Rearing Queens – the How and Why

The Why

It has been shown that locally adapted queens have a much better chance of surviving in the unique climate conditions here in the mountains of western North Carolina. At Pure Pisgah Honey we think it is vitally important to raise our own queens as a part of creating a sustainable beekeeping enterprise. Raising new queens from mother queens that made it for more than one winter and capturing local feral swarms are the best ways for us to obtain queens that have a greater chance of survivor ability. In addition to survivor ability two other traits we look for in selecting a mother queen from which to raise new queens are productivity and temperament. But survivor ability is the most important trait in my opinion because a dead colony will neither sting you or produce any honey.

There are other reasons why we raise our own queens. Cost of queens today is a major expense. A run of the mill queen will cost $25 or more and breeder queens hundreds of dollars. Another factor is convenience. It is far easier for us to raise our own rather than having to drive somewhere to pick up queens and worry about their health after being transported or shipped.  Also by raising our own queens we are assured of our source and not dependent on someone else. Having your own source of queens also gives you flexibility to make splits of your existing hives which is a means of swarm control and expansion.

The How

We use the “Doolittle” method of grafting named after the man that came up with the process. There are other methods out there, but this process will enable a hobbyist, side line or professional beekeeper to raise a few queens or a lot of queens. It is the process used by all major queen breeders. Grafting is the term used to describe the process of taking a one day old larva from a frame of eggs and larvae of the selected mother queen and placing that larva and royal jelly into an artificial queen cup using a special instrument.  The artificial queen cups are then place into a “cell starter” colony which is a queenless colony of young “nurse” bees that when furnished with an abundance of bees and food will begin to feed the larvae royal jelly that is secreted from glands in their heads. This royal jelly is feed to the larvae their entire six day larval period and is what changes what otherwise would have been a worker bee into a queen bee.  Worker bees are fed a diet of pollen and honey after the first day. After one day in the “cell starter” colony the queen cups are transferred into a “cell finisher” colony. The “cell finisher” colony is a strong colony of bees that has a queen isolated in a lower chamber that is separated from the upper chamber containing the queen cells by a queen excluder. The cell cups are left in the cell finisher colony for no more than ten days at which time each queen cell is place into a queeenless colony for the virgin queen to emerge from her cell and take her mating flight. If left longer than ten days you run the risk of one of the queens emerging and stinging her rivals to death.

It’s a fascinating process and I encourage anyone who is slightly interested to give queen rearing a try. The are a couple of sources for information that I can recommend. The first is a book by Lawrence John Conner titled Queen Rearing Essentials. The second recommendation is a YouTube video by Richard Noel titled the Cell Builder – Explained .

More on Bees for (almost) Free

A honeybee colony is considered to be a super-organism and swarming is the way that they reproduce. When a colony swarms the existing queen flies off with about 60% of the workers to find a new home, leaving the existing hive to raise a new queen. When this happens the existing colony has so few bees that they will not store any surplus honey for the beekeeper to harvest.It seems to me that the bees can sense a new nectar flow and start making swarm preparations prior to the flow by constructing queen cells in which they raise the new queen that will take over the colony after the swarm.

Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, we have two major nectar flows that produce a honey crop – the first one being “wildflower” and the second being Sourwood. Wildflower is what I call a “bees blend” of everything that blooms during April through June. The Sourwood tree blooms in July and produces the world famous premium Sourwood honey. Last year immediately before the Sourwood trees bloomed around the first of July most of my strongest colonies decided it was time to swarm and did. Invariably the swarms flew off into the top of a inaccessible tree and then into the surrounding forest never to be seen again. This year since I was now living at our new home in the mountains right next to our bee yard, I was determined to try to prevent the swarming of my colonies or if they swarmed to be able to somehow lure them into a trap.

One of my goals this spring was to grow the size of my apiary. So I developed a two pronged strategy to do this and still produce honey – especially the Sourwood honey. The first prong was to inspect the hives on a frequent basis during the spring wildflower flow looking for queen swarm cells. When found, I removed the existing queen along with four or five frames of brood (baby bees), nurse bees, pollen and nectar and put them into a new hive in a different part of the beeyard, leaving the “parent” hive in its existing location to raise a new queen. In essence I was creating an artificial swarm – but the main difference was that it was controlled and I didn’t lose the swarm to the forest.  Since the queenless colony remained in its existing location, all the forages returned to it keeping its total population very high. During the course of the spring, I ended up making eight splits this way – even splitting one hive three times! All eight of these colonies were strong enough by July to actually make Sourwood honey.

The second prong was to make swarm traps in which to catch any swarms should I miss finding a queen cell during my inspections. I was inspired by a March 2015 article in the American Bee Journal entitled “A Swarm Trap in Every Tree” written by Dr. Leo Sharashkin. In the article he presents the plans for his trap design, why it is so effective and how to set it up. Here is a link to his website where you will find much of the same information.  In June of this year I constructed eight traps of his design, and hung two of them in the vicinity of my bee yard. The traps were baited with one frame of old dark comb and lemon grass oil. The remaining five frames in the trap were foundationless frames.



Then on June 26th I happened to be in my back yard when a swarm emerged from one of my hives. As I stood there and watched, the swarm landed on an inaccessible  tree limb approximately 35 feet  off the ground. I knew that this was most likely a temporary “roost” site and hoped that they would decide to move on to one of my traps.

Sure enough, the next day this is what I found!

Early the next morning I closed up the trap and brought it to the bee yard. Opening up the trap, I was amazed at how many bees were in it and how quickly they had drawn comb on the foundationless frames..

This is the old comb that was used as a lure.

So, I consider my trapping efforts to be extremely successful catching four swarms near my beeyard and two in another location. Six traps were  set and six swarms were caught in three of the traps. Of the four swarms caught near my beeyard, two were from my hives with marked queens. The other two I am not sure where they came from. The two traps that were set remote from my bees were definitely feral colonies.

The bottom line is I added twelve colonies to my operation at essentially no cost other than the materials for the traps and my time. Contrast that with purchasing twelve nuc colonies at a cost of $150 each which amounts to $1,800. My plans are to continue this strategy of growth and hopefully will never have to purchase bees again.

How Safe Is Your Honey II

It’s been quite some time since I last posted – in fact it was 2011 when I talked about this same subject and apparently little has changed. on April 28, 2016 and again on June 29, 2016 special agents of Homeland Security Investigations (ICE) Chicago seized 120 tons of honey smuggled from China. When this honey entered the United States, it was claimed to be a product of Vietnam, but in fact testing showed that it came from China. It was transshipped through Vietnam to avoid anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese honey. You can read the full report here and here. What is especially disturbing about this is that honey from China has repeatedly been shown to be adulterated with other sweeteners and contaminated with harmful chemicals.

What should be of concern to the average consumer is that consumption of honey in the US is increasing and now to meet that demand we are now importing 70% of our honey with a substantial amount of that coming from countries of the Eastern hemisphere.  From 2010 to 2015 imports from Asia have almost doubled from slightly over 60,000 metric tons to almost 120,00 metric tons. These major export countries are China, India, Vietnam, Ukraine, Thailand, Turkey and Taiwan. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about my food coming from these countries.

What can you do as a consumer? Know the source of your honey,

Is Your Store-Bought Honey Really Honey?

diluted-honeyOn November 7 the Food Safety News published a controversial article that reported that they had found that 76  percent of the honey they had purchased in major grocery stores contained no pollen and therefore was not really honey.  Furthermore, they had tested honey purchased at drug stores like Rite-Aid and CVS and found that 100% contained no pollen, 77% at big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco contained no pollen and 100% of small individual service portions from McDonald’s and KFC contained no pollen. At the same time they found that honey purchased at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural stores” like Trader Joe’s contained the normal expected amounts of pollen.

The question is why do producers and packers remove through filtration the pollen which is a normal beneficial component of honey? The bottom line is that it done for one or more reasons. Number one is to hide the source of the honey. Honey can be traced back to its origin based on the  pollen it contains. Right now we have a tremendous problem in this country with illegal importation of honey from China via a third country. This is being done to circumvent the anti-dumping duties and screening for contaminants that Chinese honey has been found to be tainted with. (see the related articles in earlier posts) The second reason is to extend the shelf life of the honey. The pollen grains and sugar crystals contained in raw honey serve as seeds for the growth of larger sugar crystals that eventually lead to crystallization of the entire jar of honey. This is a normal occurrence and in fact the preferred form of honey in Europe and other parts of the world.  So is honey really honey without the pollen?   You as the consumer are the one to answer the question.

Here is a link to the article:

White Eyed Drones

Have you ever seen a drone (male) honeybee with white eyes rather than their normal colored black eyes? I did for the first time this year and it’s sort of freaky looking. Earlier this spring, I was inspecting one of my hives and came across a few drones with white eyes. I did not have my camera with me, so I came back the next day to take a picture and they were all gone.

A few weeks later another of my beekeeping friends said he had a hive that had white-eyed drones AND workers and wondered if I would like to have the queen to put into my observation hive. I gladly accepted his offer to see what would happen. Within the last few days I have begun to notice a few drones with white eyes. The picture below was shot though the glass of the observation hive so the quality is not all that great. I will have my camera on hand the next time I open up the hive to move some frames around and get a better picture.

After doing some research, I found that this is a genetic mutation caused by a recessive gene. Drones are genetically haploid, which means they only carry one set of genes, while all females are diploid or carry two sets of genes. Queens and worker get their two sets of genes when the egg laid by a queen is fertilized. A drone is created when a queen lays an unfertilized egg. So if the queen carries the recessive gene for white eyes then there is a grater chance of the white eye to express itself.

Some of the information that I read indicates that white-eyed drones cannot see well and there cannot find their way back to the hive, which might explain why I only saw the drones one day in my hive and not the next. The interesting thing about my friend observing white-eyed workers in addition to white-eyed drones is that I believe a white-eyed drone would have had to mate with a queen that also carried that gene to produce a white eyed worker. That would refute the claim that white-eyed drones cannot see well. We’ll see!

I have also read that there are  bees with other eye colors including green, shades of red from cherry, garnet to brick. Although I haven’t seen any with green eyes, I have notice some that appeared to have a purple-ish tint to them. So check out the color of your drones eyes. You too might be surprised. If you want to learn more go to the web address below:

2009 Wildflower Honey Harvest

The rainy, cool weather we had about a month ago apparently has severely affected the Wildflower spring nectar flow. The mainstay of the spring honey crop in this area is the Tulip Poplar tree. During its bloom the rainy, windy weather accompanied by cool temperatures either prevented the bees from flying to gather the nectar, washed the nectar away or blew the blossoms off the trees.

The end result is that my bees put up only one fourth to one half the honey they normally put up this time of year. I have talked to a number of other beekeepers in the area and they report the same thing. In fact, one of them has one of his hives on a platform scale. He records the weight gain and loss on a daily basis and reports it to the USDA in Beltsville, MD for their study purposes. He said that the hive this year weighed 100 pounds less than the same time in 2008. Last year I harvested approximately 1400 pounds of local wildflower and this year I think I will be lucky to get 600 pounds.  So it looks like the local spring Wildflower honey crop is going to be in short supply. This all serves to remind us that this is really farming and you have your good years and your lean years.

Last week after taking off the honey supers, I moved 13 colonies up to our property in North Carolina to join the bees already there and to hopefully capture the Sourwood nectar flow and to finish building up some of the new colonies I started this year. We’ll see how that goes and I will report on it sometime later this month. Below are a couple of pictures of my friend and fellow beekeeper Jim McClure opening up the hive entrances we had closed off for the move and the hives in place with their supers ready to capture the Sourwood honey.

Girl Scouts Learn About the Bees

Girl Scout troop 3509 visited our apiary on April 21st to learn about the bees and beekeeping, their importance to mankind and how they make honey as a part of earning their Plants and Animals patch. They also got to sample several different flavors of Wildflower honey from the bees here in Alpharetta, Sourwood honey from my bees up in the mountains of North Carolina and comb honey – which most had not ever experienced before.  As you can see they enjoyed themselves.

Update on the Update of the Queens II

It’s been a real busy couple of weeks. We are right in the middle of the nectar flow here in Alpharetta and I have been busy putting the honey supers on the hives, creating more splits for the new queens I have reared , hosting a troop of Girl Scouts at the house to help them earn their Plants and Animals patch (more on that later) and retrieving a swarm (more on that too).

First, an update on the queen in the observation hive. I found her laying eggs on April 21st, so I marked her and installed her into the viewing area for the Girl Scouts and for the Farmers Market on the 25th. Here is a picture of her.

Notice that the fluorescent green dot really shows up. I use Elmers waterbased paint markers that are non toxic.

She has been extremely busy laying eggs and I cannot keep up with her, cycling in fresh comb for her to lay on, so I have decided to put her and her colony into a full sized hive body and see if I can get some honey from her this spring.

A Swarm – or Bees for Free (almost)

I received a call on Thursday afternoon from Deb Schmalshof up in Cumming, GA who said she had a swarm of bees on the side of an old abandoned house about 8 feet off the ground and wanted to know if I was interested in capturing it.  She further explained that a colony had been living in this house for at least 4 years and this was not the first time she had seen the colony swarm. My initial thought was that if in fact it was a swarm, that it would probably not be there long before flying off to a new location. The fact that she said the colony had been there for 4 years intrigued  me as I would like to include “survivor” colonies into my operation, so I said I would come to take a look.

After a 30 minute drive to Cumming we arrived to find that the “swarm” had gone back into the house. There were still a lot of bees on the outside, but it definitely did not look like a swarm. Their behavior though was very gentile and there was absolutely no aggressiveness displayed- which is one of the characteristics of a swarm.

Deb said that the house was scheduled to be demolished and would not mind if I tore into the siding to see if I could capture the bees. In fact, the bees needed to be rescued before the house was torn down.  She offered me a crow bar, hammer and eventually a power reciprocating saw to access the bee colony. And here is what we found:

The comb filled the wall cavity between the studs and was over three feet long. It had definitely been there for a while- but was in remarkably good condition. While removing it I could find no brood or honey, but there was a LOT of bees. I finally concluded that there had definitely been a swarm, but rather than coming from the house, they were actually entering it to take over the comb that another colony had constructed. I had brought a cardboard nuc with me with a couple of frames of drawn comb with honey and pollen. After spraying the bees with sugar water with a spray bottle, I proceeded to gather bees on the remaining comb and bee brush and shake them into the nuc box. This went on for some time until I had a lot of the bees in it. There was absolutely no way to see if we had the queen in the box and the bees were not acting like we did. Normally if you capture a swarm queen all the bees will follow her into the nuc or hive or clump up around her where ever she is. We had a few remaining clumps of bees that I brushed into the box.

After transferring most of the bees I could into the nuc, I decided to leave the nuc there in the opening overnight, hoping that the drawn comb and honey and bees we had in the box would attract the queen (if we didn’t already have her) and remaining bees. I propped it up with a handy push broom and step stool.

I returned the next morning to retrieve the box to find almost no bees outside it. After arriving home, I proceeded to install the nuc into a full 10 frame hive body. I installed a couple of drawn frames containing pollen and honey from another hive at the house and 3 more frames of foundation. When I opened up the nuc box I was greeted with bees looking at me from between all 5 frames and the inside cover full of bees. After applying a little smoke I transferred  each frame from the nuc to the full sized hive body after checking it for the queen.

And lo-and-behold, there she was on the frame of partially drawn comb! The swarm has got to be happy in their new furnished  home, complete with a stocked pantry.

Thanks to Deb for the pictures and concern for the bees.

Update on the Update of the Queens

I don’t know if any of you noticed on the beehive webcam that the workers in the observation hive had torn down the queen cell that I had given them on April 15th. There had not been enough time for the queen in the cell to have matured, so I suspected something else was up. After seeing this, I had a feeling that we actually had a queen even though after a thorough earlier searches, I could not find her.

As I mentioned before, virgin queens are found in places that you don’t normally expect to find them and it is not uncommon for a virgin queen to hide on a side wall of the hive and not on frame. So I must have overlooked her in my earlier searches. I checked the observation hive yesterday and found a queen! There was no brood yet and her abdomen had not yet swelled, so she may still be a virgin.

I will check again later in the week to see if there is brood present in the hive. Once there is brood, I will mark her and place her up in the observation area. I have a troop of Girl Scouts coming over later in the week and I would really like for them to be able to see her and some brood. If she is not ready in time, I will probably take her and the rest of her colony and put them into a nuc at my bee yard and place another laying queen and her colony into the observation hive for a while.