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Signs of a Failing Queen

Updated: Apr 30

We always love to see the queen during an inspection, but laying eyes on her is only one very small part of determining how healthy and productive your queen is. It is even more important to spot eggs, identify a consistent brood pattern, and recognize signs of trouble when you see them.

What does "Good" look like?

What you want to see on your frames is solid patches of similarly-aged brood. That means you should see nice patches of eggs, nice patches of juicy larvae, and nice patches of capped brood. These will often follow somewhat of a rainbow pattern.

Now for the Bad and the Ugly

Apart from accidental death, queens can fail for a couple of reasons. The first is age. A queen honeybee can live for 3-5 years, but her productivity may start to dwindle long before she expires from old age. Poor mating (because of bad weather or a lack of drones) can also shorten the productive life of a queen. In some cases, a brand new queen may start to show these signs if she is not well mated. More often, old queens start to show these signs as they run out of stored sperm.

Supercedure Cells

Sometimes the bees know that something is up before their keeper does. When we start to see supercedure cells (on the top half of the frame), there is a good chance that that is what's happening.

If we see a single supercedure cell on an inspection, we will often (after a VERY thorough inspection including spotting the queen and some eggs!!) pinch that cell.

If the bees are serious about it, they will persist in making more supercedure cells. Then we start to take them more seriously, too.

Shotgun Pattern

A shotgun pattern looks very spotty. If you've got one spotty frame in a hive, it's not a cause for panic, but if the frames in the middle of the nest (your busiest frames) are spotty, you've got a problem!

Notice whether the capped brood is female (flat) or male (bumpy) as this will help you determine whether your bees still have a chance of raising their own queen. (If you do not see eggs AND female brood, they will not be able to raise themselves a queen).

If you are not seeing supercedure cells at this point, it may be because your queen pheromones are still be strong. In this case, you may need to find and remove her if you want your bees to raise a new queen.

Popcorn Brood

Popcorn brood is a step beyond shotgun in that there is little to no female brood present, giving the brood frames a very bumpy look.

In cases of popcorn brood, your queen either did not properly mate (if new) or has run out of stored sperm (if old).

Either way, the bees are going to need your help to requeen. You will need to find and remove the current queen. Then, you can either give them a frame of eggs from another hive or you can replace the queen with a mated queen that you purchase.

Too Many Drones

If too many drones on the frames is what you are seeing, then your queen has already failed and you likely missed or ignored some earlier warning signs.

At this point, you can try to requeen, but you may not have enough young worker bees to tend to any brood that a new queen lays.

Your best bet at this stage may be to combine this hive with a stronger one.

Looking for more?

Looking for more beekeeping education? You can find my virtual, on-demand beginner and intermediate courses at

Or if you'd prefer a more tailored experience, you can join my mentorship group at


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