In my area, we are entering the busiest time of the beekeeping season. Colonies are expanding rapidly, and some have swarmed or are about to. Spring/early summer is often like that; a massive amount of nectar and pollen coming in, queens laying like there’s no tomorrow, and beekeepers trying to stay ahead by putting more boxes on hives. The weather helps, of course. It’s been pretty good for me so far.
Not only do I have to check every hive every week for signs of imminent swarmage (good word, eh?) but this is also the time to start raising queens. The bees are doing it anyway, which is a strong hint that conditions are ideal. My first batch of cells is in the cell builder right now. These are daughters of the breeder queen that I purchased last August. Hopefully, they will turn out to be good queens. I have done my part as well as I can, so the rest is up to the Gods.
The method I used to make my big fat juicy queen cells (photo to follow next time, maybe) is very much along the lines of how Michael Palmer, Peter Little and many others do it, apart from Step One. They, in turn, are following Brother Adam’s queen rearing methods. I have tried the Cloake board method, but I much prefer the way I’m doing it now. In any case, why wouldn’t I follow in the path of the people I know who produce the best of queens?
Here’s what I did, but remember, I’m only making about 60 queens this year. If I was making hundreds, I might have to make some changes.
Step 1: Demaree a strong hive
To make my cell builder, I chose a colony that had 7 – 8 frames of brood (Langstroth), had already filled one super and was working the second. There were no queen cells. I re-arranged this colony by doing a “Demaree“. The queen stayed in the bottom box on a frame of brood, but all other brood frames went in the top. I also put frames with pollen and honey upstairs, which meant that I had to put nine frames of drawn comb in the bottom (I could have used some foundation). The configuration became: floor > brood box with queen and empty comb > queen excluder > two supers > queen excluder > brood box with no queen and the brood > cover board > roof.
After four days, I checked the upper brood chamber and removed any queen cells that had started. I repeated this another four days later. There was now no way for any queen cells to be in the top box.
Step 2: Hopelessly Queenless
After ten days I had some fun. I split my tall structure into two hives, one with the queen and one without. I moved the bottom section to the side and faced the entrance the opposite way. There was now a hopelessly queenless colony in its original place. Then I shook bees into the queenless hive from the other one, using a shaker box (brood box with queen excluder nailed to the bottom) to ensure it remained queenless. I did not shake the frame with the queen on it, but the shaker box is to eliminate the possibility of another unmarked queen getting in (it happens).
Step 3: Leave alone for two days
This “step” happened because I was busy; I had planned to come back the next day. The point is that after a day or two that hopelessly queenless hive is desperate for young larvae or a queen. On reflection, maybe I should have put an excluder between the bottom honey super and the queenless brood box above. It’s always possible that a passing virgin queen might enter the hive and mess everything up…unlikely but possible.
Step 4: Grafting
My original idea was to try the Jay Smith method of using a strip of eggs cut from new comb that had been laid up by the breeder queen. I was all prepared with my Stanley knife and gas stove to melt wax, but I abandoned this approach because I was making a mess and didn’t feel comfortable. Grafting is more straightforward than cutting out strips of comb and glueing it to frames with melted wax; at least for me.
So I grafted twenty larvae into nicot cups and put them on the cell bars. It took me longer than I wanted and I probably messed up another twenty larvae due to poor technique. I only put a larva into a cup when I lift it out of the comb first time, and that was not always happening. The reed on my grafting tool was too stiff (I have since ordered new ones), and my headlight was not bright enough. Subsequently, I ordered new kit, and it looks like it will be great for the job.
By the way, for those who graft in their truck, I recently became aware of a nifty device which should make it easier (and the steering wheel less sticky).
Step 5: Starting queen cells
I put the frame of grafts into the centre of my queenless cell builder and fed them. The feeder contained sugar syrup with some Ultra Bee mixed in. I have no idea if this helps or not, but I thought I’d try it. They guzzled it down pretty quickly. There was already pollen in the hive, and foragers were piling it in, so I think all is well from a nutrition perspective.
Step 6: Re-combine back to a single hive
After two days, I checked on my developing cells. They looked great. Only one or two of my grafts had been rejected. Next, I put the hive back together again, as shown. It is now a single tall hive with a queen in the bottom, cells finishing upstairs, and two excluders making sure the queen cannot get up there. I topped up the syrup feeder as it was all gone.
Step 7: Remove queen cells
Eight or nine days after grafting, I remove the cells, gently brushing off as many bees as I can. They can now go into the incubator or straight into mating nucs. In the latter case, I wrap aluminium foil around the cell, leaving just the tip exposed. If cells go into the incubator, the queens need feeding soon after emergence, and the quicker they are with workers, the better.
Step 8: Back to a standard hive
I now re-configure the hive once more so that it becomes a typical double brood set up. When I want to make queens again, I’ll probably use another strong colony and repeat the process.
It’s all well and good having nineteen queen cells, or virgins, but that means you need nineteen mating nucs for them. At the start of the year, that means shaking out a lot of nurse bees from hives. I have Keilers, Mini-plus hives and 3-frame poly nucs, plus some homemade wooden nucs with dividers in. The Keilers and Mini-plus need nurse bees and syrup to get going. The nucs with full-sized frames need me to steal from other colonies.
This is why Mike Palmer has so many nucleus colonies; they provide the brood frames and nurse bees that he needs for his cell builders and mating nucs.