Why do Queens Fail?

Has anyone else had problems getting queens mated this year? I have heard stories from local beekeepers of supersedures following queen introductions, and mating failures this season. I found that a couple of queens in my own apiary didn’t get mated because the weather in July was so cold, wet, and poor for mating flights.

Queen Introduction.

Introducing queens can be tricky unless you understand honey bee reproductive biology and work with the bees to replace a queen with what they are expecting. For example, a beekeeper near here thought he would change his stock with 8 bought -in Carniolan queens. When he saw swarm signs, he removed the queens from each colony to a nucleus box and knocked down all the swarm cells in the parent colonies till they were hopelessly queenless. He thought it would be quicker to requeen all these parent colonies with Carniolan queens rather than wait 3 weeks for the colonies to produce their own queens which they were planning on doing after losing their queens. 6 out of the 8 expensive queens were given the thumbs down by the colonies and killed off as soon as they laid eggs. So, these colonies had to make new queens delaying the process even more. The weather was poor at the crucial mating time of these supersedure queens to compound the issues.

A Pro at Work.

Had the beekeeper used Ian Anderson’s method of swarm prevention he would have had better success. Ian is a local bee farmer with 150 colonies and many years of experience and experimentation under his belt. He was raised on a farm with a keen sense of animal husbandry and welfare, and a deep knowledge of how things work. He has a sure -fire way of swarm prevention and requeening at the same time.

Before the colonies prepare to swarm, Ian removes brood and nurse bees with pollen and honey stores to nuclei and requeens with, preferably, his own recently reared queens from grafting. However, realistically is not possible to produce the numbers of queens required so he does import queens.

A Global Problem?

What is happening around the world I wonder? Are queens living shorter productive lives than we expect? What are the reasons? I looked at some of the literature from the U.S.

Clarence Collison3 (2016) writes, “In the U.S. in recent years, queens have been failing at a high rate; with 50% or greater of queens replaced in colonies within six months when historically a queen might live one to two years or even longer”.

Beekeepers themselves have reported increased queen failure rates in recent Bee Informed Partnership surveys https://beeinformed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/BIP-2022-23-Loss-Abstract.pdf. Across the U.S., Backyard (hobbyists), Sideline (making some income from beekeeping), and Commercial beekeepers have been surveyed annually with interesting results. This year, 2023, Varroa is the main problem for all three groups which is not a surprise. Backyarders reported weather as the second main cause, with starvation and queenlessness third equal. Commercial beekeepers reported queen issues as their second main problem but starvation was lowest on their list as a perceived cause of loss. Given the importance of nutrition, its’ impact on queen health, and that maintenance is mainly within beekeeper control, it is shocking that so many managed colonies starve to death. Other sources documenting and discussing queen failure include; McAfee1, ,Repas2, and Collison3.

The Pesticide Problem.

Many scientists have investigated pesticides and their effect on queens given that wax absorbs chemicals and queens are exposed every day as they walk on combs. Traynor et al 20164 showed that pesticides used by beekeepers for treating varroa were associated with supersedure and queen loss. A subsequent study by Mc Afee5 showed that direct contact with pesticides did not reduce queen quality directly, rather, pesticide exposure somehow alters worker hypopharyngeal secretions which means that they are unable to adequately nourish and raise viable queens. Queens exposed to coumaphos are most likely to die and, if they survive, they are smaller but fluvalinate is the most hazardous residue1.

Assessing grafting success.

How well the queen is raised affects quality and performance. Rangel6 discovered that queens raised from larvae grafted on the day of hatching (day o) were larger than those grafted from larvae from 2 days old. This is important information because, for every day from day 0 that grafting is delayed, the body weight of the queen decreases along with size of spermatheca, number of ovaries, and stored sperm.

A poorly developed emergency queen from an old larvae.

Another fascinating thing I discovered is that poor insemination causes early supersedure. Good quality insemination positively affects the queen’s hypopharyngeal gland and its chemical profile which in turn affects queen brain gene expression and how she interacts with the workers. So, a poorly inseminated queen performs poorly in interactions with the workers and the colony is dissatisfied with her.

Shipping Queens.

In separate studies, McAfee1, and Rhodes & Somerville7 studied transportation of queens looking at temperature variations and age of queens respectively. We now know that extremes of heat and cold affect sperm negatively so mail order queens might fail due to those factors. Studies by Rhodes and Somerville showed that performance and survival of queens imported from Australia to the U.S. increased with the age of the queen at the time of introduction to the new colony. The highest survival rate was for queens of 28 days at introduction. So, perhaps queens are shipped out by breeders too early in the rush to fulfil orders on some cases of failure.

Queen failure is influenced by many other factors such as geography, disease, weather, climate, forage and nutrition, race of queen, drone quality, adaption of bees to local area, stress (transporting to pollination contracts) and beekeeper incompetence, so all need to be investigated further. Apart from studying the performance of locally adapted queens versus imported, I think that one of the most important areas to be investigated is beekeeper education. Despite, the increase in number of colonies of honey bees globally since 1950, they still face the collective challenges of climate change, changes in agricultural practices, reduced forage, pesticides, and pests and diseases, both old and emerging.

The media has not really done honey bees any favours by hyping up the need to save bees. Until, perhaps, now, the public has largely not understood the message and assumed that they should keep honey bees rather than be mindful and provide safe forage for all insects. The result has been many more new beekeepers starting up, some of whom have not taken the time, or had the opportunity, to learn the life cycle of honey bees and how to care for them properly. Disease is a big problem to deal with, especially the foulbroods. All these factors undoubtedly contribute to the problems faced by honey bees today including queen quality.


1 McAfee, A., (2021) Demystifying Queen Stress, American Bee Journal, October 2021, pp.1107-1109.

2Repas, T., (2017) Strategies For Small-Scale Queen Breeders To Improve Queen Quality, American Bee Journal, June 2017, pp.657-661.

3Collison, C., (2016) Sperm Viability, Bee Culture, October 2016, pp.25-29.

4Traynor, K., (2016) In-Hive Pesticide Exposome: Assessing Risks To Migratory Honey Bees From In-Hive Pesticide Contamination In The Eastern United States. 6:33207.

5McAfee et al, (2021) Honey Bee Queen Health Is Unaffected By Contact Exposure To Pesticides Commonly Found In Beeswax. Scientific Reports. 11:15151

6Rangel et al (2013) The Effects Of Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera.L)) Queen Reproduction Potential On Colony Growth. Insect Soc.:65-73.

7Rhodes, J. and Somerville, D. (2003) Introduction And Early Performance Of Queen Bees-some factors affecting success.Publication No. 03/049, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra, ACT, Australia. 214.

11 thoughts on “Why do Queens Fail?”

  1. A cracking read with my Friday morning coffee, Ann – thank you. I think you have sharply illustrated the complexities of beekeeping and why potential beekeepers really do need to think long and hard about how much time, further training and money they are prepared to invest in their bees to ensure a welfare-centric approach.

    Bees are not just for Christmas, and done well, beekeeping is one of the most demanding hobbies known to man.

    You’ve raised some very important points – we have to go beyond the obvious to join the dots in terms of what is harming our bees.

    I passionately believe that we don’t need more mouths to feed (i.e honey bees), we just need to provide more meals.

    Thank you for provoking a very stimulating debate in my own mind this morning.

    Have a restful weekend.


  2. Hi Ann! Great read! Yes I’ve had a few more requeening issues this year.

    Agree on more beekeeper education. Agree we should look after all pollinators, not just honey bees.

    So you do touch on the issue of drone quality and their potential role in queen failure. Just wondering if drones are a much bigger factor in queen failure. The queen is surely only as good as the sperm she’s collected. I wonder if we sacrifice drones a little too readily to monitor and manage varroa? Could this be part of the problem too? If it is then how do we ensure plenty of healthy drones? Do we need some raising healthy drone initiatives as well as queen raising initiatives being promoted more widely?

    I don’t have the answer to these questions but in my reading I’m starting to find others raising the question of drones and their importance in the colony. I’d like to see more research into drones.

    1. Hello Jenny. Thank you for your positive response to the blog and for sharing your thoughts. You are right that I only just touched on the drone in this piece and he does play a crucial role. I wrote a 3-part series https://www.beelistener.co.uk/biology-for-beekeepers/the-drone-part-2-anatomy-and-physiology/ because he is so important. I think that do we need to concentrate on raising healthy drones and not sacrifice too many as part of varroa control.
      Nutrition probably plays more of a role than is currently acknowledged in drone development. Nutrition at colony level is key. Competition for forage, especially in summer when bees have to travel futher to get the necessary food to sustain them is a consideration. Pollen value naturally decreases in summer and is the trigger for the production of winter bees so supplementing with pollen is not helpful but having enough forage available naturally is. Some beekeepers feed small amounts of pollen in the autumn which probably causes no harm but maybe one answer is to keep fewer colonies of honey bees?

  3. Couldn’t agree more with everything you mentioned. I had much more supersedure of very jung queens than ever before, maybe the weather? Possibly the weather, buy I think we have not to focus only on the weather. We know very well, that we have other problems. The queens used to live for 3 to 4 years and the weather was not always great!
    I think something is definitely not right and there are several factors as you described them.
    I would guess that malnutrition (too many colonies in a given area or maladapted exotic strains of bees) together with additional stress of pesticides in the environment as well as in the hive are the main problems.
    We are still using synthetic chemicals/ insecticide to kill varroa, but we do harm our bees as well. We have lots of different chemicals in commercial wax foundation, do we know what they cause inside a bee colony? We know for a fact, that this chemicals damage the health of the bees, but we have no clue about the complexity and the synergetic effects with other chemicals the bees often bring in with pollen from the field.
    Amitraz for example seems to have a strong synergetic effect with neonicotinoids.
    Randy Oliver gives us an idea how complex this problems are and how little we know about the interaction of different substances. I guess there is a lot more we do not understand, do we cause problems by selecting queens/ queen cells instead we let the bees choose them? There is evidence, that bees do prefer certain rare patrilines to raise their queens from, do we really understand what other criteria the bees have in mind? Maybe we should let them bee bees again? Natural selection seems to be crucial for healthier bees, but we try to “improve” the bees like we want them to be. Productive, gentle, no swarming, but disease/ varroa resistant? Maybe we should ask the bees if they agree with our idea of a “perfect” bee? I guess an other problem is obviously the import of non native bees or “designer” bees like buckfast hybrids. They seem to be doing great if feeding them all the time, but what do they cause after mating with our local adapted native/ near native bees? Probably not very well adapted offsprings. Maybe we could/ should focus on the most obvious problems, but even there we seem to struggle… What are we waiting for?

    1. Hello Roman. Thank you for contributing your thoughts to the mix. It is heartening to know that so many of us are working towards the same end. Are you currently living in Argyll?
      Best wishes,

  4. Thank you Ann for your blog. Food for thought.
    I wonder also if the quality of queens decreases with the season, due to increased varroa parasitism of drones?

    1. Hello Simon. Thank you for responding and contributing to the conversation. I think that your suggestion would make a good research project. Dr Zachary Lamas (who works at the Beltsville lab in the U.S.) suggests that we should be sampling drones for varroa rather than workers in alcohol wash tests. We do need to bring drones into the forefront.

  5. Hi Ann. Thank you for sharing with us (your readers) the difficulties you and neighboring beekeepers had in getting queens properly mated this summer, because of an abundance of cool, wet weather. You mention that some beekeepers are using imported queens (Carniolans and Italians), so I wonder if this might be part of the problem: the queens they rear (based on their imported stock) are not well adapted to getting mated in your rather cool, wet climate. Do you know if beekeepers who keep your native black bees (A. m. mellifera) have fewer problems getting queens mated during cool, wet summers?

    1. Hi Tom,
      I had indeed less successful matings, or more precisely significantly more supersedure of jung queens (from the same year!) in particularly one area, compared to other places where I keep my locally adapted near native black bees. Maybe just coincidence, but the same is true for viruses like deformed wing and chronic bee paralysis virus for example.
      I definitely see a negative impact on my bees in areas with a high density of “exotic” strains of bees probably brought in on a regular basis, compared to my apiaries where there are no other bee keepers with exotic strains around.
      Maybe just the higher density of managed bees in general, hard to say.
      Probably it’s obvious that a bee type that builds up huge colonies and needs lots of nectar and pollen to do so, will suffer more drastically in every way when not able to bring in fresh pollen and nectar during a rainy period?
      The same is probably true for mating behaviour and combined it’s probably obvious that they will struggle when conditions are even more extreme than what is already borderline for them?
      Let’s hope we will wake up and start taking care of our bees instead of bringing in artificially inseminated, honey producing “Frankenstein monsters” called honey bees?!

    2. Hello Tom.Thank you for commenting on the post. It would be great to get figures from Ireland on queen mating success given the high levels of Amm ((A. m. mellifera) colonies over there. Do you know of any research from Ireland?
      Best wishes,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.