Raising Your Own Queen Bees

Optimism

Honey bee and apple blossom
Honey bee and apple blossom

Here in the UK, and presumably, across much of the northern hemisphere, we are in that beautiful time of the year when optimism reigns supreme. I’m optimistic that this season will be a great one. The bees appear optimistic; they are busy and growing and, in some cases, swarming. It’s the perfect time to start raising queens.

What follows is not a learned thesis based on years of experience, far from it. I’m just sharing my thoughts and feelings based on where I am now in my queen rearing journey: pretty early on. If I read this in five years, I will probably shudder with embarrassment (reading old posts is not always fun). 

Queen cells

Bees make queen cells as part of swarming, but we don’t have to accept their choice. I don’t think that we should use swarm cells to raise new queens. I want to raise queens from colonies that are reluctant to swarm. Of course, if they don’t have enough space, any colony will make queen cells and swarm off to somewhere new.

When raising cells from a chosen breeder queen, we have options. Most people seem to use grafting, which is what I’ve settled on. I suppose it depends on how many queens you want to make; the more you make, the more likely you are to graft. Jay Smith, the great queen producer of the past, eventually moved away from grafting. He felt that the best queen cells he’d ever seen came from newly formed wax combs. He cut strips of comb with eggs in and fixed them to cell bars so that the bees could do the rest. There are other systems such as those where the queen lays directly into a plastic cup; no grafting required.

Not to be ageist but…

Whatever method you chose, the thing that seems to make a real difference is the age of the larvae. The younger they are, the better the queens, generally speaking. When an egg is laid in a queen cell, the bees have decided to make a queen. The second it hatches into a larva, it is fed copiously from the start. From such beginnings do great queens arise. I think this is why Jay Smith came around to using eggs in cells rather than grafting larvae. When we graft a larva from a worker cell, we take something that was not destined to be royalty and change its future. Just how important are those first few hours of feeding by the bees? 

Most people who know more about raising queens than I ever will say that if the larvae are less than a day old, they can result in fantastic queens. They should know. The convenience and practicality of grafting win out, as long as the larvae are very young. This is what Manley said in ‘Honey Farming’:

For grafting always select grubs that are found to be floating on an abundance of brood-food, because these will certainly never have been on short commons from birth, as might otherwise be the case, for worker larvae are very often found supplied with only a very small amount of food. However, if our breeder’s colony is well supplied with young bees and richly stored with honey and pollen it will be found that the young larvae are amply supplied; but it is important not to graft from colonies in which there is the least danger of shortage of brood-food, for the grubs therein may have had their diet restricted, and it is necessary that queens shall not have suffered from shortage of food at any period of their lives.

So on no account graft larvae that are lying almost high and dry on the cell-bottoms, but, I repeat, only those that have a lavish supply. These latter have the advantage, also, that they are very much more easily removed on the grafting tool. 

Nurse bees

The cell-building stage is critical because the constant care and feeding by nurse bees, right up until the cell is sealed, is what makes good healthy monarchs. It follows that a cell-builder colony must be stocked with lots of bees of the right age (1 – 2 weeks old) with plenty of pollen and nectar (or syrup). The main difference between cell-builders is whether or not they are queenless. 

Many people use a queenless ‘starter’ hive then move the cells a couple of days later into queen-right ‘finishers’. However, some have queen-right colonies throughout. The queen is kept away from the cells using a queen excluder. I’ve spoken to several queen producers who say that some colonies make better starters/finishers than others. As with all things in beekeeping, you have to try one and change it to something better if it isn’t working well.

You don’t need to do the whole ‘starter/finisher’ thing at all. Many people use the cell-builder colony to do it all, removing cells when they are sealed. This seems easier to me, and it’s what I do, but I’m only producing 40-60 queens this year. 

Pick one

The advantage to keeping everything queen-right is that you don’t have to continually restock cell builders with nurse bees from other hives as the season progresses. I think people have to find what works best for them. I imagine that swarming could become an issue with strong queen-right colonies. Currently, I do what Mike Palmer does on a much smaller scale. I make the cell builder queenless by removing the box containing the queen, leaving cells there until after they are sealed. The part containing the queen is brought back five days after grafting. There are so many nuances that the only thing to do seems to be to pick somebody to copy and modify the method if it’s not right for you.

Richard Noel with Queen Cells
Richard Noel with Queen Cells

I know that Mike Palmer and Richard Noel follow the ‘Brother Adam’ style of cell building. They are literally overflowing with nurse bees who are ‘begging’ for a queen. Such colonies make cells that are full of jelly, which is a good thing. They operate at a larger scale than me, but I keep plenty of nucs, so I have access to brood frames for cell building. I can also shake bees from my nucs to use in mating boxes. Mike uses one colony as a starter and finisher, whereas Richard moves started cells out into finishers. One problem with so many nurse bees is that they sometimes bury the queen cells in new comb. To prevent this Richard adds foundation frames to give them a better place to make wax.

It’s right if it works

Jolanta Modliszewska, who looks after the queen unit at Denrosa Apiaries, has her colonies queen-right throughout. She is making about 1,000 queens each year, and it works for her. She has queen-right starters and then moves them to queen-right finishers. As I said before: you have to pick somebody to follow and see how it works for you. Jolanta uses double brood nuc boxes (5 frames over 5) with a queen excluder between. Over on the other side of the pond, Joe Latshaw has developed his ‘net gain‘ cell building system along similar lines. 

Jolanta and the author
Jolanta with a Walrus

You have to continually add emerging brood/nurse bees to queenless cell builders if you want to make queens through the season. With the queen-right system, it’s about removing bees and honey frames to keep them from swarming. Joe Latshaw says that he wants to remove the older bees because as the bees’ average age grows, the urge to swarm does too. Removing older bees means taking them in the evening when foraging has slowed down.

Try it!

I am not experienced enough to decide which way is best for me. I get good queens doing what I’m doing, so I’m happy enough for now. Some people remove cells shortly after they are sealed, whereas others wait until 2 days before emergence. They go to an incubator or into mating nucs. I’m not a mass queen producer, and I prefer to treat my queen cells very gently, only moving them when they will emerge shortly. I think they are harder to damage at that stage.

It’s going to be a great year – I can feel it in me waters. I hope you have a good one too, and if you haven’t tried it before, have a go at making queens. It’s the best part of beekeeping!

2 replies »

  1. A simple way to eradicate any difference in how well grafted larvae are attended in those first few hours compared to larvae chosen by the bees to be queens, is to take a frame of eggs from your selected donor colony and put them in your cell raiser to hatch. With no other larvae to attend in competition they will be treated as queens from the off by a larger workforce than in any natural hive.
    It has the added advantage that when you remove the frame to graft you deprive those workers of anything to feed, ensuring that when you insert your grafts there is an immediate supply of royal jelly tailored precisely to the correct age of the brood.

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