Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 3

In this posting I am going to briefly cover the technique called grafting to create new queens. There are complete books covering this in detail if the reader is interested in learning more. This method is more involved than simply making a split and letting the queenless bees raise a new queen. This method lends itself  to raising more queens at one time from the selected queen compared to giving a queenless colony a frame containing very young larvae. When choosing the queen from which to raise new queens such factors such as mite and disease resistance, productivity of honey and brood, longevity and gentleness should be the criteria used to evaluate the candidate.

The tools are simple and inexpensive; however, the technique definitely takes skill. This method is known as the “Doolittle” method – named for the person who first developed it. The process involves taking very young larvae from the selected queen and transferring them into an artificial queen cup that is held in a special frame that is then inserted into a “cell starter” colony, which is a colony that either thinks it is queenless – or actually is.  The frame of grafted larvae are then transferred into a ”queenright” or cell finisher colony, which is a colony that has a queen as it has been found that they actually do a better job of raising a queen larva than a queenless colony.


This is a Chinese grafting tool that I use. The tip is a flexible horn material that is slid under the larva and royal jelly that it is floating in..

Here is the artificial queen cell cup and the frame holder

Unfortunately the camera was a little out of focus, but I think you can make out the “C” shaped larva and royal jelly on the tip of the grafting tool. The button on the opposite end from the tip is depressed, like a ballpoint pen, to gently insert the larva and royal jelly into the queen cup.

When the grafting is completed, the frame is inserted into the cell starter colony

Rather than taking out the frame after it has been “started” in one colony and transferring it to a “finisher” colony, I use the “Cloake” board method which allows one to use a single colony for both purposes. The Cloake board has a metal tray that slides into place, effectively blocking the queen pheromones from entering the upper chamber. It also has a queen exclude that prevents the queen from being able to access the upper chamber.

After 24 hours have passed since inserting the grafts into the colony the metal tray is removed creating a queenright colony to finish off the cells. Below is what the cells look like 24 hours after grafting. A more experienced person would have close to 100% acceptance of the grafts. My success rate is much lower as you can see.

When the cells are mature and before the queens start to emerge,  which is 10 days after the grafting, the cells are removed and inserted into a queenless colony or split where the queen emerges from her cell and then in a few days takes her mating flights. She hopefully will be successful and safely return without becoming a meal for a bird or dragon fly and begin to lay eggs in about a week.

Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 2

I discussed some of the natural reproductive instincts of the honey bees and the environmental conditions that lead to natural replacement of a queen and colony expansion in part 1 of this series. In this article I will discuss the simplest method that a beekeeper can use to create a few queens or colonies. This method is called making a split.

I am not going to get into a lot of detail here but just cover the basics. If a colony becomes queenless for whatever reason, they sense the loss of her presence due to the lack of a pheromone that she produces and they will attempt to raise a replacement. They usually select several larvae that are less than 24 hours old  and feed them a diet of royal jelly during their six day larval period. A worker bee is fed royal jelly, a substance secreted from the young workers, for only the first day and then pollen and honey after that.

A beekeeper can create a queenless colony by combining frames of honey, pollen, capped older brood and very young brood into a five frame nuc (nucleus colony) or standard hive body.  The bees will sense their queenless condition in a matter of hours and begin their task of making a replacement queen.

Below you will see queen cells about to be capped off.

In about 16 days from the time the egg is laid the new queen  will emerge from her special queen cell that looks very much like a peanut in its shell. If there are several queen cells present, the first queen to emerge will kill her rivals by stinging them before they emerge. If two queens emerge at the same time they will fight to the death until one is left to take over the colony.

The virgin queen will then have to take her mating flight where she will mate with up to 20 drones and then return to her colony. She will store the drone’s sperm for her entire life which can last for up to five years.

Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 1

Spring is here in the Atlanta area and the honey bee colonies are expanding exponentially with the workers bringing in pollen and nectar from the blooming trees and flowers and the queens laying eggs to make new bees 24/7.

The colonies overwintered in small tight clusters the size of a football – and some as small as a grapefruit. Now with the abundance of food, most all of my colonies here in the Alpharetta area are filling the better part of two hive bodies with adult bees, nectar, pollen and brood. Left on their own, the bees would soon start to think about swarming as the hive becomes too congested. When the instinct tells them that the hive is getting too full they will create a new queen and the existing queen will fly off with about 60% of the workers – leaving the new queen to take over the colony with the remaining workers.

Worker bees also can sense when a queen has either died or is failing to be productive by an absence of her normal pheromones. When that happens, the workers will take a larva that is 24 hours old or less and feed it royal jelly during its entire larval period transforming it morphologically into a queen.

These instincts, an abundance of food and a growing population of bees afford the beekeeper an opportunity to create new colonies by mimicking what the bees do in these conditions. I’ll cover a couple of methods that I am using to expand my colonies in the next installments.

Swarming – Not Now

It’s been nine days now since I reinstalled the frame with the three Queen cells into the observation hive and re-united it with the Queen.  The colony has obviously called off their plans to swarm as the cells have not been drawn out or expanded as can be seen in the photo above, taken today, and compared with the photo below taken on March 10th. The workers have a strong interest in the Queen cells as they are constantly working them, chewing and polishing the wax both inside and outside the Queen cell. You can see them doing this live on the beehive webcam.

Since I reinstalled the frame into the viewing area the Queen has  filled it completely with eggs and larvae – in fact it’s been full for several days. Each frame contains approximately 7,000 cells, which means she is laying almost 1,000 eggs per day. Rather than change this frame out, I have relocated the Queen to the lower portion of the observation hive where she will have access to some empty cells in frames down  below in which to lay eggs. These frames were previously located up above in the viewing area and had been filled with eggs but now are empty as the adult bees have emerged from the cells. With spring now definitely here, the population of the hive is exploding and it will be a challenge to keep up with the growth, constantly changing out empty frames with filled ones to try to keep the swarming instinct under control. The frames that the Queen fills with eggs are either rotated within the observation hive or given to one of my other colonies that need a population boost.

Swarm Preparations?

Well, new developments in the observation hive! On Saturday, March 7th, I had given the queen a new, empty frame of drawn comb on which to lay eggs as she had filled the previous frame. I noticed that she just did not seem to like this new frame as she refused to lay eggs and just stood around on the top bar of the frame. So today, the 10th, I decided to swap out the frame with the original frame since many of the capped cells (pupa) had hatched out. When installing the frame and the queen, I notice three queen cells are starting to be drawn out. This means that the colony is making preparations to swarm, which is the honeybee colony’s means of reproduction.

The queen may have stopped laying in order to slim down to be able to fly off  with the swarm. Normally a laying queen is too heavy to fly – at least not very far. When a colony decides to swarm, they raise a new queen and the reigning queen flys off to a new location, taking about 60% of the workers with her to establish a new colony.  The first new queen to emerge from her cell will kill her potential rival queens, by stinging them before they emerge from their cells. If two queens emerge at the same time they will fight to the death leaving the victor to take over the hive. I will monitor the growth of these queen cells and harvest them before the queens emerge and will place the cells in a queenless colonies that I will create from some of my existing hives.