Are Your Queens Majestic?

Actors from the Crown and Victoria
Actors from the Crown and Victoria

Are Your Queens Majestic? Anybody who has been reading my blog for a while will no doubt form the view that I am obsessed with queens. I’m talking about queen honey bees, not what you were thinking, you smutty vermin. The queen bee is not the ruler of her hive, as some may think. I would say that she is more like a slave to her duties than a ruler, and it is the workers that set her to task and ultimately throw her out or kill her when they fancy a change. Perhaps Elizabeth would identify?

Nevertheless, her majesty is of critical importance to the colony for she is the sole mother of all who dwell there. She carries within her spermatheca the DNA of the lucky drones that found her on her mating flight, and inside her ovaries rest thousands of eggs, queueing up for their turn in a polished hexagonal wax cell in the hive. It has been shown through both research and experience that certain traits are inherited and that selective breeding of honey bees results in progressively improved stock. Every commercial beekeeper and every serious beekeeper that I have met makes queen rearing (smut alert) a priority in their operation.

Abdomen of Queen Honey Bee
Abdomen of Queen Honey Bee

It’s all very well these massive commercial guys with thousands of colonies doing queen rearing, but what about us humble hobbyists? Everyone that I have asked about this says emphatically that all beekeepers should make an effort to improve their bees continually. Mike Palmer told me that once he started raising his own queens, the change was noticeable immediately and that it took about five years to get consistent stock. He said to me, “I raised queens in the Summer, and next year those colonies were amazing.”

You have to know what a good colony looks like, and in your first year or two, you may not see that. I remember the first time I had a hive which was so piled up with boxes that it was taller than me. That was my biggest ever colony, and it came at a time when I was experimenting with not using queen excluders. There were a LOT of bees in there, and they made me loads of honey and didn’t swarm. As Mike Palmer also said to me, “I think that swarming is the greatest reducer of the overall honey crop.” So we don’t want swarmy bees.

Here’s what I want from my bees:
– they survive Winter and build up fast in Spring (keep note of the colonies that are strongest after Winter)
– they don’t swarm, or their propensity to swarm is low, shall we say
– they make me loads of delicious honey
– they are calm on the combs and don’t fly up in my face or sting me excessively (the odd sting is bound to happen, due to me being a clumsy walrus)
– they don’t have chalkbrood (a fungal disease)

Based on these criteria I can quickly identify my best colony, and therefore my best queen. She is the one I need to breed from. It’s easy to increase the number of bee colonies by making up nucs or hives with frames containing queen cells from colonies that have or are about to swarm, but this probably isn’t from your best queen. Doing this is selecting from a less good queen, one that is prone to swarm, maybe, and the result will be a deterioration in the quality of your bees over time. Selecting from the best is vital. Swarms in the wild often die out, so their genes are lost, but artificial swarms made by beekeepers go on to survive, and so the beekeeper is propagating the swarming trait in his or her bees, or the tendency to sting or not Winter well, or whatever.

There are books and courses and youtube videos showing various techniques for raising queens, and the beekeeper must find the one that works for them. Hobby beekeepers can club together and therefore select from a broader pool of genetics. Small beekeepers who don’t yet feel ready to try raising queens can always buy queens from a reliable source, ideally bees from the local area if such bees are of the required quality.

Guess what I’m doing this week? Yes, I’m going to start a cell builder colony which will later be the recipient of tiny larvae grafted from my best queen. Who knows, I may not screw up; I may get some walrus reared mated queens to use in nucs and to replace older queens in my hives. It’s got to be worth trying. It’s fun, and it will make my future beekeeping easier and more productive because I’ll have good bees. Good bees are so much more pleasant to work with than those horrible nasty stingy swarmy things that some people put up with.

Thus endeth the Gospel according to St Walrus.

What do you think?

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