April 2020 Queen Rearing

The last couple of days I have been making some queens to head up new colonies of bees by grafting tiny larvae from a queen who had swarmed from our colony of bees at the Boys and Girls Club in Brevard. This is the second time this mother queen has swarmed and been caught. In 2019 she was caught in one of our swarm traps at our home bee yard. Her thorax was marked with a bright green dot and then she along with the rest of her swarm was installed in the observation hive at the Boys and Girls Club. Then last month she swarmed again to a tree outside the Club where I captured her again and installed her in a hive at the home bee yard. She has been a very prolific queen and survived with minimal mite treatments which is the primary reason I have chosen her to raise new queens from her.

The process begins by selecting a young larva that is less than 24 hours old.

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Below you can barely see (sorry for the out of focus) the tiny larva floating in a pool of royal jelly on the tip of the grafting tool.

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The larvae are then placed in artificial plastic queen cups.

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Once all the grafts have been completed the bars containing the grafts are inserted into a queenless “cell starter” colony where the young nurse bees feed the larvae royal jelly that they secrete to make what otherwise would have been a worker bee into a queen. The bees recognized that they no longer have a queen because of the lack of her pheromone and try to raise a new one.

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After 24 hours the frame containing the queen cells are transferred into a queenright “cell finisher” colony. The queen is held in a lower chamber separated from the queen cells by a queen excluder, a screen that allows the worker bees to pass through but excludes the queen because of her larger size. It has been found that swarm cells produce better queens than those produced under an emergency queenless situation.  This queenright “cell finisher” simulates the situation found in a colony that is building swarm cells in preparation for their swarming. Below you can see the cells after 48 hours showing how the bees have filled the cups with royal jelly and begun to build the queen cell out with bees wax. After 10 days from grafting the mature queen cells are removed and placed into new queenless colonies where they emerge and then hopefully mate and successfully return to their new home and begin laying. I am keeping my fingers crossed but right now it looks like 18 of 20 cells have been accepted and are well on their way to becoming new queens.

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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 .