the comb in worker cells. He had a problem and didn't know it.

I have had quite a lot of correspondence from beekeepers in various parts of the world.

I have had several articles published in the Bee Press. There have also been articles and responses by others, many in support and others sadly with a negative and unhelpful message. It is sensible for Editors to present all views of a subject, and any reasonable person would expect them to do that, but it can be very annoying and frustrating when you are trying to help someone, for them to refer you to the written word stating there is no problem, or trotting out the usual ill thought out reasons. In general I have to say that the bee press has been brilliant, many of the Editors realising there really is a problem and doing their best to inform their readers. We are lucky in that beekeeping is a very specialist subject with a small readership, and most Editors are very knowledgeable and up to date.

Version 002 has appeared on many websites throughout the world, and many others and newsletters have made reference to it.

I have visited beekeepers local to me, and have helped where I can. It is difficult to have anything other than sympathy with a relative beginner with 2 colonies, one where the queen has "disappeared" leaving no eggs or larvae, and the other where the one queen cell they left was dud.

Some recent experiences

I am heavily involved with my local BKA, the Wisborough Green Div. West Sussex BKA. Our membership has rocketed and we have a large number of newish beekeepers, most of whom have been keeping bees for 4 years or less. Many have experienced the symptoms I have described, and to their credit none have walked away from beekeeping, but it would be understandable if they did. Many of my experiences have been gained as a result of the involvement with these people.

We have a start up scheme where a beginner can make up a 4 comb nucleus and manage it for the summer. In 2005 we made up 6 of these packages and the only queen that is still heading a colony is laying a high percentage of drones in worker cells. In short they have all failed within 12 months. A close eye has been kept on all of them and this shouldn't happen. In 2006 we have made up 14 nuclei. In the first wave of 5 one had a fertile queen, and the other 4 were all given Q/C's that emerged and were successfully mated, this incidentally when the weather was wet and cold! One of those has since absconded (see above). In the second wave of 4 which was made up in very good weather, only one mated and was laying well, but after a couple of weeks "disappeared" and the colony made poor emergency cells, the rest all had virgin queens that "disappeared", making 100% failure rate! This is disheartening to say the least, especially as beginners are involved.

On June 29th 2006 I visited 3 of our local BKA members with problems in overall 4 colonies, one supersedure that had gone wrong, two where the queens had gone off lay, then disappeared, and one with a 2006 queen that was laying visually perfect brood, but with eggs in queen cells. In the latter case it was not a full colony and had 3 frames of foundation in the B/C. None of these things should normally happen, but they have, and I can't believe they are only happening in my locality. None of these queens were related, and you can't blame the weather or birds as some people are. On the following day I saw a queen that had emerged 5-6 weeks earlier laying total drone, after initially laying well for a couple of weeks. She was a large queen and to look at her you wouldn't think anything was wrong. This was a beginner with a hive that was new throughout.

What do I think needs to be done?

What should beekeepers be doing?

Management techniques will be developed, but until then can I suggest that beekeepers take the following steps:-

"Drone brood. One comb in every colony should give a good drone population. I suggest you place one drone comb in all your colonies. Those in the undesirable colonies should be removed when sealed, placed in the freezer to kill the drones and varroa, cleaned and reused. They should be replaced by a comb of drone brood, larvae or sealed, from a good colony. The cleaned combs could then be put in the good colonies and the process repeated. This would ensure that all drones in your apiary were from good colonies and would also give some degree of control of the varroa. Please note, bees will not accept combs of drone eggs. You may also have a problem with chalk brood in the drone combs, so perhaps better to put them in the middle of the brood nest to avoid chilling."

My view of this is that it would have to be managed quite well otherwise varroa might be bred in the good colonies, which of course will aggravate the situation. I would suggest that each frame was coded in some way such as the use of coloured drawing pins. If used sensibly this could be combined with the IPM technique of drone culling, and in fact would be an improvement as many more drones will be retained. I think a good way of producing good drone comb would be to get them drawn out above the Q/E, then extract the honey, before putting them in the brood box. Some spares would need to be available in order to rotate them. The only problem I see is what to do with the cleaning of them. There are some beekeepers who put them outside for the birds to clean up, but I would avoid this as there is a possibility of spreading foul brood. R.P.

Suggested Management Techniques.

The three non varroa related possibilities have made management techniques more difficult, but if I am correct in my assumption that varroa might be one of the causes it seems there are three things that need to be addressed.

I think that short term we ought to be developing ways of reducing the possible causes, rather than wait for those causes to disappear.

At the moment I am planning to join forces with my local Assn for queen rearing in 2006. I intend to hive swarms on fresh foundation, and treat them with thymol and oxalic acid as well as adopt as many IPM techniques as possible. These colonies will be used for supplying larvae, building queen cells, and mating queens. I am looking at having a minimum of 8 colonies for this purpose, all in the same apiary.

My main honey producing colonies will all be used for rearing drones using the method described above. I think that if the drone combs were frozen at the middle of July this would kill the varroa, which might have built up by then. I have been advised that varroa mites will die within 24 hours if frozen, but as the brood in the combs will retain some heat for a time, I think that 3 days should be satisfactory.

With this method I am aiming at raising queens that have not been subjected to chemicals, hopefully free of viruses, and will mate in an area that has been flooded with good healthy drones.

This can easily be achieved by anybody on their own, with other beekeepers, or an Association.

(This programme is behind schedule because I was unable to obtain strong swarms early enough. To date I have acquired 6 swarms, only one of them being of any strength, only one with a fertile queen, and all of them heavily infested with varroa. This perhaps shows the standard of beekeeping that is unfortunately too common)

We must all assume there is going to be a high failure rate and we should make allowances to cover it. I suggest that you decide how many honey producing colonies you want, lets say, in multiples of four. For every four run an extra two smaller ones in pairs. These will be called "floaters". Make 2 x 4 frame nuclei fairly early in the year, and put your 2 worst queens from your main colonies in them. In the colonies they were taken from introduce previously started queen cells. If they mate successfully leave them alone. If they fail, then introduce queens, possibly in a nucleus, from the "floaters" and unite the remainder with the other one in the pair until you have further queen cells, then split it again. That way you have the same number of productive colonies all the time and the back up ones for emergencies. The "floaters" can be kept down to a fairly small size by moving them in order to lose flying bees to the main colonies. Five frames of bees will winter well in most winters. This can be done with differing numbers of colonies, and those with only one or two can work together. There is also scope for an Association to do the same in their teaching apiary, so that members can make use of spare queens.

Advice and suggestions for local Associations.

The future.

Comments from others in personal communication.

Since I first highlighted the problems in getting queens successfully mated I have received a steady stream of correspondence from a variety of sources, and from all over the country.

At this stage without much research I am assuming that varroa and/or it's treatment is the main cause, so I list below some of the more interesting points that are relevant. Some might not be directly related to the problem, but are connected in some way. I have edited where necessary, and made comment in italics where I think it is appropriate. Please note that some are as a result of observation or memory and may not be as a result of recording.

"The website is fine for alerting people to a possible problem and perhaps more note will be taken of queen failures. You never know, perhaps some bright PhD student will pick up on it".

"...I had one QC with a dead larva. Some of the beekeepers within the drone catchment area use thymol as I do. Another local beekeeper with 50+ colonies has 18 out of 20 queens mated in 3 comb nucs. He regards this as normal having kept bees for about 60 years. He originally used formic acid when varroa was first found in 1997, but more recently thymol. 18 out of 20 is what I would have expected before the current problems". This is well worth investigating. R.P.

"What I have noticed over the last two years is that an (obviously) mated Q has laid well for a month or so, then disappeared!" How many times have I heard that? R.P.

"More recently some colonies have produced huge numbers of drones in the worker cells at the top of the brood box (I use national brood and a half) this in the area most in contact with the strips. At first I thought the Queens had become drone layers - but the deep brood (furthest from the strips) has always been laid up with worker." This is interesting. I keep my bees on single B/C's, and have found that drone brood in worker cells is evenly distributed on the frames. Although against instructions, a control would be to put both strips to one side of the brood box. This also tends to suggest that chemicals might change an egg from fertile to infertile or influence the queens choice in what she lays. I understand that pyrethroid residues are more concentrated in the areas nearest the strips. Observations from others would be helpful. R.P.

"Breeding for resistance. This is the ultimate answer. All it requires is that beekeepers should identify the less susceptible colonies by collecting 50 to 100 mites from each colony once a year (Aug/Sep) and examining for damage to the mites. When I first started looking I found between 3 and 20% of mites damaged. After 2 generations of selection by instrumental insemination I achieved an average of 50%. This was maintained in open matings last year which I have recently checked, varying from 44 to 54%". I have had several comments about varroa resistant bees, mainly referring to experiences in other countries. My own view is that although the example above was from a beekeeper with less than 20 colonies, the results are very encouraging, but it is probably medium/long term, and would rely on a high level of commitment by everybody. It would need dedicated work from a number of competent queen breeders to make any headway, and would need some form of national queen breeding programme. In principle this has a lot to commend it, but the annual turnover of beekeepers of 10% and the inability or unwillingness of a significant number to partake would make it unworkable without some form of legislation. It would require a ban on imports, otherwise there will be a constant stream diluting the work. R.P.

"You seem to be collecting data so I am sending a précis of my apiary records for this season. In brief after all 6 colonies successfully coming through the winter I had a situation by the end of July where all 6 were queenless. Two ended up with drone laying workers, two are now OK and the other two still in doubt."

"... when this year two strong swarms I caught and settled into brood and a half Nationals successfully suddenly became Queenless, I have been pondering why. Other beekeepers known to me have had similar problems with Queens this year."

"I was pointed to your article online by one of my beekeeping chums who knew I had had some queen problems. It did strike a chord and made me rethink the problems I'd had which I had blamed on the swallow population... mainly because more experienced beekeepers said it was likely. It didn't seem like that satisfactory an explanation to me so I'm glad I read your piece". There are many similar comments, mainly by beekeepers who were not convinced about birds and weather. R.P.

"If the problem is caused by varroa, then we are seeing natural selection taking place, with some of the well mated queens, and the successful drones, coming from more resistant colonies."

"Have you read any of Rinderer's papers published in the ABJ on Mating and the Bee Yard? Two factors play a role in the semen content and viability of drones.

  1. Varroa mite abundance.
  2. Effects of control chemicals on drone testes."

I have had several references to work of this type. This is very valuable and shows that we need a comprehensive literary search. Some of the papers quoted go back to 1983, and although may still be relevant there must be subsequent work somewhere. R.P.

"It was interesting to find that a University in Germany have been working with a University in Brazil on this self same problem." Same comment as above. R.P.

"The occurrence of one-sided winged queens should also be investigated in wild colonies (difficult!) and untreated hives (must be some ?) to be sure that this is not a simple genetic trait. The possibility of non-pyrethroid triggers should be borne in mind." This came from a technical person and shows there is much research to do. R.P.

"We have had drone layers at the teaching apiary and one of our teachers made sure we all saw it." This shows a good positive attitude, and hopefully this document will encourage teachers to get beekeepers to contribute to the debate. R.P.

"I raised about 24 queens this summer in North Devon using Apideas for mating and got 90% success in mating. However, I have noticed about 50% of these queens were quickly superseded either in the Apidea or a few weeks after introduction to a nucleus. I have been raising queens on and off for nearly twenty years and the supersedure problems have been the highest ever this year."

"Your BBKA News article makes me wonder if what I thought was bad luck has a more worrying cause. Of eight hives which I had hoped to winter, the queens in three have failed to produce healthy brood. One was a large cast which eventually produced slabs of drone brood, another a collected swarm (or cast) which produced no brood at all. The third failure occurred in a hive which started queen cells, did not swarm but failed to produce a new laying queen. I am not a novice and at one time ran twenty five hives. I have no recollection of this problem happening before. In common with all beekeepers I have had the occasional mating failure due to bad weather conditions but this cannot have been the problem this summer."

"Just a quick note to say that you are not alone in experiencing poor mating and laying. I tend to graft into queen cups and have had good levels of success over the years. However the last 2 - 3 years I have experienced identical problems to those you outline in your article (high failure rates - and of those that do mate a good % do so only for days and are then no longer to be found - only emergency cells on the few eggs they must have laid). I treat annually for varroa - and have not had any heavy infestations. Like you I can only assume that varroa is the cause."

"...BTW I have been watching your queen problem threads with interest. I have had a couple of quick supersedures this year (new queen in June, superseded in late July/August for apparently no good reason) but don't feel I know enough about what I did or didn't do which may have affected the bees decision.

Next year I am hoping to do some more concentrated queen rearing so will let you know what happens then."

This is typical of the "British Standard Beekeeper". Those with a small number of colonies are not likely to notice a problem until someone alerts them, simply because of the small numbers. Often records aren't kept and it is difficult to remember what happened and when. This person obviously intends to do something positive. R.P.

"Queens that cannot mate are in no-ones interest, and the problem needs fixing by open discussion with the people who have the current facts, or the wherewithal to make a case for funding for more research."

"Thanks for the email. Other scientists and I agree that queen quality is at an all-time low. Many of us believe that we are the cause for it! Chemicals, introduced pests, poor selection all have taken a toll on queens in the US. It is depressing for me to hear the same is true in the UK and other parts of the world as well.

I do believe something must be done. My studies do not look directly at queen quality but I have been able to monitor their longevity in the hive. The results are disappointing.

In 5 months we have 50% supersedure on all of our experimental queens! This is the case in many places in the US". This is from a U.S bee researcher. R.P.

Roger Patterson, Photo... BBKA

I would welcome comments on this document, so please feel free to contact me.

Roger Patterson.