Only The Best of Queens

Steve Donohoe and Michael Palmer near Lake Champlain
Me and Michael Palmer near Lake Champlain

I imagine that we all have our heroes. On the matter of producing queens, mine are Jay Smith & Brother Adam (both no longer with us) and Mike Palmer (alive and well). The teachings of these talented individuals are about what they do, or did. They are practical and honest, and generally, they subscribe to the school of, “this is what works for me, and these are the lessons and steps that got me here; what you do is up to you.” I respond to that approach.

Jay Smith

Many readers in the UK will not have heard of Jay Smith. He was born in 1871 in Illinois, and moved to South Dakota at the age of 12. He said that it was the book, Langstroth on the Honey Bee, which set him on the path to becoming a good beekeeper. Here is an extract from Jay’s book, Better Queens:

One day, in 1912 State bee inspector, Dan Urbaugh, came to inspect my bees. I remember he stood for some time in silence watching the flight of the bees. Then he turned to me and said, “Why don’t you sell some queens?” Then he said, “Those are the finest bees I ever saw.” I asked him how he could judge bees by merely looking at them.

He replied, “I can tell by the looks of them and by the way they act. Here

I am right among them and none offers to sting.” Having had little

experience with bees except my own I took it for granted all bees were like

that. I told Dan that I would greatly enjoy rearing queens if I could sell them. I shall never forget how he looked at me and replied, “Sell them, why of course you can sell queens like these and you will not have to do much advertising either.”

Astonishing Difference

What is the point of making queens anyway? Apart from the sheer joy of doing it?! In the opinion of Jay Smith, it’s only worth doing if you are going to make the “best of queens.” Anyone can make rubbish queens, but why bother? Many hobby beekeepers, with just a couple of hives, have never seen a truly great queen. The difference is quite astonishing. A colony headed by a great queen is calm on the comb, gentle, less prone to swarm, and almost certainly makes a lot more honey than others.

Newly emerged virgin queen bee
Newly emerged virgin queen bee

For anyone, the advantage is in having bees that are a pleasure to work. For those of a more commercial nature, fewer swarms and more honey per hive mean more profits. Smith contrasts a bee farmer with 2,000 hives, who re-queens by making splits with another who has 250 hives and makes his own queens, re-queening regularly. The queens produced from old comb and the lower population of a split hive are not so good, which means the farmer with more hives must hire many helpers to deal with swarm control and keep them alive. By contrast, the farmer who makes his own excellent queens has vast honey crops, up to 200lbs per hive, with healthier bees and a healthier balance sheet.

All About the Jelly

Bees do a fantastic job of raising queens, especially at swarming time. The cells that they make are large and packed with jelly. As Mike Palmer says, “it’s all about the jelly.” The queen rearing method that Mike uses is taken straight from Brother Adam. Large colonies bursting with artificially high numbers of nurse bees, well-fed, with no queen, will start beautiful queen cells. I use JZBZ cups, which are translucent, so I can see that they are full to the brim with white royal jelly. The idea is that the young grafted larvae are given an excess of nutrients, beyond anything that they need, to ensure that they have the best start.

Mike uses a queen-right finisher, as many commercial queen makers do. In his case, he moves the brood box containing the queen to the side, rotated 180 degrees, when making the cell starter. The box is returned a few days later to make the finisher. These monster cell builder colonies are not only great for making the best of queens – they also produce a lot of honey.

It is known that the conditions in which cells are raised matters a great deal to the outcome. Even the most illustriously well-bred queen, from a proven breeder queen and drone line, will be hopeless if something goes wrong during her development. If the cells are shaken, or receive less than copious feeding, or the temperature is too high (heatwave) or low (too few bees), the queen will most likely be rubbish, despite her genetics. However, a queen raised under ideal conditions, getting the best of everything during her development will often turn out to be a good queen, regardless of parentage.

Non-Grafting, No Problem

For those who struggle with grafting, Jay Smith may offer some hope. I think grafting is the best way to make queens, but I can see well and have been doing it for long enough to find the process elementary, dear Watson. It took a few years and an eye operation to get good, though. After 33 years of making thousands of excellent queens using grafting, Smith eventually found a non-grafting method which he found produced consistently beautiful queen cells throughout the season. Personally, I think that the fact that grafting is the ‘industry standard’ across the world suggests that it’s the best approach. If something else was better, why isn’t everyone doing that?

Jay’s ultimate system needed freshly drawn new comb in which the breeder queen would lay her eggs. He found that the new soft comb led to the best queen cells. He would cut a strip of comb with eggs in out of the frame with a sharp knife, then attach it to the cell bar with melted wax. Then he would squash cells as follows:

Xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0xx0 where ‘x’ is a squashed cell and ‘0’ is one containing an egg.

Queen cells made by Jay Smith using a non-grafting method
Queen cells made by Jay Smith using a non-grafting method

The bees draw out the cells into perfect queen cells. Jay Smith believed that the soft wax combined with the use of eggs rather than newly hatched larvae led to his best queens. Obviously, the cell builder also needed to be bursting with well-fed nurse bees.

Non-grafters may wish to try to copy Jay’s method. It seems to me that the Miller method, using freshly drawn comb, would theoretically achieve the same thing. The Jenter and Cupkit devices also allow one to side-step grafting, but the cells are drawn out on plastic cups rather than soft wax. That’s never been a problem for me, so I reckon if my eyesight starts to fade I’d probably try the Nicot Cupkit system. It’s well-thought-out, and many people use it with great success.

Buying Queens

Finally, if you want to find out what all the fuss with great queens is about, why not try buying a few queens from somebody who specialises in supplying them. You can see for yourself how your purchased queen compares to your others. Then, you must decide if you want to make your own great queens, buy more from your supplier, or carry on with what you’ve got. To me, settling for ‘average’ queens is making beekeeping more work for lower rewards, so it’s “the best of queens” for me.

2 thoughts on “Only The Best of Queens

  1. Hi Steve
    I think one problem is that many beekeepers don’t know where to purchase ‘good’ queens … there are any number of suppliers but how do you distinguish between a queen for £30 or £50 or £100? I’ve only bought about half a dozen over the years. A few have been excellent but many have been no better than my own, and in a couple of cases substantially worse.

    Just checked the prices … ignore the reference to £30!

    The other method worth a look is the Hopkins method which I would have attempted yesterday if the colonies hadn’t decided to take matters into their own hands 😉


    • Hi David, I much prefer to make my own too. It’s so rewarding to feel that sense of pride when it all works out. I was going to list some reliable (IMO) suppliers but that would get me into trouble! There’s also that bell shaped curve thing where maybe 10-20% are rubbish, 10-20% excellent, and the rest in-between. I have a bought breeder queen and a home made one this season, so I shall have to see how they compare.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: