Queen Rearing Basics (How It is Done)

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One of the most amazing things about a honey bee colony is their remarkable abilities in queen rearing. Being able to make a new queen (when needed) helps the colony carry on season after season. Often, beekeepers want to enhance this natural ability by raising their own queen bees. They can then be used in the apiary as needed.

Rearing Queen Honey Bees

Beekeeper holding frame of new queen bees being raised image.

Experienced beekeepers understand the importance of having strong queens in the hive. If she is young and well-mated, productive egg laying can be expected.

Compared to workers, queen honey bees are capable of living for a long time-but they don’t last forever. The lifespan of a queen bee in a healthy hive can extend to 3 or 4 years. However, most colonies will replace her much sooner. 

She may be an “egg-laying machine” – one of the important facts about queen bees – she has a limited number of eggs. Just as important, she has a limited amount of drone semen stored in her abdomen.

A younger queen also has stronger honey bee pheromone levels. These chemical messengers promote colony stability. But, they do wane over time.

When her egg laying ability or queen pheromones begin to lag, her ability to produce female workers slows or stops completely. Sensing this, the colony will attempt to replace her.

Beekeeper using queen cell frames to raise local queens image.

Raising Local Queen Bees

Spring is a busy time for the bee business and beekeepers of all levels. Everyone is getting ready for the nectar flow (or honey flow).

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 this time of natural colony expansion. 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 build queen cells.

In addition to warm temperatures, fair weather are also important for bee reproduction. Virgin 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 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. 

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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.

Queen honey bee in colony with retinue image.

Qualities to Look for in Breeder Colonies

A new queen mates with 12 -20 drones during her mating flight. Semen is stored in a special organ in her body and used to fertilize most of the eggs she lays.

Fertilized eggs develop into worker bees and the colony needs thousands each season. The genetics of the drones involved in mating is revealed in the worker bees that result.

But, they will not all have the same father. This is because all of the semen is mixed together and stored in the queen’s spermatheca.

The queen however is the mother of all bees in the hive. Therefore, her genetic material is in every single bee. Select the very best colonies in your apiary for queen rearing.

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.

Desired Traits in Breeder Colonies

  • 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.

Grafting Queens

One of the most popular methods of queen production 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 brood from the hive. Eggs laid by the queen become tiny larva within 3 days. In grafting, very tiny young larvae is moved (grafted) into another special cell 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 used to move bee 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 swarm box (which I think is confusing so some beekeepers called it a “cell builder”). 

The cell builder box contains 4-5 pounds of young nurse bees in addition to a good population of workers. 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. Special food, including royal jelly, causes a the larvae to transform into a reproductive queen. 

They also begin to build queen cups. This is necessary to accommodate what will be a larger bee. After 24 hours, the 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. 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.

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 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 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 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.

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

Raising Queen Honey Bees Naturally

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. Let a colony begin the queen rearing process. Then, those 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. You do have to watch closely and intercede if need to stop a crowded hive from swarming and be sure they do not end up without a queen of its own.

Tips for Producing 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.

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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