Honey Bee Queen Rearing

February 4th, 2010 by david laferney Leave a reply »

This post is probably not going to be very interesting unless you keep honey bees – Or want to become a bee keeper.  Sorry about that, but there will be more gardening content coming soon.

Queen Bees – The heart and soul of a honey bee colony is the Queen.  Every hive has just one (with few exceptions) and if she is healthy, good natured, and productive she will pass those traits on to all of her daughters – the worker bees – and all will be good.

A bee keeper needs new queens to replace failing older queens, and to establish new hives and grow their operations.  If a hive becomes queenless for very long it’s production and health will suffer, and eventually the colony will die.  Hives with old queens are more likely to “swarm” – an event where the hive splits itself and half of the bees flying off to make honey for their selves instead of for the bee keeper. So replacing old queens with new ones every year is also a way of preventing swarms.

Queen Rearing – Most bee keepers order new queens by mail (when they are available) for about $20 each plus shipping.  Others raise (or allow the bees to raise) their own queens one at a time like nature does.  These videos are of what is called queen “rearing” – producing viable queens in batches.

At a value of $20.00 each the ability to rear even small batches of queens could make a big difference in the economics of a small apiary. Being able to have queens when you need them instead of having to wait for one to come through the mail, and having some control over genetics are also factors in favor of learning this craft.

Wax cell cups for raising queens

In the first video very young (probably one day old or less) worker larva are being removed from a frame of brood comb and placed into wax cups using a wire grafting tool.  BTW, all workers are female.  The larva are very small – about the size of a comma.  Wax cups roughly the size of a small thimble  are either manufactured or are home made by dipping a wet wooden peg into liquid wax.

1) Grafting larva into cups

In the next video, the grafted queen cups which have been mounted with hot wax onto cork shaped pegs that fit into a special frame are being placed into a “cell starter” hive.  A cell starter is a regular hive with the queen removed that has a very high population density of bees – especially young “nurse” bees – and plenty of food stores – honey, and pollen.  Probably the bee keeper removed hive body boxes from the  starter hive to crowd the bees together.  The high density of nurse bees and food will assure that the grafted larva will be fed plenty of “royal jelly” which is produced by the nurse bees.  The queenless state of the hive will motivate the workers to raise new queens just like they would in nature if something happened to the old queen.

Worker bees are raised in comb cells just like honey comb which are horizontally oriented while queens are raised in cells that hang down vertically.  Apiarists have learned that some of the  worker larva that are the right age placed into a queenless hive  in cells that are vertically oriented like queen cells, will be raised as queens – which is what all of this manipulation is about.  The only differences that make a worker larva become a queen is the diet of royal jelly that they are fed as larva and the shape of the cell that they grow in.  In a few days the cells can be removed from the cell starter hive, and either another batch started, or the queen can be replaced, and the starter hive can be returned to work making honey.

2)Installing grafted queen cups into a cell starter hive

In the next video the bee keeper is collecting nurse bees that he will use to make up “mating nucs”  for the newly hatched queens.  Nurse bees have never been out of their home hive, and won’t try to fly back to it once the Nucleus hives are set up.  Also the nurse bees – after being without a queen and her pheromones for a few hours – will be very accepting of a new queen.   If a queen is introduced into a hive that already has a queen she will usually be killed.  The young nurse bees will also be the right age to produce wax comb in the empty mating nuc.

If you carry a box full of bees away from it’s colony all of the mature field bees will quickly return to the home hive, but the nurse bees will not readily abandon brood comb which contains baby bees.  So the bee keeper has  separated brood comb covered with nurse bees a short distance from their hive(s) and allowed the field bees to leave.  Once he is finished with this operation I imagine the brood will be returned to it’s home.  I think he is spraying them with sugar or honey water to keep them calm.

3) Collecting Nurse Bees for Mating Nucs

In the next video the nurse bees are being measured into the empty mating nucleus hives.  It looks to me like he is measuring about a cup of bees into each one – 1700 bees more or less.

4) Ladling nurse bees into mating nucs

In the next video the newly hatched virgin queens are being marked for identification to prepare them for going into the mating nucleus hives. Queens can be labeled with tiny numbered stickers – or simply with a dot of color which indicates the year of her birth.  Either way she will be marked for life, and a marked queen is a lot easier to find in a hive full of bees.

Notice at the beginning of the video the queen cells have been placed into small cages.  This was done off video after the queen cells were capped (sealed) by the nurse bees, and before the adult queens emerged from the capped cells.  If they weren’t confined in cages the first queen to emerge would kill all of her sisters before they came out of their cells.

After the queen cells were caged they might have been put into an artificial incubator, or most likely into a “cell finisher” hive which is just a strong normal “queenright” (with queen) hive that keeps the capped cells at the correct temperature and humidity until they hatch.

You will notice that queen bees are not inclined to sting or fly.

5) Marking Virgin Queens

In the next video the marked queens are being dipped into honey water to mask their scent and help the nurse bees to accept her before being  inserted into the prepared mating nucleus hives.

After installing the queen the beekeeper is closing the entrance, and making an entry in his voice memo recorder which I’m sure will be later transcribed into a written record.  Record keeping is an important part of this kind of operation.

The small size of the mating nucs make it possible for such a small number of bees to control the temperature, protect it from invaders, and become a full fledged although small colony.  The sides of these particular nucs are glass which will make it very easy to monitor the progress of the queens.  The top section of the nuc has a space for food (probably sugar candy) so that the little family of bees can get its house in order without worrying about gathering food for a few days.

Any small hive can be used as a mating nucleus, or even a full sized hive, but the nucs in these videos look like they would be perfect for this kind of operation – and would be especially handy if they were to be taken to a remote location for mating.

6) Installing Queens into Mating Nucs

Once the queenright nucs are placed into the apiary and the entrances opened the workers will get busy setting up house, and within a few days the queen will fly out for her mating flight.

On her mating flight the new queen may fly several miles away and hopefully will mate with several strong healthy male “drone” bees, and then return to her little colony.  She will only do this one time in her life, and her body will retain the sperm to fertilize all of the female eggs that she ever lays. Drone eggs are not fertilized oddly enough.

If the queen doesn’t return – she could be eaten by a bird, hornet or other predator, or she could be killed by sudden bad weather – the hive is basically doomed.

The queens that do return will soon start laying eggs, and soon the little colony will outgrow the mating nucs.  The successful queens can easily be evaluated by comparing how much brood they produce, and the best ones will be either sold (for about $20 each in the United States) or used within the apiary for replacing old queens or establishing new hives.

In the next video the worker bees from the nucleus hives seem to be being combined along with one queen to form an artificial swarm for the establishment of a new hive.  A package of honey bees that you can mail order is exactly like this artificial swarm.

7) Reuniting bees from used mating nucs into an artificial swarm

The bee keeper in these videos is obviously extremely experienced and competent, and is demonstrating his own tried and true method for queen rearing. The fact that he is speaking German (I think) really doesn’t matter, because as they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.  If anyone who understands would like to translate a bit in the comments I would very much appreciate it.

BTW, I certainly do not intend to imply that I’m an expert on queen rearing – I’ve never done it yet.  However I intend to give it a try once I build my apiary to the point where I have enough resources – probably next year which will be my third keeping bees.  I am posting this because;  Reader response to the other articles that I’ve done on beekeeping has been quite positive so I think quite a few people find it interesting.   And, producing an article like this  helps me to learn.

I know that it’s long, but I hope you liked it.


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