Raising Your Own Queen Bees

Harsh Realities

Steve with Keiler Nuc
Steve with Keiler Nuc

There is that saying, “if it were easy, everyone would do it,” and I think it applies to some aspects of beekeeping. Frankly, in the early years of one’s beekeeping life, just keeping them alive and well is a significant achievement. Come to think about it, that still applies to me now after nine years (yes, I’m still a beekeeping baby).

I Killed Her

I killed my breeder queen the other day. Of all the queens in all the world, this was the last one I wanted to die. I started off being naturally talented at killing queens, but over the years, the knack wore off, and now they mostly live for a year or two. It’s too painful to recount the details right now. Let’s move on…I have other good queens.

Breeder Queen Line
Well bred, but dead

Facts of Life

Despite the reams of words written about swarm prevention and control, it’s a fact of life that bees swarm. The area of apiculture that many shy away from is raising queens, and I’m beginning to see why some choose not to climb the steep learning curve. The bit that everyone writes about is building queen cells which is not especially difficult. Let’s face it; bees do most of the work when it comes to cell building. They often make them when we’d prefer they didn’t, but at least they are giving us a clue that conditions are ideal for such an activity.

Limited Resources

The way I see it, there are two hurdles to leap when getting queen cells built. Firstly, a cell builder needs lots of nurse bees; it gobbles up resources. You need to start by putting 8 to 10 frames of sealed/emerging brood into a box to make one starter hive. Those frames of brood, if taken from production colonies, would be used to grow populations leading to a better honey crop. If you only have three or four hives, do you want to strip them all of their sealed brood to make up one cell builder?

Eight frames of brood is a couple of boxes of bees once they emerge. That probably equates to two supers (60 lbs) of honey, which is about £300 to £400 of lost revenue. Cell builders are monster hives that make a lot of honey, but I don’t want to hold back my other colonies too much.

The second hurdle is grafting, which is just a skill that is improved by practice. Some proper equipment helps too, plus a steady hand and reasonable eyesight.

The Solution is nearly always Nucs

I don’t think that grafting is that big a deal, but grabbing loads of brood frames from production colonies is. The solution, as shown to me by Michael Palmer, is to keep nucleus colonies as brood factories. As a nucleus hive becomes busy and more crowded, the act of removing brood is a good thing because it provides space and delays swarming. You are not keeping nucs for honey. They donate resources to cell builders and to boost other hives. You are going to take them through winter to ensure that you have queens available in the spring.

Note to self: You are not going to turn them all into production hives so that you don’t have enough nucs the following season!

Investment, not Cost

How many nucs do you need? It’s probably going to be okay to take a frame of brood from each in May/June/July every few weeks (Nov/Dec/Jan in the southern hemisphere). We need at least eight frames of brood to make our starter hive, so we need at least eight nucleus colonies, or maybe four “doubles” (five frames over five frames). Some may die over the winter, so we probably need to take ten or twelve nucs into winter. That’s a lot of nucs for somebody with three hives. I can see why they might prefer to buy queens from a reliable local source instead.

The cost of ten nucleus hives with frames is £750 before you even put a bee in them. You can buy twenty queens for that much money, and not have any of the hassles. Add in syrup feeding to get frames drawn and varroa control; this queen rearing is getting costly.

A Mating Apiary
A Mating Apiary

Yet More Investment

I am finding that the hardest part of making queens is getting them mated. That’s the piece that attracts far less author attention. I do not have much success with those small mating hives. I know it’s all about learning, and “practise makes perfect,” but the truth is that it’s a problem for me.

If I stick a couple of frames of bees and stores into a three or five frame nuc and give them a queen cell, it mostly works well. These are full-sized frames, which means we are back to taking resources from elsewhere. If I have to get 16 queen cells into mating boxes, I need 16 three-frame nucs, including the frames and the bees. That’s a significant investment.

A Walrus Struggles

The solution to keeping the costs of mating down is supposed to be the use of those “tiny little mating nucs that everyone else but me seems to be able to use without problems.” Perhaps, as a walrus, I need to accept that big is beautiful? I will persevere with mini-plus hives because they are a reasonable size and queens can over-winter in them, but I’m done with Kielers. The walrus and the Kieler are not friends.

As a digression, another thing that I struggle with is getting plastic frames correctly drawn. Once they are, I love them – too much comb going perpendicular to the frame for my liking. Mine are black plastic. I can easily see eggs in the cells, and the frames can be spun without blow-outs. One day I’ll get the hang of this.

Happy as a Walrus in Snow

The best thing about making my queens is that I love it. The economics probably don’t work yet, but for me, it’s about pushing myself to learn and improve. The initial investment makes me wince when I think about it, but once you have the gear, the brood factory nucs and the mating nucs, it’s just about keeping it going. Larger mating nucs work for me because once the queen is mated, she can happily stay there for weeks if I don’t have anywhere to put her. The alternative is banking queens, which I suppose will be something else for me to learn in the years ahead.

8 replies »

  1. Hi Walrus … “tiny little mating nucs that everyone else but me seems to be able to use without problems.” … I actually think using these is the most difficult bit about queen rearing using the classic grafting/cell raiser/mini nuc approach. When I’ve taught queen rearing this is usually where it goes “Pete Tong”. Grafting is a doddle in comparison.

    Firstly, if you’ve got “hands like feet”, as I have, they’re just too darned small to catch the queen scuttling about inside if she’s not on the comb. But well before then they’ve either absconded, swarmed (there’s a difference … but the end result is the same 🙁 ), filled the entire brood nest with nectar … or starved to death.

    I’ve got a big stack of Kielers. I’ve used them quite a bit. I’ve had three queens a year coming out of some of them. But it’s a whole lot of work. Managing tiddly little hives is a skill that’s learned the hard way.

    I agree with you, full frame nucs are a better option (if you have the bees to populate them … but it can work OK with a frame of bees and a frame of stores) for all but those with lashings of skill and the need to have 100 in the field at once.

    Take care
    David

    • Thanks David! I guess if it was all plain sailing I’d get bored. I am reassured by your wise words.

  2. I do NOT use 10 frame brood boxes for raising queens. I started in 2018 doing that = two Langstroth Jumbos in a Cloake Board formation. It worked very well. But it was SO very heavy – about 35kg each brood box..And huge resource drain.

    So I went the other direction and used jumbo 5 frame nucs- one on top of the other with a Cloake board. That worked very well, was much less heavy and far easier to inspect.

    This year I am using one 5 frame jumbo nuc as a starter finisher.. Absolutely stuffed with bees.. Just set up..

    (A lang jumbo 5 frame nuc = approx 37,000 bees – so bigger than a National brood box. Two frames food, 2 frames capped bees – and lots of nurse bees from supers Low resource demand)

    As far as mating nucs are concerned, I have used Rainbows, Apidea, Kieler and home made with equal success.. Far more success if I take capped QCs and immediatly place in incubator, with cages on and place in mating nucs when emerged and dump damp nurse bees on them in a mini nuc..(the nurse bees were shaken from supers so no drones or risk of queens\)

    100% acceptance.

    If I tried QCs in mini nucs, approx 1/3rd did not emerge – especially in spring. I blame late frost (we had a bad one last week as our beech hedge, korean bee trees and kiwi fruit plants bear evidence..)..

    We are at 150 meters on the edge of Staffordshire Moorlands so early summers can have frost into June….

    • Interesting, thanks for that. I think my problem with small mating nucs is that the bees abscond half of the time. Maybe I need to put more in and leave them confined for longer…last time it was about 24 hours, then I added a virgin queen, and several buggered off. Seems much easier with full sized frames but I have some mini-plus which look promising.

  3. We should start a club, the breeder queen killers(BQK’s). I managed to butcher mine about 10 days ago.
    Despite being ultra careful about placing her back in the hive. The age of the emergency cells says she died on the day I’d grafted previously..
    Managed to squeeze in a couple of bars of grafts before it was too late for her larvae but still feeling gutted. There’s no consolation when you know it was your fault.
    Onwards and upwards !

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