Intensive beekeepers often need to assure that a particular queen is still in a hive. Marking them is one way to do it.
Forget the paint brushes, match sticks, tooth picks, etc. They make a mess. And because they are so imprecise, a queen can be injured when paint ends up on her spiracles, head, antenna, wings, or feet. Don’t even think about using a cotton swab or the whiteout brush!
Small Metal Rod
You’ll need a small rod or nail, the diameter of the desired spot. Round the end that will touch the queen into a slightly convex surface.
That convex surface permits just a small portion of the rod to contact the queen’s thorax. Paint is attracted to the queen. Surface tension pulls it off when the rod/nail is lifted, leaving a perfectly circular, thin paint spot.
When the rod’s end is flat, paint is squeezed out when it touches the queen’s thorax. That leaves a ragged spot which is attracted back to the rod when it’s withdrawn. That makes for a messy spot. Or worse, a injured queen!
A small piece of brass wire can be used instead of the nail. A loop or hook, that slips over a finger, is bent into the top of it. Then it’s easier to retrieve and keep track of than a nail. But a nail is easier to manipulate. I like the nail.
Paint Bottle Prep
Don’t ever just dip the rod into the paint bottle. That leaves lots of paint on the side of the rod/nail.
Paint could be very carefully transfered to the rods tip by just touching the paint. But in practice, I found it requires lots of wiping. And it’s almost impossible to do consistently while working bees.
There’s a better method. Just drill a hole the same diameter as the rod into the paint bottle’s lid.
Insert the nail into the hole. Shake the paint bottle. Withdraw the nail, and any excess paint is scraped off by the lid, leaving the right amount of paint on the tip.
After the queen is marked, the nail is re-inserted into the hole and stored there.
Much has been written about the use of pigmented, aged, shellac and model airplane dope. It takes a year or more to properly prepare shellac. I’ve never taken the time to try it.
I’ve also tried airplane dope, white out and acrylic latex enamel. The airplane dope, while fast drying and durable, tends to irritate the bees. The white out took a little longer to dry than the airplane dope. It wasn’t as durable. And it didn’t irritate the bees. But it was petroleum based and had a short shelf life.
I’ve settled on the acrylic latex enamel. It’s readily available at hobby or craft stores. It comes in many bright colors. It’s water based. Has a great shelf life. Doesn’t irritate the bees. But it dries a little slower than the rest. And it’s slightly less durable than whiteout if applied too thick.
Certain colors are standardized to show a year’s last digit. If you are marking queens for sale, this scheme is useful:
Commercial Marking Devices
Paint pens/pencils are sold for marking queens. Although, I haven’t used them, They probably have the same disadvantages as any brush. They are imprecise and leave a paint blob and not a thin paint spot.
Another method for marking queens uses preformed and number plastic discs that are glued to the queen’s thorax. These are permanent and almost indestructible. I’ve got a set. But I’ve never used them. I misplaced that little wooden glue stick. And it’s so easy to mark them with paint as detailed above.
Catching the Queen
There are many devices to help catch or trap a queen. I haven’t used any, as it’s easy, and much safer, to catch her by hand. Approach her from behind with the index finger and thumb of your major hand. Grab her by the back end of her wings. It’s that easy and takes longer to read about it, than to do it. Practice on a few drones to get some confidence.
Restraining the Queen
After catching the queen, face the palms of your hands toward each other, thumbs up. Then extend the longest finger, of the free hand, and point it toward the palm of the hand with the queen. The queen’s head is pointed toward the longest finger. Touch the queen to the end of that finger and she grabs ahold of it. Now, take the index finder and thumb, on the hand the queen has a hold of, and gently squeeze her thorax between them.
Some people, preferring not holding the queen by the thorax, touch the queen to the tip of the index finger, instead of the longest finger. Then, they press the thumb, on that same hand, against the index finger, holding the queen by three of her legs. This works great, most of the time. But holding the queen by the thorax gives the beekeeper more control with a recalcitrant queen.
Her feet are below your fingers. She can’t get paint on them. Her abdomen is draped over the end of your finger. And she’s on your minor hand, leaving the major hand free to handle the paint.
It’s a simple matter to remove the nail from the paint bottle and touch the queen’s thorax. Stick the nail back into the bottle and let the paint spot dry. Don’t touch the paint spot to test its dryness. Rather, put another spot on something else, like a finger nail. If the paint is tacky, it ends up all over the queen.
When the paint is dry, release the queen back into the hive. To release her, reverse the process. Use the free hand to grab her wings. Then, gently set her back on a comb surface and release her.
Painting Other Bees
Queens are commonly marked on the thorax. But a worker bee can be marked on top of the abdomen. There’s more room there. And you don’t need to pick them up to do it. They can be marked with multiple spots and color combinations. I’ve done that when marking and classifying drones as well.
Always thoroughly test a new paint out for acceptance. Use drones for this. Once, while using airplane dope, I went into a queen rearing yard to mark a set of replacement queens. The queens were marked without problems and were released without any aggression. After marking a row or two, I looked back and saw a brightly colored paint spot in front of those hives. Almost as fast as I marked and released them, the bees killed them and kicked them out. Always test first!
I don’t routinely mark queens. I don’t have much need to routinely find a queen. But I mark one if it’s involved in my tests. Unless there’s a special need, it’s probably best to leave a queen unmarked.
Experimenting, I’ve incorporated marking virgins with accelerated rearing. The marking didn’t seem to affect the queen’s development. But fewer marked queens returned from their mating flights when compared to unmarked ones. I think a marked queen is an easier target for a bee hungry bird than an unmarked one.