Are Small Queen Cells OK?

Queen Cells

It’s only the 7th of May, and I’ve already done my second batch of grafts. The queen cells from the first batch have mostly gone into mini-plus hives, with a few left over in the incubator. I’m really pleased with today’s grafts which I took from a green-dot queen (2019). She’s a good old girl, my oldest queen. The most senior queen I have ever heard of was seven years old, but that’s rare. If my green dot is still around this time next year, I’ll be surprised.

Over-Wintered Mini-Plus

I over-wintered some 2021 queens in mini-plus hives – two boxes (12 frames) with a syrup feeder on top. As we got into spring, I had to add another box, then another, because the queens were laying strongly and needed space. The plan was to split these towers up into singles again. Each one would receive a nice new queen cell from my queen rearing efforts. That’s actually what I did yesterday, with help from the mole, but not before two of them had swarmed. One swarm ended up in a bait hive, and the other was on a fence post (see below). Managing prolific queens in small hives is not easy.

MIni-Plus Hives

Does Size Matter

Making queens is fantastic – the best bit of keeping bees. My cell builder for the first grafts was the top box of a Demaree set up, with the queen still in the bottom box. I used this last season with great success, but the cells seemed a bit small to me this time. One reason for me leaving some to emerge in the incubator is to have a good look at the virgins. The question is, does size matter? Size of queen cells, I mean. After a frantic session of web searching, I’m still not entirely sure. Some people say that small cells don’t mean small queens. Some even say that small queens can be as good as big ones. I’m of the view that big ones (queens) are best. However, I’m going to see whether small cells makes much difference to queen size.

Vitafeed Nutri

For today’s cell builder I reverted to a more traditional set-up, with a queenless hive packed with nurse bees. I used a bucket syrup feeder on top with the addition of some Vitafeed Nutri pollen supplement in it. Seb from Vita kindly let me have a tub of it to try out, as I expressed doubts about the need for pollen supplements. I have already used it on some weak nucs and was pleasantly surprised by the results, so I’m a convert. In some circumstances, a bit of a protein boost really is what they need. Anyway, presumably some protein and carbs on a cell builder can’t do any harm. I will return the queen-right part of the hive in a few days to make a finisher colony. Let’s see if I get whopper queen cells, and if so, do they contain whopper queens?

Populating Mating Nucs

Hopefully, soon I’ll have lots of mated queens with another load of virgins to follow. Based on what I’ve learned from both my experience and that of others, there are some rules to follow with these new queens:

  • For a newly created mating nuc containing bees shaken from other hives, it’s best to introduce a virgin queen rather than a queen cell.
  • Once that queen is mated and laying, remove her in a cage and either sell her or use her elsewhere
  • Now the mating nuc has been made queenless, it’s much safer to give them a queen cell next rather than a virgin queen – I use a cell protector to be sure they can’t harm her as she develops.

Give Them What They Expect

I believe that queen introduction into mating nucs is partly about giving the bees what they expect, or rather, what their instincts tell them is correct. Bees that have been newly shaken into a mating nuc are essentially a tiny ‘shook swarm.’ A swarm will contain either a mated queen (prime swarm) or a virgin queen (cast), so this is what they should be given. A swarm would not contain a queen cell! However, once our mating nuc builds up into a baby colony with a laying queen, and then that queen is removed, the sudden arrival of a new queen is not expected. This new queen must be an intruder. The bees are expecting to go through the process of making queen cells – perhaps this is why a queen cell which emerges a few days later is more likely to work.

Queen Introduction

push in cage made from wire mesh
push in cage made from wire mesh

I’m straying into the thorny issue of queen introduction, and it really is a minefield. Bigger colonies do not always welcome newly introduced queens – often, they kill them. My thoughts are that there are two ‘windows of opportunity’ for changing the queen. Firstly, straight after the old queen is removed, the new one can go in under a push in cage for a few days, which works very well. The only theory I can come up with to explain this is that the hive did not go through the process of being queenless. Sure, they lost their queen, but it was immediately replaced by a young, vigorous new queen. As she is protected under the push in cage, any bees that initially decide to kill her as an intruder are kept at bay. They quickly realise that there is nothing wrong with the newcomer, and in fact, it’s rather convenient that she’s come along now that their old queen has gone. There is no need to make queen cells; welcome the new queen and look after her. If a few cells do appear, I get rid of them after ensuring that the new queen is present and laying eggs.

The other time to successfully introduce a new laying queen seems to be once the colony becomes hopelessly queenless. We remove the old queen and let the bees make emergency cells. Then we kill those cells a week later so that the bees cannot make a queen of their own. A queen can be introduced at this point, either in a travel cage or a push in cage, and hopefully, she will be accepted. Alternatively, the queen could firstly go into a nucleus colony for a few weeks, then be combined with the larger colony that has been made queenless. Not many people seem to do that, but it’s supposed to work. Nothing works every time, sadly. Some bees are just suicidal & kill off their only hope of returning to a functional colony.

This Is The Way

We all have our funny little ways of doing things and tell ourselves, in Mandolorian style, that “this is the way.” For example, if I’m introducing a queen in a travel cage, I firstly remove the attendant bees. Some say it matters; some say not. I’ve done it both ways and had success and failure with both. This is what Manley says in Honey Farming:

While I will try to give some information based on my own experiences of the more successful ways of persuading bees to accept alien queens, I am afraid I don’t know of any method that is even 90% safe at all times. I should be very glad indeed to find one, for losses of queens in introduction, after all the care and work of breeding them, are very trying; but these losses seem unavoidable in a least a small percentage of cases, no matter what system is operated.

Manley devised a form of push in cage, which seemed to be more successful than anything else he’d tried. I’ve used the somewhat more plain standard version with success and have seen it work at scale at French Hill Apiaries in Vermont, so that’s my preferred method.

4 thoughts on “Are Small Queen Cells OK?

  1. Hi Steve
    I reckon I get 80-90% acceptance just using a JzBz travel cage. Capped off until it’s clear they’re not aggressive to her (which might be a couple of days), then just plugged with candy. I like the wire push in cage you show above. I’ve got some of the plastic Nicot equivalents which I use for those I perceive are the most difficult colonies (large, terminally queenless, aggressive, horrid, matricidal). Some colonies appear hell-bent on self-destruction, but it’s not a procedure I worry too much about as I expect it to work. If you rear your own queens it’s a whole lot easier as you’re not worried that it’s Ā£50 lost if things don’t work out šŸ™
    Wyatt Mangum has an article in ABJ that shows the presence of attendants increases queen acceptance time ( and I’ve always removed them as I don’t like the viruses they might be carrying.

    • Hi David, thanks for that. I bought a load of those JZBZ cages after reading something by you – I like them. I like the JZBZ queen cups for grafting too. You are right that having home made queens makes life a lot less stressful! Best wishes

      • I like the JzBz cups as well because they’re transparent. Once the cell is sealed and development is nearing completion you can hold them to the light and see the amount of Royal Jelly remaining. If it’s all gone I worry that the queen has been undernourished. Unfortunately, I’m wedded to the Nicot system because I like their roller cages šŸ™

  2. UPDATE ON CELL/QUEEN SIZE: Now that my first batch of queens are mated – these were the ones from quite small queen cells and the virgins looked small – I’m happy to report that the mated queens are gloriously fat, juicy and laying very well.

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