Raising queens has helped my beekeeping enormously. I have been able to compare hives headed by home bred queens with ‘self-made’ queens. The latter tends to occur when bees swarm or when I make a ‘walk away split’. I leave them with one queen cell from which to create a new mother. It’s a comparison between average and selected queens. The average queens are often fine, but they tend to be slightly more swarmy and a bit grumpier than daughters of my best stock. I graft from queens that haven’t swarmed, make lots of honey and don’t sting very often. I can choose to control the queen half of the equation; the drones are up to nature.
Last year I adopted a lazy policy towards nucleus colonies that I sold. I would move five frames and the queen from a strong ‘double-nuc’ to a correx box and, after that, to a new owner. I left the remaining bees to re-queen themselves, and within six weeks, I could do it again. Some of the nucs that I sold have done exceptionally well, and the owners are delighted. However, a few swarmed in May, and a couple have been bad-tempered. I’m not going to do that again. I know swarming could have been due to a lack of space, particularly as beginners only have foundation frames, but I’m not too fond of the feeling it gave me. From now on, the nucs that I sell get a queen from my ‘queen unit’ if I can call it that.
Making queen cells
Each stage of making queens started off being tricky until it wasn’t. Having tried a few things, I have now arrived at my preferred way of making a cell builder colony. It’s a Demaree with the grafts going into the top box once I’ve made sure any emergency queen cells are gone. Periodically I rotate brood frames from downstairs to the top. I have done three rounds of grafts this season, and it works well. I only have 15 or 16 grafts on the frame, which suits me. Presumably, if I wanted to scale things up to 40 odd grafts, I would have to make a giant queenless cell builder with loads of nurse bees, like many commercial queen producers.
I leave the grafted cells in the cell builder until they have been capped. About nine days after grafting day, they go into mating nucs or the incubator. Now, I’m sure there are catastrophes to come, but this stage of the proceedings has become relatively straightforward. Practise makes perfect and all that.
Speaking of mating nucs, I have Kielers, mini-plus and full framed nucs with a divider (three frames on each side). I also have some homemade three framers. A bit of a mixed bag, you might say. I used to find the Kielers very tricky, but this season, after reading ‘Managing Mininucs’ by Ron Brown, I have seen the light. The only problem is that the smaller the mating nuc, the quicker they fill it up with brood, meaning they could bugger off if you aren’t on the ball. I love the mini-plus hives, although I’m not experienced enough to say they are my favourites. But they are. Second place goes to the poly nuc with a divider down the middle. So far.
Now that I am proficient at producing queen cells from my best queens (grafting is easy now) and getting them mated is simple when the sun comes out, my next hurdle has loomed before me. Catching queens shouldn’t be that hard, should it? They are in a small box with only a few frames…how hard can it be? Finding the lighter coloured queens is easy, but the dark ones are trickier. Having found her, I have to mark her thorax, maybe clip a wing, and put her in a cage with some attendant workers. I appear to be rubbish at this.
The main problem I have is that the thin rubber gloves I wear become sticky with propolis and nectar. I don’t want to pick the queen up with those, but if I take my gloves off to pick her up, my fingers soon become a sticky mess too, so that if I’m catching several queens, it’s a problem. The answer appears to be to unglove myself to pick up the queen and then re-don the gloves once she’s in the cage. Bit of a palaver.
Why not just pick her up?
The answer is NOT, in my limited experience, to pick up the queen with some device. I tried that twice today, and after a bit of fumbling, the queens took flight! After all the effort to get to this point, I can tell you it’s not a pretty sight. Apparently, if you stand still and leave the lid off for a few minutes, the queen usually returns. Let’s hope so. Surely this is the last piece of the puzzle to solve? After that, I’ll be a queen raising master – no? I asked Mike Palmer, and he said that sometimes queens fly off, especially in hot weather. He said it’s best to catch queens on cooler days or cool mornings. Another piece of knowledge that I could have done with sooner, but good to know anyway.
The way I get attendant bees with the queen is not something that I’ve read about, but it’s bound to be used by somebody else. I put the queen in a cage on her own. Then I scrape up some workers into another cage and seal that up. Next, I put one cage alongside the other and slide the plastic screens back a little on both, holding them together so that the bees can wander between the two cages but can’t escape. Once the queen has most workers with her, and she’s away from where the plastic slider is open, I close it up. It works very well, and I don’t have to pick up workers. However, after reading a piece by ‘The Apiarist‘, I ordered a load of JZ-BZ cages to try. That will be back to picking up workers, I suppose.
I’ve been using standard fondant in queen cages, but next, I will try to make candy using powdered sugar and corn syrup. If I get it right, it should stay soft for longer. Most of the time, my queens are only in the cage for an hour or two. I’m just moving them into a hive or a nuc in a nearby apiary.
My next bee job is to do a little interim honey extraction to produce wedding favours for my eldest daughter’s forthcoming nuptials. One of my hives has a full Langstroth brood box of capped honey, plus three supers. That’s a heavy box! The youngest child has helped by designing the labels for the cute little jars that will adorn the tables. It’s beginning to look like a decent honey year; not the best, not the worst. Then there will be a mass re-queening, using up all of my beautiful new babies. I’ll make up some nucs to take into winter and replace any old or dodgy queens. Any leftover queens can probably get through winter in double mini-plus hives; another reason I like them.
Finally, I traded in my Land Rover Disco Sport and picked up a Volvo XC60. It’s one of those hybrid, plug in the wall things. The interior is so gorgeous that I cannot possibly use it as my bee wagon. Therefore, my little VW T-Cross has become the Walrus Bee Wagon. Time will tell if that was a wise decision.