Recipe for a New Queen/Colony
1 strong and healthy bee colony headed by a smokin’ hot queen
5 frames waxed foundation or drawn comb
1 nuc box
2 pollen patties
2 filled syrup feeders, one to fit your nuc box
1 pleasantly warm and sunny afternoon
1 nectar flow in progress (optional)
1 fearless beekeeper
There are many recipes for making new queens and colonies: each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Choose one that suits your apiary goals, your abilities and your stock of equipment!
Here is one easy, low tech method for raising great queens.
It is time to do splits in Tim Trudel’s apiary. His three hives have come through the winter, and have been fed as much as they will take. Of the three, two are exploding, and one is bumping along well: she’s not a dud, but she’s not as fecund as her neighbours. So Tim will breed from her neighbours…for whatever reason, those girls are doing significantly better than their sister.
There is no point breeding up a queen from your less than stellar colonies. You don’t want middling queens, which is likely what they will give you, and you don’t want their drones in your local DCA (Drone Congregation Area).
Breed from your rock stars.
How can you tell this is a beekeeper’s orchard? Hint: not by the hive visible in the background! The clue here is that the owner has carefully mowed around (not over) all the dandelions. Dandelions are important early spring forage for bee colonies just waking up from a long and hungry winter. Let ’em bloom!
Tim is running 8 frame boxes, hence Queen Elizabeth is looking pretty large for an overwintered hive, particularly this unusually cold winter following a long late summer-into-fall dearth. Many beekeepers had higher than average losses, and weaker than usual spring colonies. Not Tim!
These hives were fed carefully all through last summer’s drought, including protein supplement. They were allowed to keep all the honey they did make, were carefully controlled for mites, winterized well and are in a prime, sunny, sheltered location. They are in great shape, such great shape that they are getting crowded. Time to split before the bees decide to swarm….which they are going to do soon as our first nectar flow is about to get under way, the Oregon Maple bloom and flow.
One of the reasons these girls are so strong and so ready to swarm is that they were also well fed throughout late winter and spring. This means the hive booms and is more likely to swarm…an excellent result IF you are looking to “make increase” (expand your apiary). Big hives full of bees and brood can be split and the queenless half given a raised or purchased queen…or the queenless side can raise up a new queen from an egg.
The key to getting the best queens possible is the larval nutrition made available to the queen larvae.
Biology 101: Eggs are laid in the cells, bending over and hatching into a larvae on their third day. At this point the young nurse bees feed the larvae royal jelly, that wet, milky stuff in the bottom of the cell. On day three from hatching, the three day old larvae destined to become queens are fed lots of royal jelly, but those larvae destined to be workers are fed less and differently. There is some concern that larvae not chosen to be raised as queen from day 1 of hatching make smaller, less fecund queens. Either way, colonies with open queen cells benefit from extra syrup and pollen or pollen sub supplementation…and having been managed to simultaneously have high nurse bee populations.
Note: Tim had another option, which was not available in early spring. You can raise up your own queens from your best hive(s) ahead of time…ready to install a new queen cell or mated queen into whatever portion of your split is dequeened. That way you do not lose a month of production while you wait for the new queen to be raised and mated. But we are barely out of winter here, no way we could have been raising queens a month ago! And there are no queens for sale yet, even assuming Tim wanted to take a chance on a bought queen in spring. He is not set up to run a batch of queens, and in any case does not want to expand his apiary by very much. But these hives are rarin’ to swarm, so our options are limited. We have to hope the bees will raise a new queen well, and then that she will be mated well. That is a bit of a risk this early in a cold, wet season. In future years, Tim can overwinter extra colonies with proven summer queens, ready to layer onto splits. It is always good insurance to have two or three of these on hand. Or, he can raise some queens ahead of splitting in midsummer by using mating nucs.
This is just a taste of what we found. Note the new, very dense sheet of freshly capped brood, bordered by rings of uncapped brood, oldest in the centre, working out to eggs at the edges. Zoom in (right click on image, choose “view image”, zoom in) and you can see all that detail, and a sign that swarming may be imminent.
What is that sign?
Look closely, the spare cells in that sheet of capped brood are back-filled with nectar.
In a nectar flow, or when hives are being fed syrup, the house bees have to spread the nectar/syrup out and cure it. If the flow is heavy, they will compete with the queen for house-room, particularly when she is a fecund queen laying up every cell she can find.
They run out of room! Brood amounts start to drop as the queen has trouble finding a place to lay, the place is full of stores, and this is one strong trigger for the swarming impulse. Times are good! That makes it a safe bet that swarming will be successful. And it is a good time for the beekeeper to split big hives, removing the factors that drive swarming, and increasing the number of colonies in the apiary.
Here is another look at this enviable colony. Note how healthy and wet the brood is. That is what you want to see.
Eggs and very young brood, below.
Tim had already gone through this hive a week ago. He is on a schedule of weekly inspections as robust overwintered hives are strongly inclined to swarm. He’s been checking carefully not just for colony health but for the signs of swarming. Those signs are:
- Nectar in the cells of the broodnest (colony is running out of room)
- A sudden drop in the rate of lay (colony is getting the queen slimmed down to swarm)
- Mature drone brood (usually raised just ahead of the new queen cells)
- Queen cups suddenly appearing (usually hanging off the lower edge of the frames)
- Egg or larva in a queen cup or outright queen cells. If the queen cells are capped it is a four alarm emergency!! Find that old queen right away…or the bees will be in the trees and gone.
Queen Elizabeth was present, marked and laying up a storm. But all areas of the broodnest had nectar in the open cells. Queen cups were abundant but not “charged” (not containing an egg or larva). There were sheets and sheets of brood, meaning the population of the hive was about to explode. Drone brood was well along, capped and near to emerging.
Time to split!
**Note we are not going to take out bees, brood including eggs and ask a nuc to raise a new queen. This works, but not well. The nuc has limited resources, and a limited forager force, and just doesn’t do the best job of rearing queen larvae. You will get much nicer queens if you take the old girl away into a nuc and let the main hive, with all its resources, raise up those new queens. They will be better cared for in this rich environment.**
Here is the result, above. This very strong, active hive gave us lots to work with.
In addition to the queen from the strong hive being split, the nuc box received:
- one frame of older, ready-to-emerge brood. That will instantly infuse this new colony with a crop of fresh nurse bees.
- one frame of young, uncapped brood, which both extends the emergence of nurse bees until the queen lays up this nuc, AND acts as “bee stickum” so this little colony does not decide to abscond. Sometimes bees object to the housing we give them, by leaving! But they will NOT LEAVE open brood. Heh heh.
- one frame heavy with fresh pollen stores
- one frame heavy with fresh nectar stores
- one frame of drawn but empty comb (for HRH to lay in)
Note that this is the dream recipe for a new nucleus colony. Most of us have to make do with much less. That is ok, but the less you give them, the more time it will take to get the colony on its feet. At minimum you can give them two frames of bees and brood, and feed them heavily while they grow. If it is still chilly outside, give them some insulation over the cluster.
Tim will have a different problem: this little nuc colony, headed by a strong queen in full lay, will fill the empty comb in no time flat. He will have to watch them very carefully to ensure HRH does not run out of room. In a week or two, depending on how quickly the mature brood emerges, freeing up space, he will have to give these girls more room. He could give them another storey on this nuc setup, or put them into an 8 frame or 10 frame setup of their own. Whatever he does, they will keep growing (note: he could have put this nuc colony straight into a 10 frame deep setup, with or without follower boards to limit the nest space at first…if nights are decently warm the nuc colony can handle a 10 frame deep…and as in winter, you can also insulate over the cluster if it is chilly). If they keep growing and don’t get more room, they will swarm.
Strong nucs swarm readily. As in the blink of an eye!
All done! Dore, left, is Tim’s secret weapon: a supportive spouse (beekeeping is hard on the spouse who has to deal with the stockpiles of sticky equipment and absentee partner on all sunny summer afternoons…), and a crackerjack queen spotter!
Tim is filling the hive top feeder. He has made a box to go over the feeder to protect the nuc from rain, wind and robbers.
Voilà, the finished split. Note grass in the entryway. This nuc is going to live in the same apiary from whence came the mother hive, so keeping the bees cooped up for a day or two while the grass dries out and the bees clear the entrance will help the nuc retain any mature foragers that came in the frames from the mother hive.
Otherwise, the mature field bees will fly back to their old home. We’d like some to stay put and forage for this nuc colony instead.
Because the nuc will be low on foragers for a while, they have lots of stores on board, and are also being fed both syrup and pollen sub, just in case…they need lots of resources to feed all their brood.
In the original hive, all the frames we pulled out have been replaced by frames containing new, waxed foundation. The bees in this suddenly queenless hive will immediately begin raising queen larvae in queen cells. They will have no new brood coming along till their new queen pupates, emerges, and returns from successful mating flights. So they can stay busy redirecting “feeding the brood” energy to drawing new wax comb (easy in the maple nectar flow) and putting up maple honey.
In addition, because they are raising queens, this hive will get syrup and pollen sub feeds until the new queen cells are capped.
Although there is lots of pollen and nectar coming in, we want to be absolutely sure this colony has lashings of nutrition to give to those new queens. The better they are fed, the better the queens will be.
Here is another stellar frame (from the next hive Tim split). Note the solid brood pattern, generous bee population…and nectar in those brood cells.
In this second colony, we found almost no eggs. Just one tiny patch! Clearly, HRH was running out of room, and the hive was that much closer to swarming. Another split was made, carefully ensuring that the tiny patch of eggs STAYED in the original hive. That is all they have at their disposal from which to make their new queen.
In 5 days, Tim will check to ensure the de-queened colonies have started queen cells.
In 3-5 days Tim can check the nucs to be sure the old queens made it through this transition…he will also be looking to see if the old girls need more room.
If for some reason either colony fails to make new queen cells, the old queens are safely tucked up in nuc boxes, laying away. A frame containing eggs can be moved from the nuc back to the original colony, and checked to be sure that queen cells are started from that donation.
Tim will also make sure there are only 3-5 prime queen cells per colony. If they make more, he
might will get multiple swarms instead of an orderly succession. Every time the colony sends out a swarm, they are left with a virgin who has a 20% chance of winning a luncheon date with a local bird. So every swarm that leaves increases the probability that you will end up with a queenless colony! Worse, often the secondary swarms herd all the virgins out of the hive…leaving your poor colony hopelessly queenless.
So Tim will set the girls up for success, culling all but the 3 biggest and best queen cells made, keeping in mind they may be of slightly different ages, some near to capping, some a couple of days younger. The younger ones are likely to make better queens, having certainly been fed as queens from date of hatching from an egg to a larva.
If multiple queen cells are formed, Tim also has the option of taking some out into a nuc with brood and bees, making another split….IF he deems the requeening hive is strong enough.
Note some beekeepers go in on the third day from de-queening and REMOVE all early started queen cells, eliminating the chance that larvae are made into queens who were already getting the reduced levels of royal jelly that worker larvae are given when three days old. It is a personal preference as to how to cull your queen cells. I prefer to cull later, to ensure I leave developing queen cells.
In 25-30 days, Tim can check for a laying queen. If he finds one, she can be marked and then go about her queenly business (laying worker brood…and lots of it). He can evaluate her quality over time, based on her rate of lay.
If he fails to find a mated, laying queen after 30 days, he has his old queen cooking along in her new hive. He can layer her new colony back on to her old hive,
cage her and introduce her as you would any new queen (carefully). And her new colony, thence queenless, will initiate their own queen rearing process, which he will monitor for success.
There is one huge disadvantage to this method: it takes a month, give or take, to raise up one new queen. During that time, the dequeened colony is shrinking, not growing. If the requeening fails (and on average, 20% of queen rearings fail, likely when the princess is out on her mating flights and becomes an hors d’oeuvre), it must be started all over again….or a mated queen installed promptly such that the colony does not shrink further.
Why bother with this slow-cooker approach?
Advantages of raising your own:
- Superior stock. You know who her mamma was: a known high-performing queen. Her daughters have an increased chance of also being high performers
- Superior queen rearing conditions: you know the queen larvae got top notch care and feeding: absolute requirements for getting top notch queens.
- No cost. New, mated queens of any quality are at this point around CAN$60. It is painful when your $60 queen turns out to be mediocre.
- Low tech: easy for anyone to do, no fiddly bits, no daunting hive manipulations to make, no new equipment or skills necessary.
- Low reproduction rate. You get two colonies where you had one, complete with support staff. You do not have to deal with a bunch of queens emerging simultaneously, all requiring housing and bees.
- No chance of importing disease, poor genetics, or pests into your apiary.
- The bees choose the queen eggs, not the beekeeper. Recent research indicates that worker bees make a deliberate, not a random, choice of eggs to raise as queens…I am thinking the bees know best.
- Satisfaction. Looking at your own home-grown, fat and sassy queens gives you a real feeling of accomplishment. Every beekeeper should garner this experience.
So on that note, I wish you all the very best success.
Go forth….and multiply! Information links, below photo.
Queen Rearing Links: