One of the options when buying bees is to have your queen marked. I always recommend to new beekeepers that you select this option. A marked queen is a queen with a dot of bright colored paint on her thorax and usually costs $1 more than an unmarked queen. Finding the queen is necessary for many beekeeping manipulations, like requeening, making nucs, or checking to see if your hive had swarmed. It takes a bit of practice to be able to pick out one insect among thousands. Having your queen marked helps her to catch your eye more quickly and helps you learn to identify her at a glance.
There is a system of colors for marking queens. Most queen suppliers follow this color scheme, but it’s up to you what you do with any queens you produce in your apiary. For years ending in 0 or 5, the queen will be marked blue. Years 1 and 6 are white. Years 2 and 7 are yellow. Years 3 and 8 are red. Years 4 and 9 are green.
If you purchased a marked queen, and see an unmarked queen during inspection then you know you’ve had a change within your hive. Either they swarmed or superseded the original queen. Marking your own queens isn’t difficult, but it can be a little nerve wracking knowing that the hive will suffer a set back if anything happens to her.
You can order queen marking pens from any beekeeping supply store or use model paint pens from the store. Some beekeepers use a jar of model paint and a piece of grass. Test your pen out on a piece of cardboard until you have an idea of how fast the paint flows out. Pick an off year color and practice on drones, who can’t sting, until you get the hang of it. When you feel ready to give it a try, head out to your hive with your paint pen and be ready to take it slow.
Once you find the queen, you can gently pick her up by hand or use a queen catcher. If you pick her up with your fingers, remember to be gentle and not apply too much pressure to the abdomen. Try to grip her thorax and upper abdomen. Once you pick her up she will be looking for something to grip with her feet. Give her a the middle finger of your non-dominant hand to grip, then gently pinch her feet between your middle finger and thumb. Be careful to not crush her or damage her wings and feet. A damaged queen will be replaced by the hive.
If you don’t feel comfortable handling the queen, you can use a product called a queen catcher. There are spring loaded types that work like a hair clip to trap the queen. I use a queen marking tube. I gently nudge the queen into the tube, then insert the foam plunger. Use the plunger to lightly press the queen up against the screened end and she will be held in place while you mark her. Give her a couple of minutes to dry or the worker bees will clean off your paint when she’s returned to the hive.
Beekeeping Fail Confession: The first time I marked queens I was so excited to get out there and try it that I ignored all my own advice. I hadn’t practiced on drones, I didn’t know how to use the queen marking tube, and I didn’t know how the paint would flow out of the pen. My first poor queen looked like she had been run through a blue paint car wash! I put her back in the hive immediately and the worker bees saved her by cleaning off most of the paint. She was drenched! She did survive though and is still working hard in her hive.
Beekeeping Tip: I have trouble seeing some of the colors quickly. Actually, I find it difficult to see anything but white. The red, blue, and green queen marking pens are too dark to stand out much, and the yellow color tends to blend in with all the yellow pollen in the hive. If you have this problem, try getting a set of neon paint pens from any store. Hot pink, neon green, and electric blue show up a lot better.