Queens for Small Kingdoms…

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My liege, I have a small confession to make: I don’t want to learn how to graft! What would I do with 20 queens all emerging on the same day? Where would I put all the nucs, and where would the worker bees for those queen nucs come from? Maybe someday.

But not today. Or any time soon.

But I do need to make queens. For my very small apiary.

There are excellent reasons to raise up your own queens. First and foremost, you know who their mamma was. If you raise your next-year crop of queens from your very best hives, you will expect, over time, to enjoy a genetic drift toward excellence. Selecting for good honey production is a good yardstick: to make good honey crops, bees must be strong on a number of fronts…successful overwintering, good spring buildup, propensity to be healthy, aggressive foraging.

Honey Bees Swarming, UK
COTSWOLDS, UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 06: Honey bees swarming in a plum tree in the Cotswolds, UK. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

If you raise your own queens, they will get the best possible start in life…because you will give it to them.

Queen quality is very much a function of nutrition. Queens raised in a big, healthy hive with lots of feed and stores available will be top quality. Don’t fret about having fancy genes and fabulously expensive breeder queens: good nutrition trumps that every time for the small apiary.

You can have the very best genetic endowment in your queen larvae, but if they are not fed lavishly, they will suffer in quality.  If you supply extra pollen/protein patties, extra syrup and a booming worker force to your queen-rearing colonies, they will repay you with fat and juicy queens. Queens that are generally much larger than the ones you can buy. And research tells us big queens tend to have more ovarioles, better pheoromone profiles and higher lay rates.

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If you raise your own queens, you can always have a queen or two..or three…or five…cooking away in nucleus boxes, ready to cover off any unexpected queen loss. These small colonies can be harvested repeatedly for brood, or pushed to raise new queens when they are strong.They are like a little insurance policy/revenue stream in your apiary, spitting out a return of bees and comb à la Billy Davis and his queen castles.

billy-davis

Why bother? It is nice to requeen with the best queens you can find every year or two. Young queens (who tend to perform best after their first winter) lay more and longer into the fall, helping to build that robust winter cluster. And they lay earlier and more in the spring, driving that push to meet the nectar flow with a maximum forager force.

How to do that? As a newbee I was taught, as many of us are, to take out a couple of frames of young brood and eggs into a nuc, give them a shake of bees and let them raise a new queen. This works, but there is a better method.

Better Method: (thanks to my Washington state Journeyman Beekeeper level instructor Jo Miller for this one, which she learned from the legendary Roy Thurber) Identify a nice strong hive whose queen you would like to have a daughter from. Take that nice queen out into a nuc with a couple of frames of bees and stores. Feed both the now-queenless hive and the nuc with syrup and protein/pollen patty. And let the main colony raise up the new queen.

The big, suddenly queenless, colony has many more resources and workers to feed a new crop of queens. They will also raise more than the nuc will, giving the workers a wider choice of queen to back on the day they emerge. The workers, as the queen larvae develop and pupate, will sense which will make the best queen. They are seldom wrong. They will protect that queen cell until the new queen emerges, and will often assist her in killing her rival sisters.

Of course, even if the best queen emerges victorious, she must also survive her mating flight(s). Roughly 20% of queens disappear (likely into bird beaks) on their mating flight, leaving their colony hopelessly queenless. No worries! You have the old queen cooking away in that nuc, remember?! Layer her back onto her old colony, and if you like, rinse and repeat.

Want more queens than that? You can harvest the queen cells that the main colony puts up just a day or two before they are due to emerge. Place them carefully in pre-prepared queenless nucs and let them emerge and mate. Voilà! New baby colonies with fresh queens!

queencells

This is where running a number of nuc colonies as permanent fixtures in your apiary provides a big, fat payoff! You can keep nucs to five frames, even when the outside two are full of stores, if you regularly harvest frames of brood and give them drawn comb or even wax or waxed foundation. You can do this to donate brood to weaker hives, or to just build your stock of drawn comb.You can grow the nuc to a double high size = 10 frames. You can pull the old queen out once the nuc is strong and let the nuc raise a new queen.

Nucs give you lots of fun and flexible options.

One of the big problems we are having locally is the recent shift in spring weather patterns. Our main nectar flow, blackberry, is coming nearly a month ahead of schedule, meaning spring hives barely have enough time to reach max population before the nectar flow, which (given the drought conditions that we’ve experienced for the last three years) has been thin at best. The combination of early flow and low flow has meant even the best beekeepers have come up with low to no honey, making the traditional practice of splitting hives in spring to prevent swarming a very expensive strategy: neither the main hive nor the split can prosper.

The fix? You can always recombine just before the nectar flow: keeping one queen in a nuc with a minimal court and giving the other queen the bulk of the bees. Once the flow is over, you equalize, ending up in July with two reasonably strong colonies to build toward winter. Strong enough to probably raise another round of high quality queens, as well.

There are other methods for small scale queen rearing: the Nicot system is one. The Bee Works has an excellent DVD detailing the three most common methods of queen rearing, including Nicot and grafting. It makes a great gift to your club once you are done watching it a few times!

For extra info on Nicot, read Grant Gillard’s very detailed Nicot Queen Rearing.

Another low tech/non-grafting method for the small apiary is cut-cell queen rearing.

An excellent approach for the small apiary is found in David LaFerney’s Beginner to Beginner Queen Rearing.

cut-cell

Most of all, have fun. You get an awfully good feeling, marking your own big, beautiful, home raised queens.

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Addendum:

Reading through all those queen rearing resources reminded me that we can do a lot to improve our local queen quality and as a side benefit, the quality of our local DCA’s (drone congregation areas).

I conferred with my local partners in beekeeping….consulted my panel of Bee Wizards…did a self check to see if I had lost my mind…and decided that 2017 would mark the start of a multi-year queen improvement breeding project.

I will write up the process and results as we go along, but in a nutshell I have invested my bee bank account into a project whereby upwards of 80 queens will be produced from my best overwintered queens, over the course of May and June (our local swarm season).

By fall, the top 20 queens of the season will be prepared to overwinter. In the spring, we will grade those queens and colonies, and breed from the top 5.

Rinse and repeat….and in a few years we should see a big improvement in our queen and bee stock.

Wish the girls, and their beekeepers, luck.

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