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 .