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Queen Rearing for Hobbyists

One of the most amazing things about a honey bee colony is their ability to make a new queen bee.  Every colony must have a laying queen in order to survive.  As mother of all the bees in the hive, the genetics of the queen are very important.  Beekeepers often want to raise new queen bees for their colonies rather than purchasing them from a bee supplier.  To do this, you need to understand basic queen rearing.

Queen cells for queen rearing in cell builders image.

Small scale Queen Rearing for Beekeepers

The lifespan of a queen honey bee can extend to 3 or 4 years.  However, most colonies replace their queen much sooner. 

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A honey bee queen has a limited number of eggs and a limited amount of drone semen stored in her abdomen.

When her egg laying ability or queen pheromones begin to lag, the colony will attempt to replace her.

Beekeepers yearn for the same characteristics in queens.  Young well-mated queens are usually more productive in egg laying and have strong pheromones to promote colony stability.

Rearing Local Queens

Most production queens are reared in the southern part of the United States.  This is mainly due to climate.  Warm weather is required to produce quality queens. 

The warm temperatures encourage colonies to grow in population so that plenty of nurse bees are available to produce queens. Warm temperatures and fair weather are also important for bee reproduction. 

Image of a queen honey bee in the hive.

Queens mate in the air with drones from other colonies.  Good weather is necessary for successful mating that will lead to production of good worker brood.

There is a growing push to produce queen bees that are local to the region in which you live.  While these queen bees are not necessarily better than others, they are adjusted to the climate. 

For this reason, a strong colony that has overwintered is a candidate for queen rearing.

Queen honey bee in colony with retinue image.

Qualities to Look for in Breeder Colonies

A queen bee mates with 12 -20 drone bees during her mating flight.  When the queen lays fertilized eggs – these develop into worker bees. 

The genetics of those drones is revealed in the worker bees but they will not all have the same father.  All of the semen is mixed together during mating.

The queen however is the mother of all bees in the hive.  Therefore, her genetic material is in every single bee. 

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.

Even a small scale beekeeper wants to only produce queens from colonies with some of these desirable traits.

  • The colony overwintered well
  • Ample honey production
  • Good temperament
  • Disease/pest resistance

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.

Producing Queen Bees Through Grafting

One of the most popular methods of producing queens 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 queens 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

Eggs laid by a queen become tiny larva within 3 days.  The very tiny young larva is moved (grafted) into another special cell provided by the beekeeper. 

The larva 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 used to move bee larva but I have seen beekeepers use a straw from a broom too.  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. 

Placing Larvae in Swarm Box/Cell Builder

The bar of grafted larva is given to a small queenless box of bees with no brood present.  This is called a swarm box (which I think is confusing so some beekeepers called it a “cell builder”). 

The swarm box contains 4-5 pounds of young nurse bees and 2-3 frames of nectar and pollen.  Good 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 brood inside to care for, their efforts are concentrated on feeding the grafted larva.  They also begin to build out the cups into queen cells.

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

Finishing Colony Builds Out Queen Cells

The finishing colony is a strong populous hive of bees with a laying queen present.  The queen 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 queens 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.

Image of capped honey bee brood for cell builder.

Moving New Queen Cells 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 queen cells before the first one hatches.  Otherwise, the first queen to hatch will kill the others inside their cells.

Each queen cell is placed in a mating nuc 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 Rearing Queens by Grafting

Grafting is a fun way to take part in queen rearing.  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 queens is very resource demanding.  The beekeeper must have the equipment needed and enough worker bees to stock those cell builders and finishing colonies. 

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.

Natural Queen Rearing

If the beekeeper only needs a few extra queens and does not want to graft, never fear.  There are many ways to give a queenless colony a frame of eggs and let them create their own queen cells. 

Bees have been making queens for many years with mostly successful results. Once ready the queen cells on a frame can be used in mating nucs or other queenless colonies.  The beekeeper does not have as much control but it is not as labor intensive either.

Tips for Rearing Your Own Queens

Take care when trying queen production for the first time.  Early Spring is a good time to begin because this is a time of natural colony growth.  However, don’t start too early.

The population in your cell builders, finishing colonies or mating 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 with and good weather to do so.

A Final Word of Queen Rearing for Beekeepers

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.

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