How I Make Queens

A yellow-dot queen on a frame
One of my lovely queens with quite light coloured bees

I’m good at learning from the successes, mistakes and wisdom of others. Once, we had a fishing tournament at school that I’d entered. Never having fished before, I consumed a library of books on the subject and, incredibly, I won. It wasn’t difficult; I think I caught two fish and nobody else caught any. However, being good at fishing took many years of doing it for real. It’s been a bit like that with beekeeping, particularly queen rearing.

So, without further ado, I will describe how I make queens. It works for me. I don’t do anything radical, and I’m sure I can improve, but here it is:

Selecting A Breeder Queen

Who should be the mother of the next generation of walrus queens? This question follows me and occupies my mind for much of the time. I keep notes on the performance of my colonies and use a basic scoring system to choose a queen from which to graft. I want her to be in her third season or later, so I know how she’s done over more than a year. I allocate a score out of five for honey production, temper, and mite count. I usually do an alcohol wash in June; a low mite count is obviously a good thing.

Over the winter, I choose a few breeder queen contenders and hopefully, one or more of them will still be around in the following May. Also, I use a different breeder each year, regardless of how good she is. About every three years I buy a breeder queen from somebody who knows what they are doing.

Making A Cell Builder

I choose a strong colony that has not quite gotten to making swarm preparations. Typically it will have a super or two filling up nicely with nectar. Then I remove all frames of sealed brood and put them into a new empty brood box, leaving the queen in her original box. I add frames of drawn comb to the box with the queen, then onto this goes the queen excluder and two supers. This is followed by another queen excluder and the new brood box containing probably four frames of sealed brood (Langstroth). 

As I inspect my other colonies, particularly nucs, I remove frames of sealed brood and replace them with foundation frames. This is to prevent swarming by weakening them slightly. A six-frame nuc with three sealed brood frames will shortly burst with bees. The brood frames I remove go into the top box on my cell builder. When it’s full, on goes the cover board and lid.

A week later, I shake bees off every frame in the upper brood box and destroy any queen cells. 

Grafting Day

It just takes a bit of practise

Around ten to fourteen days after setting up my cell builder colony, it’s grafting day. I place a new floor to the side facing in a different direction. Then I take off the top box and put it on an upturned roof. I move the bottom brood box (containing the queen) to the new floor. The top box (queenless) goes onto the original floor. I check again for any queen cells, just to be sure there aren’t any. I shake about six frames of bees from the queen-right box into the queenless one, ensuring that the frame containing the queen is not one of them. 

The queenless hive on the original floor is now my starter colony. The other hive with the queen has the two supers. Next, I go to my breeder queen’s hive and pull out a frame containing eggs and very young larvae. I take this frame to a nearby shed and graft 16 to 20 larvae into JzBz cell cups on a grafting frame. I use magnifying lenses, a head torch and a Chinese grafting tool. This takes very little time, and I try to get the frame of grafted larvae into the starter hive as quickly as possible. 

I have to remove a frame from the centre of the starter hive and replace it with the grafts. Then on goes the cover board and a bucket feeder containing sugar syrup. Recently I have dissolved Vitafeed Nutri into the syrup, which they very quickly devour. 

Re-combining Into a Finisher

I return to check on my new queen cells in four days. Assuming all is well, there will be plenty of white jelly visible in the base of the cell cups, showing that the developing queens have been well fed. I return the hive to its original configuration with the queen in the bottom box, two supers and the cells in the top box over an excluder. 

My cell builder set up
Re-combined hive with sealed cells in the top

Getting Mating Nucs Ready

Every queen cell I make will have to go into its own hive. My over-wintered mini-plus hives get split up into single boxes and made queenless. Each one of these will get a queen cell the following day. 

Removing The Queen Cells

Nine or ten days after grafting, I remove the frame with the cells and find a home for them. If I’m putting a cell into a queenless nuc or hive, I use a plastic cell protector so that the bees cannot kill it before the virgin emerges. I also put cells into my incubator in roller cages as when the virgins emerge, they will go into Kieler mating nucs.

Kieler Mating Nucs

Brightly painted Kieler mating nucs
Gloss paint slightly melts the poly so it becomes a hard shell

When setting up Kielers for the first time, I make them up when my virgins are born. I put a tiny drop of honey in the bottom of the roller cage (in a space on the edge of the lid) so that the virgins can feed. I shake bees into a deep tray from the supers of several hives; the foragers fly off, leaving lots of nurse bees. Each Kieler nuc gets a cup of bees and a piece of fondant in the feeder. A virgin queen goes into each then they are sealed up and left somewhere out of direct sunshine for a day or two. 

I move the Kielers to another apiary and open up the entrance. It doesn’t take long for bees to appear and start orientation flights. 

Checking For Eggs

After two weeks, I will check to see that my new queens are laying eggs. If I see the queen but no eggs, I leave them for another week before checking again. Sometimes there is no queen. Sometimes there are no bees at all. Mostly it seems to work, though. In small nucs like Kielers, the comb quickly fills with brood, so the queen must be caught and moved on to a three or six frame nuc, or maybe a hive using a push-in cage. 

Marking, Clipping, Queen Cages

When I get virgin queens from my incubator, I mark them straight away. Obviously, clipping cannot be done now; they still need to go on mating flights. 

As I catch mated queens from their boxes, I mark them if required and clip one wing. It’s not always easy catching queens in tiny little mating nucs. A good tip is to spray some water on the frame containing the queen so that she can’t fly off. Sometimes she’s not on a frame but crawling up the walls hiding. The real fun starts when, having got her majesty into a cage, you have to add six workers. It’s a case of picking them up by their wings and quickly popping them into the cage before they realise what’s happening. 

And that, in a nutshell, is how I make queens. Pretty much the same method as used by Mike Palmer, and going back a few years, Brother Adam

Walrus

Currently writing a book called "Interviews with Beekeepers"

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