You don’t even need to be able to graft larvae to make good queens. Apparently, grafting puts a lot of people off, because they find it too hard or they heard that it was difficult and didn’t try. I think it’s like most skills; at first, you are a bit rubbish, but with practice, it gets more natural, and your skills develop. I am okay at grafting, but I’m quite slow. This is not a problem for me as I’m not doing hundreds of queens. My goal is to try to transfer the tiniest larvae without damaging them so that they are accepted by the queenless starter hive.
Tiny larvae a few hours old
When I started grafting, it took me a few attempts to find magnifying lenses (jewellers loupe) that suited me, and I’m still pretty sure that I could improve my set up. Next, I grafted larvae that were too big. The correct larvae to graft are incredibly tiny – almost invisible. They are no bigger than eggs and are hard to see because they are translucent, sat in a little puddle of bee milk. My left eye is excellent, but not at short distances, and my right eye is foggy as the lens has a frosting of hydroxyapatite on it (long story). I manage fine.
There is a mountain of evidence showing that the “best” queens are made by starting off with the tiniest larvae. If the bees provide a newly hatched larva with copious amounts of royal jelly for the 5 days until the queen cell is sealed, you are in with a shout of a top-notch queen. If the nurse bees have access to a lot of fresh pollen of different types, and plenty of incoming nectar, they will do the clever bit and make all of the royal jelly they need. This is why, to make good queens, you need:
- the tiniest larvae
- loads of nurse bees
- frames packed with a variety of quality pollen
- a nectar flow
- no queen
Different beekeepers find different ways to graft larvae. The two methods that I have come across are the Chinese grafting tool (most popular) and the tiny paintbrush or piece of grass options. Remember, you don’t have to graft at all but hang in there while I cover this.
Chinese Grafting Tool
This is the most popular way to graft. Done correctly, the reed of the tool scoops up the larva and the puddle of bee milk that it sits in, depositing it gently in the cell cup. The best frames to use for this are those that have gone dark with hard wax. If the comb containing the larvae is soft and new, the grafting tool will not slide nicely underneath; it will just puncture the wax and make a mess. Randy Oliver describes one approach in his Queens for Pennies article, which is very good. Whether or not you agree with his opening rant (I do), please read on to learn about grafting.
For this to work well, you need the opposite type of combs; beautiful new soft wax. The idea is to break down the wall of the hexagonal cell containing the larva. It can then gently be lifted out and placed in the queen cup. By the way, you must not roll the larvae over because they will die if you do that.
Many years ago, a queen breeder called Jay Smith came to the view that he made better queens without grafting at all. I don’t know how true this is, but it certainly gives hope to those who just don’t fancy grafting. In his method, you also need the breeder queen to lay up a frame of soft, newly built wax comb. He selected comb with eggs in it and cut out a strip with a sharp knife. He had a long piece of comb one cell wide, and each cell contained an egg or young larva. This was then fixed to the underside of the top bar of a frame using melted wax.
Some of the cells were squashed down (x), and some had the egg left in (o). The pattern went xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0 which gave space for queen cells, so they weren’t sticking into each other. The bar with the strip of eggs went into a starter hive (lots of nurse bees, pollen, nectar flow, no queen). Seems simple enough. The Miller method is even easier.
If you only want to make a handful of queens you don’t need a “starter” and a “finisher” – just leave the bees to it and take out the sealed cells before the queens emerge. It’s safe to do this 9 days after grafting/putting the strip of eggs in. Then each queen cell can go into a queenless nuc or mating nuc so that she can emerge and get mated. The is something very satisfying about making your own queens.
I can’t control which drones my queens mate with, but I can control which queen’s larvae I select for making daughter queens. I’m happy with that, and mostly it works well. It makes sense to me to choose a breeder queen from a colony with positive traits. Some bees are unduly defensive (ankle stingers, jump at your hands as you pick up frames) and some are not calm on the frames; they run about and “drip” off the frame bottom. I don’t like those traits, so I won’t choose a breeder from those bees.
I also like the idea of selecting from bees that are less prone to swarm, although sometimes perfectly good bees do swarm. A hive that makes lots of honey has got a lot of positive traits; they came out of winter well, built up strong at the right time, didn’t swarm and didn’t get burdened by disease; they might be good bees to breed from.
Finally, don’t forget about drones. We need good drones to make good queens. If you have nice bees, give them a drone comb so that they can spread their drone goodness around. If you have horrible bees, scrape out the drone cells so that they can’t drag down the local population. And change the queen for a nice new one that you made from your best queen 🙂