Old Queen or Virgin Queen?

June 2019 Introduction: I’m not going to touch this post. No deletions or rewriting. It’s interesting to see where I was during my fourth summer of beekeeping. The answer to the question, old queen or virgin, is answered in the comments that are well worth reading.

Here’s a video that shows what I think — what I hope — is a virgin queen that emerged from a swarm cell after a colony swarmed. If it’s not a virgin queen, it might be the colony’s original queen, which means the colony is on the verge of swarming. Please feel free to leave a comment if you can identify what kind of queen she is, old or virgin. I’ll explain more after the video.

(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

A colony that is about to swarm will produce several swarm cells (queen cells). Also good to know: 1) A while before flying off in a swarm, the old queen will be pestered by the workers so that she stops laying eggs, loses some of her body weight and is in prime condition for flying when it comes time to swarm. 2) Bees will gorge themselves on honey before swarming. 3) After the swarm, a virgin queen will emerge from one of the swarm cells left behind in the hive and start stinging to death, as quickly as possible, all the other queens still stuck in their swarm cells. 4) A virgin queen is small (e.g., she can sometimes fit through a queen excluder) because queens don’t get really big until they’ve mated and start laying eggs. So… let’s consider what we just saw in that video.


Despite the presence of several capped swarm cells (not all shown in the video), an opened swarm cell leads me to believe that the colony has swarmed and a new queen has emerged. The queen I spotted running around fits the description of a virgin queen: She’s small, fast-moving and apparently ready to kill.

The other possibility: I tore open the swarm cell when I pulled out the frame and the queen I spotted is the original queen, small and trim after being pestered by the worker bees and ready to fly off in a swarm any day now. Notice at the 1:54 mark when she’s stinging to death a worker bee, another worker eventually bites at her abdomen and chases her away — like it would to prepare a queen for a swarming flight. Also notice at the 0:48 mark the number of bees with their heads stuck inside honey cells — as if they are gorging themselves on honey in preparation for swarming.

Why I ultimately think (and hope) the colony has already swarmed: I’ve seen bees gorging themselves on honey just before a swarm and it looked like a wall of fat bloated bees with their heads stuck in every honey cell, which is different from what’s shown in the video. I also visited the colony the day after I took the video and found a couple of swarm cells with a circle chewed around the end caps like a hatch door, which to me indicates the queens inside were minutes away from popping the hatch and crawling out — just like they would after a swarm. The coolest thing I saw that day as well — and I kick myself for not bringing my camera — is a queen emerging from a swarm cell. To cut to the chase, I had a swarm cell in my hand, was ready to give it to a friend, but the queen chewed her away out of the cell, right there in my hand, while my friend was running to his car to get a container for the queen cell. She started crawling fast around my hand as soon as she got out, so I put her back in the hive because I didn’t want to risk losing her in the grass.

Why I’m looking for assistance: I don’t have enough practical, close up experience with swarms and unmated queens to quickly identify what I’m looking at when I see it. It’s possible the queen in the video is a virgin, but for all I know, she could just as easily be the old queen, thin and trim and ready to swarm. If anyone with more queen experience can tell me one way or the other, I’d be grateful.

In the meantime, I have swarm traps set up near my hives. If any of them swarm and I’m not around to see it, hopefully they’ll settle into the swarm traps.

12 thoughts on “Old Queen or Virgin Queen?

  1. Sorry but in my experience of seeing virgin queens they are far smaller than that. Their abdomen is only a tiny bit longer and pointier than a worker’s and they are really quite hard to distinguish for beginners. That queen looked mated.

    Another possibility – this could be a case of supersedure and the mother queen who you saw is in there along with her virgin daughter, which you missed because she’s much smaller or was out on a mating flight. The bees will often allow the old queen to continue laying for a while until her replacement daughter is able to take over.

    It’s late for swarming now – here in the UK, anyway.

    • You’re probably correct.

      However, I had a virgin queen emerge from a swarm cell in my hand the day after we shot this video and she didn’t seem much smaller than the queen bee in the video. I expected a virgin queen to be much smaller. I was so excited, though, I may have been seeing things.

      All the queen cells I found in the hive were hanging off the bottom frames in the top box — the usual location of swarm cells, not supercedure cells.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if the colony is about to swarm.

      We had a late spring that seems to have delayed everything by at least a month, including the swarming season. The swarms we’re normally have in late May or June are happening now instead.

  2. Interesting. Perhaps your bees produce unusually big and well fed virgins!

    Bees usually (but not always, it depends on the weather) swarm on the first day the queen cells are capped, which is day 8 after the eggs are laid. Perhaps you could do an artificial swarm if you’re worried, but it sounds like you’re laid back about them swarming.

    • Emily, everything I say at this point is pure speculation. I’ve slacked off with my studies since my hives have been in the country. I don’t remember half of what I used to know. For instance, I used to know that a colony swarms on the first day the queen cells are capped — so I appreciate that you mentioned that.

      I still can’t say for certain whether or not the colony is about to swarm (or has swarmed by now). I’m dealing with a mixed bag of clues. One of my colonies swarmed on the July 20 (I don’t know which one). I found swarm cells in this hive on July 21, an opened swarm cell and some kind of queen on July 22, and a queen emerging from a swarm cell on July 23. The queen I saw on July 22 and the queen that emerged from a swarm cell the day after seemed to be about the same size, but without a side-by-side comparison, I can’t say for sure.

      Anyway, I appreciate the feedback. I’ll check the hive again this weekend. To be continued…

  3. Phil

    I have noticed that when a virgin just hatchs ~12 hours you swear she was a just mated or slimmed down swarm queen. In a day or two she will shrink. The only thing i can figure is inflating to harden off and max potential size for after mating.

    I think you are ok. Wished i could of got one of those virgins

    • Jeff, that’s good to know. Thanks. I was so taken back by the size of the queen when I saw her emerge from the swarm cell. She wasn’t a monster like a prime laying queen, but she wasn’t tiny either.

      I wish you (or anyone who needed some queens) could get to my bee yard when this kind of thing is happening. I’d gladly donate frames full of beautiful swarm cells.

      I may not need any new queens this year because I took frames of swarm cells from this hive and split them off into nucs and other hive bodies with plenty of nurse bees, frames of honey, etc. If they mate successfully, I’ll use them for re-queening. I don’t want any more than four colonies at the end of the season, so it should work. (I’m keeping my numbers low until I have them set up on my own property.)

  4. Same thing with me last year. Though I had a queen that was mated already then when I went back she was small again. Checked a bunch of virgins this year just after hatch and the same. Slightly elongated when first born but get smaller after a day or two to look like a typical virgin.

    When they are first born looks similiar to a mated queen ready to swarm. Thined out and elognated.

    Hope that helps.

    As of right now I have 16 mated nucs, one queen has the male junk crusted in her. She cannot lay yet they are trying to remove it from her. I think she is going to meet the hive tool soon.

  5. I think you may correct, Jeff. I’ve checked on the hive a couple times and I see no further signs of swarming. I’m pretty sure it already swarmed before I noticed the queen. All the swarm cells are open and it happens to have several frames of capped brood left over from the old queen, so that should keep the colony in good shape until the new queen is mated and begins to lay.

    So my summer began with four colonies that survived the winter, plus a nuc.

    I should count the the nuc as a fifth colony because, even though I started it from only a few frames of brood, the queen is a monster layer and the workers are making a tonne of honey (in the deeps). I keep pulling honey and brood to bump up my other colonies. (I still think bees in the city do as well, if not better, than bees in the country.) If I wasn’t pulling frames from this colony at least every other week, it would be massive. Anyway…

    In total, as either full hives or nucs, or half hives, I now have:

    4 of them with virgin queens that need to mate and start laying within the next few weeks.

    2 of them with old queens from re-hived swarms, at least one which is superceding.

    1 hive that’s filling its honey supers with pollen.

    1 hive that is producing honey — probably the only honey I’ll get this year.

    I began with the year with 4 colonies. Now I have potentially 8 (not including the one in my backyard).

    Funny how things work out.

  6. I plan to check this hive (and three other hives) for fresh brood next weekend around August 16. That’ll have been between 20 and 25 days since most of the queens emerged from the swarm cells. With fantastic bee weather over the past few weeks and drones filling the air, I have high hopes that the queens will have mated well. If they’re all good layers, I’ll use them to requeen my main four colonies and keep all the old queens in nucs.

    If this works, I may stick with this method of requeening.

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