Now that we are in that time of crazy colony growth, it won’t be long until some people start to raise their first queens of the season. My experience and research into weather patterns tells me to hold off until later because the weather can be quite unreliable for mating flights in May. The best time for good mating weather in my area tends to be from mid-June to the end of July, making the end of May the time when I will start grafting. However, now is the time to consider this: Breeding the Best Honey Bees: Selecting a Quality Queen Bee.
To make great queens, it certainly helps to start off with a breeder queen who has the traits you wish to pass on. However, there’s no guarantee that they will be passed on, particularly with open mating of the daughter queens. The other part of the equation is the skill of the beekeeper; from selecting larvae of the right age, to setting up a strong cell builder colony, to correct nutrition and handling of queen cells, through to mating nucs and plenty of drone availability. Oh, and the weather, of course.
How to select a breeder queen? Well, if you don’t keep some kind of notes you will be relying on gut feel, in which case, it all depends on the predictive powers of your digestive tract. I keep notes by recording a video on my phone of the hives, and I verbally describe what I saw and did. Later on, I write these notes up, and by the end of the season I have a pretty good idea of which colonies contain my best queens. Mine look like this:
The traits that I look out for are these:
This is a good thing to monitor, as is the amount of syrup fed in the autumn. For a colony to make a lot of honey, plenty of things have to go right. Chances are, if they made 100+ lbs of honey, they didn’t swarm and were untroubled by disease. I often remove honey in June and again in August. If the colony needs to be fed loads of syrup later on, that’s a negative.
We use a scale from 1 to 5 when scoring the temperament of the bees. If they score 5, they are lovely bees that are calm on the comb and pay little attention to us. If they are a bit tetchy, they score 3, and if they are evil, it’s a 1 or 2. One thing to consider is whether bad behaviour is a one-off or something that happens frequently. I try to find excuses for stroppy bees, but if they keep on being defensive for no apparent reason, they get marked for re-queening.
I do an alcohol wash in June on all of my production colonies to assess the degree of infestation by varroa mites. A low or zero count is a big positive. I know that some bees seem to be able to interrupt the breeding cycle of the mites. There are no guarantees that the trait will be passed on, but I like my breeder queens to come from colonies with a low mite count.
If a colony has chalk brood, I won’t use the queen from that colony as a breeder, and I’ll try to re-queen it as soon as possible. Some types of bee seem more susceptible to chalk brood than others, and I don’t want them.
Laying Rate and Brood Pattern
Some queens are more prolific than others. I like prolific queens that lay in a beautiful pattern. However, I don’t like the sort of bees that keep laying lots of brood late into autumn; they need to be able to shut down properly for winter so that they don’t run out of stores and starve. If the laying rate reaches 2,000 eggs per day, that equates to about 10 frames of brood in a National hive or 7 frames in a Langstroth.
One reason to wait until a queen is in her third season before deciding to breed from her is that there is plenty of time to assess her attributes. In particular, if a queen gets into her third or fourth season without showing signs of swarming, she has a distinct disinclination to swarm, which is a good thing. My experience with my bees is that if I let the bees re-queen themselves, the swarming tendency increases, but if I use selected queens it can be kept down. If swarm cells are made, I have to work out if it’s because they are swarmy bees or if I have not given them enough space. It’s a bit harsh to blame the queen for beekeeper error.
Queen Size and Retinue
According to the research I have seen, big queens are better than small ones. I wouldn’t want to breed from a small queen. They often swarm or get superseded quickly anyway. What I want is a large queen who has a good retinue of workers around her, showing that she is giving off plenty of pheromones.
Just Choose Your Best
If you only have a handful of hives, you may not have the perfect queen from which to breed. In fact, out of 40 odd colonies, I frequently struggle to find more than one or two queens that, I think, are really great. It’s not the end of the world. Beekeepers can club together to get more hives to choose from. In my case, I sometimes buy a breeder queen from somebody that I know. I’m hoping to get one this season from Andrew Little, one of Peter Little’s sons. He has some great queens, but I’m sure others do too.
Even if you don’t have the perfect queen to breed from, that’s fine. Genetics are all well and good, but you can still make some lovely queens by just selecting your best, and raising daughters under ideal conditions. A young larva that has been fed copiously with royal jelly from the time it was grafted to when the cell was capped, then kept at brood nest temperature until emergence, can make a beautiful queen. In my experience, it’s well worth the effort, and not just because you’ll have nice queens. It’s also the most satisfying feeling to know that you had a part to play in the creation of such a beautiful creature.