2.4.2. Clipping queens’ wings

Queens can be marked by clipping the tip of one forewing. If queens are replaced every two years, the beekeeper can clip the left wing on queens introduced in odd years, and the right wing on queens introduced in even years. The clipping practice may also supplement the paint spot technique as a back-up, should the queen lose her paint mark. Honey bee queens are mated in the air, it should therefore be ascertained that the queen has mated before her wing is clipped.

Another reason to clip the wings of a queen is to prevent her swarming off, beside other methods such as keeping colonies headed by young queens and removing all queen cells. Swarming is the process by which honey bee colonies can reproduce (Seeley, 1986). When swarming occurs, half of the bees will leave the hive. This results in a hive that is unable to rebuild its population before the nectar flow starts, thus decreasing the production of honey. Therefore, swarm control is a very important part of beekeeping management. When conducting experiments during swarming season, swarm control is even more critical since a swarm may take away half the experimental bees.

From beekeeping experience, it is apparent that queens with fully clipped wings are more prone to fall to the bottom of the hive and are often superseded more quickly than those with unclipped wings. It is recommended to clip less than half of one forewing (Fig. 4) to prevent the queen from flying with a swarm, but not to impair other behaviours. With less than half of one forewing clipped, the queen’s ability to function properly inside the colony will not be significantly affected. If the queen tries to fly with the swarm, she will most likely drop in front of the hive. She may then crawl up the leg of the hive stand and re-enter the hive. If not, she can be collected by the beekeeper and put back. The swarming bees will fly away for a short time, but will return to their hive when they are unable to find their queen. Occasionally the clipped queens may fly despite the clipping, but their range is limited, which makes retrieval easier. However, sometimes queens may be lost if they cannot find a way to re-enter the hive after dropping in front of it.

Yet another use of wing clipping is the non-lethal collection of queen DNA. In this case, the purpose is not to prevent flight, since virgin queens that still have to perform a mating flight might be needed for DNA extraction. If a sufficiently small wing piece is clipped (c. 1.3 mm2, 7.5 % of each forewing surface is sufficient to genotype them), the mating success of these clipped-wing queens is not affected (Châline et al., 2004).

Wing clipping procedure:

  1. Lightly grasp the queen by the thorax between the thumb, index and middle finger of one hand so that the forewing to be clipped points upwards and the abdomen points away from the hand (Fig. 4A).
  2. Hold the scissors with the other hand and slide one tip between the fore- and hind wing to separate them (Fig. 4B).
  3. Cut approximately one fourth of the forewing without damaging the hind wing.
  4. Mark the queen with paint (see section when desired.

Fig. 4. Clipping the wing of a queen honey bee. The head and thorax of the queen honey bee are lightly grasped between the thumb, index, and middle fingers (A). The wings and abdomen point away from the hand (A). The scissors should be used to tease out the forewing on only one side of the body (B). Using the scissors, clip approximately one fourth, but no more than half of the forewing from the body. Photos: A Ellis.