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.
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.
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.
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.