Queen rearing: first attempt

sealed honeybee queen cell
honeybee queen cell

About 2 years ago I had an amazing life changing experience. Ever since I was 7 years old I had worn eye glasses and I quickly became the shy boy with massive thick goldfish bowls on his face; eyes disappearing into tiny dots, and huge craters on my nose where they relentlessly pressed down on me. At the age of 51 enough was enough. I had lens replacement surgery at Moorfields Hospital in London by the eminent and very affable Julian Stephens. So now I have almost perfect vision and when I wake up in the morning I can actually see straight away, rather than having to fumble for the goldfish bowls. Sadly the first thing I usually see is a quite horrible lamp shade and a cracked ceiling caused by a loft conversion…I must do something about that one day.

However, it turns out that there is at least one task for which my artificial super-eyes are unsuited, and that is grafting larvae. Non beekeepers may wonder what this is and why on earth anyone would want to do it, so I shall explain.

Honeybees make new queens by producing queen cells (see picture). They are long alien structures which start off as a small cup of wax, shaped like the cup that an acorn sits in. Once an egg is laid in this cup the young worker bees spring into action. They add wax to the cup making it longer and longer until eventually they seal it off. Meanwhile the egg is fed with copious amounts of “royal jelly” (made by bees in their pharyngeal gland) and it soon becomes a tiny larva, which rapidly grows. Once the queen cell is sealed off the larva develops further into a pupa and at last, 16 days after the egg was laid, a new queen emerges into the world.

One of the rites of passage of a beekeeper on his or her journey from novice to serious hard core ninja beekeeper is performing the noble art of queen rearing. This entails selecting a good queen and making more queens from her, which involves taking tiny larvae from their hexagonal cells and placing them gently into man made queen cups. These are then given to a hive with many young bees and no queen. They leap at the chance to make queens, and hopefully turn most of these grafted larvae into beautiful big fat queen cells. These can then be placed in their own little hive, called a nucleus hive, so that when the new queen emerges she can get on with the job of getting mated and laying eggs, and her colony can grow and prosper. And make honey for their ever hopeful keeper. Actually, I don’t think my bees know they have a keeper. Well, they should be grateful. I give them a nice house and keep them healthy, and all I ask in return is some delicious golden honey. They just get on with it and ignore me.

Sounds easy enough, this larvae grafting, doesn’t it? Not so. I bought a magnifying glass and some reading glasses but found it very tricky to focus on the tiny larvae that I wanted to graft (move to an artificial cup). This had to be done with no gloves or veil but luckily the odd bee that had come along with me to my bee shed was not intent on anything malicious – they were mostly just curious. They had probably not seen a walrus with a magnifying glass before.

I grafted 14 larvae and was expecting to get at least 8 or 10 queens out of this (some were bound to fail given my lack of experience). In the end I got 2. Two! All I can say is they had better be good. All that effort for two little insects. I put the sealed queen cells into nucleus hives and took them home to my garden so that the new queens can experience courtship and mating with Mancunian drones, which have a different accent to those near my apiary. They support a different football team too. The drones die after mating, but they die happy.

I’m going to have another go at queen rearing as a score of 2 from 14 is not something to brag about. Not really ninja beekeeper territory is it? I’ll let you know how I get on 🙂

What do you think?

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