Easy-Peasy Queens

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It may happen after spending a bundle of your honey money on queens that turned out to be mediocre. Or who go AWOL for no reason. It may happen when you look at a hive full of swarm cells and wonder just how many colonies you want to wedge into your back yard. It may happen after finding all your hives dead after winter, or hit by disease.

It certainly happens when you find you have bought sick or mite-infested bees.

Sooner or later, every beekeeper starts thinking…I should make my own queens.

And you are right, you should make your own queens! Not only is this THE current hot topic in the bee world, with every club talking up the importance of cooperating to improve local bee quality and fitness, raising your own queens is pretty much the most fun you can have in beekeeping.

Reasons to raise your own queens:

-in Canada, imported package queen failure rates hover around 60% in their first season….this is hard on new beekeepers, who then often end up with queenless and/or laying worker hives midseason, running out of time to put things right before winter

-you put yourself in control of the quality of work that goes into the rearing of your queens…you know the queens got the best rearing conditions possible

-you choose your starting stock, your very best queen, bought queen, or a great queen a friend has

-you protect your apiary from importing pests, disease, or poor genetics…in particular you protect your apiary from importing africanized genes.

-you can keep an extra colony or two throughout the summer to cover off any unexpected losses

-you choose from the queens that do well in your locale under your management practices

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Ok, so how to go about it?

First, be aware of the raw numbers. The most important of which is:

**Queens are made from worker eggs that hatch into larvae: the only difference between a queen and a worker is the four days of feeding between hatching and the capping of their cell.

I repeat: four days. It is a narrow window, demanding that a high population of well fed and “primed” nurse bees (practiced in feeding brood) are available to stuff those queen larvae cells with special food (a modified royal jelly). That takes a strong hive, with lots of stores and a strong forager force.

Grim statistic number two:

**Queens emerge from their cell, fully formed, on Day 16 from the egg, and will attempt to kill all rivals.

There is no messing about with the timeline. Before your queen cells emerge, they must be placed in separate mating nucs/colonies or one queen will kill all the others.

And finally:

**On average, 20% of virgin queens fail to return from their mating flight(s).

It is that unfortunate fact that accounts for most colony failures in summer. Your hive swarms, and is left to raise a new queen, which they usually do quite handily. But if HRH is eaten by a bird on her mating flight, or is injured, or gets lost, your colony is in mortal peril. They have spent a month raising their new queen, and during most of that time have been broodless. Since bees only live 6-8 weeks on average, half your colony is already elderly and/or deceased. It will  not survive a second round of queen rearing, even if given a frame of eggs with which to make a queen.

To gain a safety margin, the beekeeper can step in and raise more than just one queen at a time. I will list the usual methods of queen rearing and then discuss them farther down.

Emergency Queens

Most of us were taught to force an emergency queen. As a new beekeeper I was instructed to take out two or three frames of bees, maybe even a frame of stores (!), plonk that in a nuc box and come back in 30 days to find a mated, laying queen. That works, but it’s just about the worst way possible to do the job. The queens are raised in marginal conditions by a very marginal colony…and if the nuc is in the home yard (the yard containing the hive it came from) it loses all its foragers back to the momma hive. That leaves your queen cells to be fed with “whatever” by “whoever”. Not a recipe for a great queen. Queen quality is highly dependent on the queen larva receiving tons of good quality feedings. A nuc with few bees and few foragers is going to struggle with that task.

Replacement Queens

Most beekeepers begin by raising replacement queens such that they go into winter having raised up new queens to replace all their overwintered queens.

This is a good, safe way to start. You tske your old queen out into a nuc with two frames of bees and stores, keeping her safe, in a new nuc or single box setup and coddled (fed), providing  insurance against that 20% loss of virgins on mating flights. If the new girl fails to come back, you have old mum ready for a newspaper combine. If the new girl does come back to take up her royal duties, you can decide if you want to keep the old mum colony and now enjoy two colonies where you had one, or sell the old girl as a nucleus colony…or give her away to a lucky friend!

I like this as a swarm prevention strategy as well. Just be sure each mating colony is left no more than three capped cells. This prevents the colony from generating multiple swarms, which they will do if they have an abundance of queen cells. Adhere to the three cell rule for all mating colonies!

Swarm Cells

Oops! You find your colony is crowded and there is a sudden bloom of charged (containing an egg or larva) queen cups in your hive. Watch the hive closely and when the cells are capped, put each frame with capped queen cells into its own nuc box with two frames of bees (one with old brood ready to emerge, one with young brood), and two frames of stores, feed them syrup and pollen sub, and pat yourself on the back for making mating colonies!

In three weeks you should come back and find a laying, mated queen…80% of the time…

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These charged queen cups are hanging off the bottom of a frame…time to split!

Miller Method

In the Miller Method, we exploit a blesséd trait of honey bees: any cell containing an egg that is turned such that the cell is open and there is no lower wax wall between the egg and the bottom of the hive, is raised as a queen cell. You allow the queen to lay up wax or free form foundation (you can’t do this with a plastic foundation as the foundation and cells must be cut out), cut the edges of the area containing fresh eggs, and the bees will raise queen cells all along the cut margin. When ripe (3 days before emergence) the queen cells are carefully cut out and placed in mating colonies.

1 queens 7 Miller Frame
Just for the record, the side facing us is all drone brood…

Hopkins Method

Again, the Hopkins Method exploits the fact that open cells pointing down are raised as queen cells. You take a frame of fresh eggs, and choose one cell containing an egg. Squish flat all the adjacent cells, creating a clear area around that one intact cell. Do that all over one face of a frame of eggs. You will be left with a frame where one side has a number of isolated cells, intact and containing eggs. That side is placed with that face down, on the top bars of a strong, colony, propped up on a riser frame (to allow for room for queen cell creation), and the bees make those single cells into queen cells. When ripe, those queen cells are cut out and placed in mating colonies.

1 queens 8 Queen Rearing Hopkins 031
Lifting the Hopkins frame to check on queen cells…but this beekeeper failed to squish areas around the egg laden cells and got a thick mishmash of queen cells that will be murder to cut apart safely…

Demaree Method

Also used for swarm prevention, Demaree is a process by which the open brood is separated from the queen. The box with open brood is placed highest in the stack, over a queen excluder. Under that box goes two empties, which are also placed on a queen excluder. Under those go the rest of the stores boxes and finally the broodnest with the capped brood and queen (and room for her to keep laying). The idea is that the open brood is so far away from the queen, the bees decide to raise queen cells up there.

You deal with the queen cells as you would with swarm cells….watch to see when they are capped then move individual frames out to mating colonies. Remember, no more than three capped cells for each mating colony.

Snelgrove Method

This is where we begin to require some dedicated equipment. In the Snelgrove Method we create, via the Snelgrove Board, a condition where part of the colony thinks they are queenless, and so raises queen cells. They are up over their original colony, and benefit from the warm heat plume created by the colony below.

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The classic Snelgrove Board.

Grafting

The very idea of grafting…taking tiny, just-hatched larvae out of a cell and putting them into a manufactured plastic or wax cup, and placing those artificial cups into a queenless colony full of young nurse bees (a queen cell “builder” = cell builder)…is daunting. But grafting is the one method that allows you to reliably raise a large number of queens. You will need a mating colony set up for every ripe queen cell you generate. And you will have to buy a lighted, magnifying visor, some grafting tools, cell cups/bars/frame. But it’s a great, easy to learn method that works well, if you want a lot of queens at once.

1 queens 9 Grafted larva
That is one tiny larva!

Miscellaneous Methods

There are other twists on all of the above. But since grafting worked so well for me, I have not tried them out: cell punch method, OTS (on the spot) method, and I am sure there are a few other variations on the above themes that you can try. There are ways to “bank” mated queens together in one colony (caged), but that is a tricky enterprise and I am not pleased by anything that takes a queen “off lay” for any amount of time. The longer she has been prevented from laying, the less likely she will be accepted into a new colony.

I prefer to let the newly mated queens set about growing their mating colonies, which they can do for a while in nuc boxes, or you can set up your mating colonies in 8 or 10 frame boxes so she does not have to shift quarters. Once you decide which of your crop of queens you like best, you can sell or give away the others as you see fit.

Discussion

For the backyard or small holding apiary, raising replacement queens and/or swarm cells as part of your usual swarm control program in early spring is a good way to go. That will net you replacement queens, and likely a few extra to have cooking along to cover off any unexpected losses, or with which to make more colonies for yourself (make increase).

And if you are on for a little bit of fun and challenge, consider doing a run of 10 queens from your best queen. Using the method of your choice, produce 10 well fed queen cells and set up mating colonies for each. Try to start them all off with roughly equal resources, and then track their performance. I like to track the amount of brood they lay as a base measure of fitness. The most fecund get to go through winter, and the ones that come out of winter strongest are on the list for breeder queens in that next season: fecund, overwintered queens. From there I see who makes the most honey for colony size. Any queen that goes on to make more honey than expected is set aside for an immediate run of daughters…who once again are evaluated for fecundity and overwintering strength (you may choose different measuring sticks, but those are mine…rate of brood rearing, ability to overwinter well, and honey production).

Rinse and repeat yearly and your queen quality will rise over time, producing queens and bees that work well in your area, under your management practices.

Finally, take some time to raise great drones as well! Drones are the other half of queen rearing, and we need as a beekeeping fraternity to pay some attention to what is flying to our local DCA’s (Drone Congregation Areas). More drones mean DCA’s are thick with mating opportunities for virgin queens, who if mated well on their first flight will not take a second….if a queen must go out on multiple mating flights to get her 10-20 matings, her 20% chance of not returning to her hive stacks….and all your prep and planning ends up in a bird tummy.

Queens track how many matings they get on their “marriage flights”. But they do not track the fertility of the drones they mate with. Poorly raised drones make for poorly mated queens.

What can we do to improve local drone quality and quantity?

  1. Stop using drone sacrifice as a mite control method: drones are valuable
  2. Let colonies freely raise drones (who help with broodnest temperature regulation, freeing workers to be foragers = more honey!)
  3. Practice effective mite control so the drone brood (which mites prefer to infest) is not pushing up your mite numbers
  4. Put one green drone comb frame into your best colonies to make sure there are lots of superior drones out there in the DCA’s. After doing mite control, of course. Note: the frame of drone comb seems to reduce burr comb production, making for less mess to tidy up in inspections.
  5. Feed colonies raising drones to ensure maximum drone health and vigour, just as you would queen rearing colonies

And have fun! There is a special satisfaction in spotting and marking your own beautiful queens. Just as an aside, the colour system for marking queens is great: use it but adapt the colour to make your marked queens easier to see. Instead of red use bright candy pink. Instead of blue use a bright turquoise. The yellow and white are easier to see, but the green pens sold are often a bit dark and hard to spot…a brighter sea green works well. Posca paint markers are available in art supply shops in a wide range of colours: choose the ones that work best for your eyes.

Resources

The best guide to home grafting and cell builder construction is David LaFerney’s Beginner to Beginner Queen Rearing. My bible.

The best book on honey bee mating biology is Mating Biology of Honey Bees by Koeniger and Koeniger. Also watch Dr. Gudrun Koeniger on Youtube.

The standard texts on queen rearing are Harry Laidlaw’s Contemporary Queen Rearing, and Practical Queen Rearing by Pellet.

For a nice video on identifying the contents of cells on frames:

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