How To Mark a Queen Bee

As with everything in beekeeping, there’s more than one way to mark a queen, but most methods usually involve catching the queen, holding her down in some way so she can’t move, and then dabbing her with a paint pen or marker.

A quick-drying water-based paint marker.

I’ve never bothered marking queens myself because, until now, I’ve been pretty free wheelin’ with my queens. I usually have little need to hunt them down. But this year I had a colony that was ready to swarm and it would have been great if I could have found the queen then. A marked queen in a few other situations would have made my life easier too. So I got myself one of the new fan-dangled queen catchers and I marked a few queens, the first time I’ve done this in 10 years. Here’s a video that shows how I did it:

Queen Marking Colours

I’m not keen on marking my queens with the official colours that we’re supposed to use. If I did, I would have marked my queens with blue paint according to this chart:

A white mark is supposed to be used for years ending in 1 and 6, and so on. But the green and red years/colours are kind of useless for the 10% of male beekeepers who have colour deficient vision like me, sometimes called colourblindness. I can tell the difference between the red and green circles (and all the colours) in the above illustration. But if you reduce them down to the size of a little dot and put the green and red dots next to each other, I might not know which is which.

I don’t view my vision as deficient, though. I just see things slightly different than most people. One of the giants of cinematography, Haskell Wexler, was colourblind. Like Haskell, I notice tones and shade and the brightness of light more acutely than most people. The actual colour is hardly on my radar.

For me, trying to find a small, worn out green dot on a frame packed with bees is pretty much impossible too. In fact, I messed up a transfer of some brood into a mating nuc this summer by transferring the queen along with the brood — not what you want to do in a mating nuc with a queen cell about to emerge. I didn’t spot the light-green dot on the queen.

If I mark my queens, I’ll use a colour that jumps out at me — white or yellow. I don’t have dozens or hundreds of hives and I don’t sell queens, so I don’t really see the need to change the colour every year. I take track of my queens by numbering my hives. It’s easy and it’s worked out fine for me.

I’ve heard from a colourblind beekeeper who sells queens, and he only uses two colours, yellow and blue, I think, one colour for even years and the other colour for odd years. And at the end of the day, you aren’t supposed to do anything as a beekeeper. You do what works for you. Coloured dots be damned.

July 31st, 2021: I had no problems marking queens with this queen catcher last summer. But this summer has been trickier. I can see how some people might not have the same results as I did initially and how they could even kill a queen using this queen catcher.

I first heard from another beekeeper who tried using this catcher and said the foam padding wasn’t high enough, so that even when he pushed the plunger all the way, he couldn’t pin the queen down for marking. Another guy had the same problem and kept pushing until the plunger pushed through suddenly and squished the queen. The sliding mechanism isn’t as smooth as it could be either — a problem I had from the beginning.

Add it all up and those factors could easily make things better than worse, more difficult than easier.

While I found it to be the most convenient and easiest method of catching queens (because I’ve never really gotten into catching queen until now), it didn’t work out like that for me this summer. I tried to pin the queen and it seemed the foam padding had already shrunk to the point where I couldn’t get the queen pinned. I marked her a bit but she was moving and I said enough of this.

I think I can make some adjustments to the queen catcher so it’ll work well again. But more a traditional queen catcher like this one might work better for some:

August 27th, 2021: Not everyone likes the one-handed queen catchers. My post, One-Handed Queen Catcher Tweak, demonstrates a simple tweak that improves the queen catcher, the kind of tweak the manufacturers will probably implement once they realise, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

5 thoughts on “How To Mark a Queen Bee

  1. We’ve been wanting to mark our queens too, but have been nervous to try, even with all the queen marking equipment. Thanks! This video shows that it’s not as hard or anxiety-causing. Glad you posted this.

  2. Excellent video and shows how to use the cage to actually catch the queen, that is what I was struggling with. Thx also your color scheme sounds perfect for me and don’t need lots of pens and colors.

    • Keep in mind that this is the first time I’ve done this. I’ve tried catching queens by hand before, but this queen catcher made it a lot easier on my nerves, not much concern with injuring her. I’ve also haven’t tried this on a frame absolutely packed with bees, which could be more tricky. But it definitely looks promising. Even when I’m doing regular inspections and I want to put the queen aside in a safe place, this queen catcher would work well for that.

  3. Great video, reminds me of the first time I marked my brand new carnie queens. My son was helping me, beautiful sunny day, I watched a ton of videos, I knew the drill but had never done it before and was a bit rattled. I successfully caught the queen, had her pinched in my left hand and grabbed my ink pen (which I’d carefully primed earlier like they suggested in the videos) but the second the nib touched her, a flood of blue ink gushed out covering my hand, multiple frames of bees and in my horror, I dropped the queen onto the exposed frame. Four letters expletives spilled out of me, my son sensing this wasn’t the normal procedure, took off and left me to deal with the carnage. Once I cleaned myself off, I went searching for my queen and was partly relieved to find she had escaped with only a blue leg along with her usual blue dot. But I had nice blue bees for the next month or so. In all three nucs BTW, which says something about bees drifting. Anyways, word to the wise, prime the pen just before you use it, and don’t leave it sitting out in the hot sun while you root around for your elusive queen.

  4. Excellent tip, Paul. I’ve tried catching queens in the past with my hands, practicing on drones first, but I’m Mr Butterfingers over here. It felt like recipe for disaster. If you look closely at my queen catcher, you can see some blue paint smeared over it. That’s from practicing with some drones and, like you mentioned, I didn’t shake the pen first, so I started shaking vigorously to get it over with quickly, perhaps too vigorously, and I got blue paint all over the place, drenching the poor drone.

    Yup, it takes practice. I was pleased with the results when I finally got around to doing it with actual queens.

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