Queen Bee Rearing

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One of the most interesting projects for experienced beekeepers is queen rearing. When you known how to raise queen bees for your hives, you have greater control of the genetics in your apiary. Let’s explore some of the methods of raising queen honey bees and see which is most suitable for you.

Beekeeper holding frame of new queen bees being raised from queen cells.

A remarkable fact about queen bees is that they are not truly in charge of the hive. Yes, they have a role to play but it is the workers that make hive decisions. As beekeepers, we can use the process of how workers produce a new queen to our advantage.

Key Principles of Queen Rearing

The complete lifecycle of a queen bee in a healthy hive can extend to 3 or 4 years. This is much longer than the other members of the colony. But, she doesn’t last forever. Honey bees have a system that works well to raise new queens when needed.

Queen Biology

Queen bees develop from fertilized eggs or very young female bee larvae. When fed a special diet – that includes royal jelly – (but also other substances) the larvae develops into a reproductive queen instead of a regular worker bee.

This process takes about 16 days from when the egg was originally laid by a queen. Any colony without fresh fertilized eggs or very young female larvae will be unable to make a new queen.

The way bees reproduce is rather interesting. The queen mates with 12 -20 drones (male bees) during her mating flight.

Unfertilized eggs become drones, fertilized eggs become worker bees. The genetics of the drones involved in mating is revealed in the workers that result. But, they will not all have the same father because the semen is mixed together.

Beekeeper using queen cell frames to raise local queens image.

Queen Rearing Timeline

The queen rearing process follows a cycle or timeline. Very warm or cool weather may vary things by a day or so but the process remains the same.

  • egg – adult (16 days)
  • emerged queen matures for a few days (day 17- 22)
  • virgins leave hive to mate if weather is good (day 23 – 26)
  • new queen laying eggs by day 27 (on average)

Whether the beekeeper allows the colony to raise their own queens or decides to be more involved with artificial methods – you still need to understand the complete process.

Methods of Raising Queens

There are several methods of raising queens for your beehives. The most common are:

  • natural queen raising by bees
  • grafting by beekeeper
  • using a kit

Raising Queen Honey Bees Naturally

If the beekeeper only needs a few extra queens and wants an easy method. Let the bees do the work they have been doing for millions of years.

There are several ways to help a colony that needs a new queen.

  • if suitable eggs or larvae are present – remove the old queen-let the bees rear a new queen. Check back in two weeks to see if they were successful.
  • if the hive has no fresh brood – remove the old queen (if she is still present), then give them a frame containing worker eggs and/or very small larvae from another hive.
  • you find queen cells in a strong hive – what to do with queen cells? Use one or two in a colony that needs to raise a queen.

The beekeeper does not have as much control with natural queen rearing. But, it is less expensive and not as labor intensive either. You do have to watch closely and monitor progress to ensure success.

Grafting Queens

One of the most popular methods of queen production (that beekeepers love to talk about) is using the grafting process. Referred to as the Dolittle Method, the technique was perfected by G.M Dolittle in the late 1800’s. 

It takes some effort to graft properly but it is one way to produce a lot of queens in a short amount of time.

Picture of young bee larva suitable for queen rearing.

Grafting Larva to Cell Bar

The process begins by harvesting worker larvae. Eggs laid by the queen become tiny larva within 3 days.

In grafting, very tiny young larvae are moved (grafted) into special cells provided by the beekeeper. 

These larvae must be very young-12-24 hours old and come from fertilized eggs. Only fertilized eggs produce female bees: workers or queens.

Special grafting tools are often used to move larvae. But, I have seen beekeepers use a straw from a broom too. It is not the grafting tool but the technique that makes the difference.

The beekeeper needs good eyes and a steady hand to lift/graft the larva from one cell to another without injury.

A special cell bar (that looks like the top bar of a regular frame) has a groove that holds artificial queen cups. Each cup is given one larva. 

Artificial queen cups in cell builder frame with attending bees.

Placing Larvae in Swarm Box/Cell Builder

The bar of grafted larvae is given to a small queenless box of bees with no brood present. This is often called a cell builder colony

The cell builder box contains 4-5 pounds of young nurse bees in addition to a good population of foragers. Then, 2-3 frames of nectar and pollen are added. 

Good hive ventilation and a small water source is provided. This unit is often placed in a cool dark place with the bees closed up for 24 hours.

During the time of confinement, the bees inside realize they need a queen. With no bee brood inside to care for, their efforts are concentrated on feeding the grafted larva and building out the queen cells.

After about 24 hours the cell builder is opened and the cell bar with well fed larva is given to a “finishing colony”.

Finishing Colony

The finishing colony is a strong populous hive of bees with a laying queen present. She must be kept apart from the developing cells or she would destroy them. 

Normally, the hive queen is placed in the bottom box with a few empty frames, frames of capped brood and some honey and pollen. A queen excluder is placed on top of this box.

The second box sits on top of the queen excluder. It should contain all of the open or “milk brood” in the hive. 

This includes eggs and larva with the cell bar containing our developing cells in the middle. Several frames of honey and pollen/nectar are also in this top box.

Nurse bees in the colony are drawn up into the top box by the pheromones given off by the brood.  Here, they care for all the brood and continue to feed and build out the queen cells. 

Having the colony crowded in this configuration encourages the swarm impulse and intensifies the queen rearing impulse.

Moving Queen Cell to Mating Nucs

After about 9 days in the finishing colony, your queen cells are nearing maturation. This can happen quicker in very hot weather so be prepared. 

We must remove the cells before the first one hatches. Otherwise, the first one to hatch will kill the others inside their cells.

Each queen cell is placed in mating nuc boxes or queenless hive. Once the new queen emerges and matures, she takes her mating flight about 1 week later. If successful, she returns to the hive and within a couple of days begins to lay.

Pros and Cons of Grafting

Grafting is a fun way to take part in raising queen honey bees. It is a proven method that has been used for over 100 years. 

It is the easiest way to produce a lot of queen bees in a short period of time. However, it is not without some challenges.

Rearing numerous queen bees is very resource demanding. The beekeeper must have the equipment needed and enough worker bees to stock those cell builders, finishing and mating nuc boxes. 

The process also involves a bit of hive manipulation in regards to moving bees from one box to another and moving frames around. Finding and moving tiny larva without damaging them can be difficult for many beekeepers.

Using a Queen Rearing Kit

Grafting requires a steady hand and a good nerves. For those beekeepers who want to raise several queens but may not be up to the task of grafting by hand, there is another option – using a queen rearing kit.

The two most common queen rearing kits is the Jenter system and the Nicot system. These kits contain special cell comb boxes with removable plugs. 

The queen is contained within the box (on the comb) for 4 days. Then, plugs containing her eggs/young larva are removed and attached to the special cell bar. From there the queens are raised in the regular fashion.

The disadvantages of using a queen rearing kit is that they are quite expensive and contain many small parts that need to be manipulated. Also, they still require all the resources (bees and equipment) to finish the queens.

However, you don’t have to move each larva by hand and risk damaging them.

Queen cells from grafting in a top bar and laying queen bee in a hive.

Expert Tips for Producing Your Own Queen Bees

Most production queens (those produced by the thousands) are reared in the southern part of the United States. This is mainly due to the warmer climate-perfect for vast mating yards. 

Raising queen honey bees is easier during Spring – a time of natural colony expansion. Warm weather is required to produce quality queens. However, don’t start too early.

The population in your cell builders, finishing colonies or mating bee nucs must have enough bees to maintain the colony and keep the brood warm. Also, drones must be available for these new virgin queens to mate.

There is a growing push to use queens that are local to the region in which you live. Indeed, they do not have to suffer the stress of being shipped long distances. While local bees are not always genetically better, they are adjusted to the climate. 

If you are successful and want to sell a few queens, that is a great way to recoup some investment. Order a few queen cages and learn how to make queen candy.

Selection of Breeding Stock

There is no guarantee when breeding bees or any other type of life form. However, there are some general characteristics that beekeepers look for when choosing a breeder colony (colony that provides the eggs for queen rearing).

Desired Traits

  • colony overwintered well
  • good honey production
  • calm temperament
  • disease/pest resistance

Like any mating program, it is good to bring some new genetics into the mix occasionally. But, inbreeding is not as big a worry for hobby beekeepers. 

This is because the queen is “open-mated” – meaning that she mates in the wild with drones from other colonies.

This is also why most of us do not have any pure bred types of honey bees. We are using queens that are open mated with any available drones.

For this reason, a strong colony that has overwintered well is a candidate for queen rearing. A small scale beekeeper with a few hives should pick the healthiest hive for the breeder colony.

Using natural queen cells on a comb to make a new queen honey bees image.

FAQs

What is the concept of queen rearing?

Queen rearing is the process where the beekeeper aids in raising more queens than are needed by a colony for use elsewhere. This may be done through manipulating frames of brood, grafting or using queen cells.

What is the best method of queen rearing?

The best method of rearing a lot of queens is grafting. Where larvae are transferred from breeder colonies to special builder hives. However, this requires a lot of bee resources to do a proper job.

How long does it take to rear a queen?

The queen emerges from her cell approximately 16 days after the egg is laid. However, she still needs to mature a bit and mate before returning to the hive to lay eggs.

Final Thoughts

Queen rearing is a lot of fun. It is also a lot of work and requires attention to detail in order to move the queen cells from one box to another on the proper date. If you have the time and bee resources to get the job done – you should give it a try. But, don’t feel that you have to graft or use an expensive kit to raise good queens for your hives.

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