Queens


What's on this page?



First some discussion.

I am an avid proponent of not anthropomorphizing bees.  I tire of hearing about ‘the girls’.  They are not girls, they are bees.   They are sexually immature hive minded insects.  In the same way, the queen is not the ‘queen’.  She rules nothing.  She has no power.  She holds no sway.  Her orders mean nothing.  In fact, when the collective notices her obsolescence, she is replaced and when that happens, she is often dumped unceremoniously on the front step of the hive. 

Here is a picture of some queens I found dumped outside their hives.
Dead Virgin Queens

These particular queens were unmated virgins, which is why they were easy to find.  I can only assume that they are dumped there because workers find them too heavy to fly away with like they usually do with dead workers.

Queens are simply a caste of honey bee.  They are exactly the same in that regard as workers and drones.  The only difference is that their job is to lay eggs which become workers and drones and that each hive contains only one of them.  We use them to carry genetic material from one generation to the next.  We make new queens from queens we like.  Even so, queens still mate with many drones from all over, so the process will never be perfect.


Misconceptions

If have seen it written in beekeeping books that one should replace ones queens every year.  I find this laughable especially for the home beekeeper, hobbyist, or sideliner.  If a backyard beekeeper who has only one hive tries to replace his queen, there is a healthy chance that the changeover will fail and the hive will be left without a queen altogether.  He will then get all nervous, needing to order another which is often not available since he was on a waiting list to get the first one.  This is a wholly unnecessary occurrence. 

I think the cause can mostly be traced to the idea that a hobbyist often wants or has a subconscious need to 'do it like the commercial guys.'  It doesn't really work that way.  If you are  reading this website, you are not a commercial guy.  Let me repeat that, you are not a commercial guy.  There is no need for you to do the same things they do.  Their methods are done on a large scale to make income.  Trying to imitate them in a small scale, as a hobby, often making no money or even less, is an avenue that leads to discouragement.  It will cost you more and yield you less.

So, why do we need to replace queens so often?  On one hand, we’re told that the world record holder was over eight years old when she died, and on the other hand we’re told that we should replace queens every year.  There is a disconnect here.

In truth, a queen should lay eggs quite acceptably in her third year if the hive is healthy and free of chemicals and residuals.  In fact, I’d rather not purchase queens bred of stock that didn’t last at least two winters.  Of course, that stock is rarely available but it’s something to think about.

It is also suggested that queens must be replaced every year to avoid swarming.  But why on earth would we want to avoid swarming so badly that we’d kill a queen who has survived a local winter and replace her with a queen of truly unknown capabilities?  Healthy hives swarm!  Swarming is not a sickness, it is the sign of a hive that has grown so big and powerful, it must leave and start anew.  It’s the reproductive urge.  From what I've seen, much of the 'problem' of swarming can be traced to poor management of colonies, things like using queen excluders, limiting the broodnest, stimulative feeding, and not rotating comb.

You do not need to replace the queen to avoid swarming.  You can either manage to reduce its likelihood, or take advantage of it when it happens (see Queens from Swarm Cells below).  I have had a phenomenally low swarming rate in my time as a beekeeper.  "How do you do it?" you ask, well, I can't trace it to a single source but I hope to write an article on it soon.  I think it has to do with keeping quite large hives (five deeps) year round, placing new foundation in the brood nest every spring, and I'm not sure what else, but I can't discount anything without doing deeper research.

Something I’ve been told is that I can’t learn how to raise queens without working under a commercial beekeeper.  I’ve actually been told this!  This comes from the same kind of anti-intellectual who shuns ‘book learnin’ and says things like “I ain’t got no college degree but…”  This is a simple concept though complex in implementation.  More knowledge is better.  More education is better, no matter where it comes from.  It’s the same kind of person who thinks teachers make too much money.  It's absolute and utter nonsense.

Sorry, got on a soapbox there.

There are legitimate reasons to replace your queens as a hobbyist.  The first one is if you have a hive that is mean.  You shouldn't suffer mean hives, they are a liability both to you and your neighbors.  Neighbors are usually quite happy to know that there are beehives nearby, but not if they get stung all the time or even occasionally.  Another reason is if you have a hive that has been given all the chances to thrive as all your other ones and is simply unable to do so.  I am hesitant to remove any queen that has survived over the winter treatment-free, you never know if she has something to offer or if she is superseded that her daughter will have something to offer.  On the other hand, if you have a large number of hives, you will be much more likely to requeen her as you have many more better performers with the same survivability trait.

Finally, I want to impress upon you the reader that with even a little effort, you too can make queens on purpose.  And there’s no reason why your queens won’t be just as high quality or even better than those you pay way too much money for raised in the south early in the spring.  Your queens will do better in your area.  They’re already doing it, why mess that up?  Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s something wrong with your bees.  If they’re surviving without treatments, that’s the first thing that needs to be right with them.

So, let’s make some queens.


Queens of the Simplest Methods, Walkaway Splits


The easiest way to take one hive and make it two is to do what’s called a ‘walk away split.’  The method is very simple, the mechanics can be a bit more complex.  Basically, you take one hive and make it two.  All you need to be assured of is that both hives have eggs.  You don’t even need to find the queen.  If both hives have eggs, then whichever doesn’t have a queen will make one.  There’s no need to divide the hive exactly in half.  It may be useful to shake quite a bit of the bees into the new hive due to the fact that many will return to the original hive location.

If, when I’m doing walkaway splits, I want to make only two hives and want to maintain honey production as much as possible, I will try to locate the queen and place her with about five frames of capped brood into the new hive.  Since I know the new hive has the queen, there’s no need to put open brood in it, and the hatching workers will bolster the population of the new hive.  Additionally, it’s better for the queen to be in the new hive because fewer bees will drift back to the old one. 

If you place them exactly next to each other on the same stand, the one with the queen will most likely be the one that ends up with more of the bees within the first few days.  One way to help this in such a case is every couple of days to switch the locations of the hives so that returning foragers will end up in the opposite hive.  Doing this should help to equalize the hive populations.

After a few days, you should easily be able to see the developing queen cells, and on day 14, they should be nearing time to hatch.  Right then would be the best time to cut out a few cells if you want to make some nucs or mating nucs.

Using eight frame mediums, Michael Bush’s method is to locate the hive to be split, place two bottom boards near it somewhere, place some unoccupied boxes on those bottoms, then simply deal the boxes from the original hive back and forth onto the new hives.  With medium frames and eight frame boxes, he can be assured that there are eggs and open brood in at least two boxes of the stack.  It’s an extremely efficient way to split as far as labor goes.  For those of us accustomed to stopping and looking at frames, it’s mind-blowing how fast it goes.


Queen Calendar

Tip here, become intimately familiar with the daily development of queens if you plan on raising some.  I made a spreadsheet to keep track.  Pay special attention to the time when you shouldn’t touch the queen cells.  All you need to do is input the date you are starting the queen making process and the spreadsheet will adjust to show you the dates upon which all the events are to happen.  I’ve included a couple different sources where information differed.

Download the Queen Calendar spreadsheet.



Queens of Circumstance

One of the very best ways to obtain a few queens for your own hives as a backyard beekeeper, hobbyist, or sideliner involves simply taking advantage of your circumstances.  By keeping a keen eye out and having nuc boxes handy, you should be able to supply yourself with more than enough queens.  There are two methods to work this angle.


Queens from Supersedure Cells


The hive will naturally replace a queen from time to time.  It is important not to stop this, but to take advantage of it when it happens to obtain high quality free queens.  See if you can spot the queen cells, there are two.

Queen cell

When inspecting a hive, if you notice supersedure cells, take immediate action by locating the queen and placing her to the side in a secure location.  You can do this by placing the frame upon which she was found in a nuc box and setting it aside for a few minutes.  Then, search out all the supersedure cells you can find.  With each, make a nuc of one or two frames of brood with one or two frames of honey and the rest empties.  You can do this by cutting out the cells with a thin sharp knife and very lightly squeezing them between two brood frames so that the queen grub is not squished. 

If you are using plastic frames you’ll just have to go frame by frame and lose some of the new queens to each other because you won’t be able to cut out the cells.  (See Queen Castle below.)  When you are done with this process, you should figure out what to do with the old queen.  If you don’t want to bother with her, you could just kill her, but you might keep her in a nuc or reseat her in the original hive which now has no queen cells, and probably little brood.  At this point, the bees may attempt to supersede her again, or she may be lost to old age without being replaced leaving you with a queenless hive.  In that case, you can use one of the queens from the new nucs to replace her by combining the queenless hive with the nuc.  You don't need to harvest all the cells at all, or you can leave some to supersede her naturally.


Queens from Swarm Cells

Swarm cell queens may be of even higher quality than supersedure queens because the hive is healthier and perhaps able to feed the queens better.  The best way to tell that you’ve gotten your money’s worth is to find unused royal jelly in the recently vacated queen cell, but that's just an extraneous bit of information.

The process is much the same as making nucs with supercedure cells with a key difference.  Like with supersedure cells, the queen needs to be removed, but she should not be replaced into the original hive.  Doing so may not keep her from swarming.  She sould be kept in a nuc by herself.  She’s obviously still able to function well so you might as well keep her.  In the original hive, make sure to remove some brood and bees to make the new nucs and don’t leave more than a couple of queen cells in case one of them decides to swarm.  You want the general condition in the hive to approach a post-swarmed hive as much as possible.  You want less bees, no queen, and queen cells soon to hatch.  Less brood couldn’t hurt either.


Queens in Greater Numbers


The difficulty with walkaway splits and the favorable happenstance methods is that you get more limited returns from the investment of the hive’s time and resources.  With a walk away split, you get one queen for a month’s worth of queenlessness.  With swarm cells, at least queenlessness is kept to a relative minimum, but the number of queens is still limited to under a dozen or so, and you’ll never know exactly how many you’ll get.


Grafting (Doolittle Method)

This is the method I will be trying out this following year (2012).  With this method, the point is to graft (scoop up with a spoon thing and place) into artificial queen cups, either wax or plastic.  I’m going to try wax because I’d like to be able to make my own.  I bought a pound a while back and I'm going to try to make my own when those run out.  I’ve heard plastic cups work quite well also and I will probably try them at some point.

Wax Queen Cups
Image credit to Rossman Apiaries.


There is much talk of methods of queen production on the forums that do not involve grafting.  It seems there is an undercurrent of thought that says grafting is hard and only for the professionals.  They say try the Jenter or Nicot systems if you want to produce queens.  Let me first say that I believe both those systems to be fantastic for the purpose for which they are intended, but I have different needs.  Besides the practice and precision of grafting, I see no reason why most anyone can’t do it with a little work.

Here’s a couple YouTube videos which will show you how doable grafting can be with practice.

First, here’s how to make wax queen cups.
 

There are also silicone molds to make queen cups, but I haven’t found a source for them in the US.  (beemaster.co.uk)

Then here’s how fast you can graft if you’re really good.
 

So, why have I decided to graft rather than other methods?  Well, the first reason was because it’s harder.  I’m the kind of person who wants to learn hard things sometimes.  I don’t want to shy away from things that might be a little more strenuous.  I probably could have spent a year or two less in college had I learned that lesson sooner.  I had briefly considered the Nicot system, but as with the Jenter system, you’re limited to a certain number of queens and only from one queen at a time.  Having too many is no big deal as in the beginning, they’re just eggs, but as a hobbyist myself, I don’t want a hundred queens with one mother.  With grafting, I can make six grafts from each of four queens and finish them all in the same cell builder.

When I first wrote this, I realized I didn't include any 'how to' information for grafting but I have quite a bit more experience since then and have written a companion page to this one which gives you my main method for raising queens.  Follow the link to the Queen Rearing page.


Cell Builder

There are a number of methods for cell builders, but I’m only going to delve into one for the time being because I haven’t had the benefit of actually trying all of them yet and I prefer not to comment on things I don’t have much experience with.  I do have my own method which is a queenright cell building and finishing method, find it in the link above.

The purpose of a cell builder is to take the queen larvae we’ve grafted into cups and turn them in to full grown queens.  They do this in the same way as usual, by feeding them a royal jelly only diet.  However, the bees will typically choose only to make a dozen or fewer queens when they do it on their own.  We want them to make more.  How many more?  We want them to make as many as they can and still make top quality queens.  We want each queen to be well fed, and kept the right temperature and humidity.

Michael Bush’s method is to start with an average hive in the yard and remove the queen and make a small nuc with her leaving most of the brood and bees in the hive.  Then, he removes the upper boxes, shaking off the bees from the frames and reducing the hive down to the equivalent of one or two deeps.  The purpose of this is to create the most useful condition within the hive for queen rearing and that is both overcrowding and queenlessness at the same time.  Both conditions are prime reasons for bees to build queen cells.

If there’s a flow on, fantastic.  If not, feeding will probably be necessary to assure proper nutrition for the new queens.  Jay Smith said that cell builders must be fed with honey as sugar syrup is simply inadequate for queen production.

Into this hive are placed the grafted larvae and the hive is allowed to raise them to completion.  It's as simple as that.  However, queenless cell builders are more volatile, more prone to absconding, swarming, or raising their own queen from their brood.


Mating Nucs

It’s important to remove the queen cells from the cell builder before any of them hatches or else the first one will most likely kill the rest.  Then, the queens need to be mated before too long or else they’ll only ever be drone layers.  Figures I’ve found suggest before three weeks.  Michael Bush also suggests that freshly hatched queens need to eat a lot and quick, so they can’t be left in incubators.  Speaking of incubators, I find them to be very useful in holding the cells so you don't need to get into the mother hive on mating nuc construction day.  I use a chicken incubator.

The best option for mating is the mating nuc, a small hive where you place the queen cell shortly before it hatches.  After it hatches, the queen will tool around the hive for a few days while her exoskeleton hardens and she gains strength.  After that, she will make a number of flights out of the hive mating with up to twenty drones.  A few days after that, she will begin laying eggs and business should go on as usual.

Commonly today, mini mating nucs are used.  The prime benefit to these is the ability to find the queen quickly because the hive is so tiny.  These are tiny nucs made of Styrofoam often and having tiny frames in them and tiny numbers of bees.  This is a very unnatural form in which a hive may exist.  Hives are very rarely if ever this small.  There are also hives that use half frames, but what do you do with the frames at the end of the year?

Mini Mating Nuc
Image credit to Mann Lake Ltd.

Mini-nucs may be beneficial on a very large scale with queens coming and going at very regular intervals, but with such a small hive, how do you really know how well the queen is laying eggs?  There may be only a day’s worth of space in which she can lay. 

Another option is a mating nuc with half sized frames.  During other times of the year, these frames are kept in special supers which hold them end to end to make the equivalent of full size frames, but this requires more equipment, so in my view, a better option is to use full sized frames. 

One of the really interesting pieces of equipment in this area is the apartment or queen castle.  How it works is you take one of your standard sized boxes and make divisions in it so you have three or four small nucs with in it.  For instance, a ten frame box can be made into four two frame mating nucs, or three 3 frame nucs.  Two medium or deep frames or perhaps three medium frames should be a good size for a mating nuc.  This will make these nucs actual functioning hives with more space for the queen to lay.  They may even graduate to four or five frame nucs or full size hives given a good growing season.  Another benefit to the queen castle is that you can take supersedure or swarm cells from hives and simply place the whole frame in the nuc.  Add another frame of honey and in three or four weeks, you should have a queen ready to go.

You can also buy them pre-made.
Queen Castle - Brush Mountain Bee Farm
Image credit to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm

I read about an interesting modification.  Drill ventilation holes up near the top in each nuc and screen them over on the inside.  They help keep robbers occupied.  Robbing is an important consideration with mating nucs.  I've used these holes in my own and it works great.  Here's a design that I based mine upon:    Bushkill Farms Mating Nucs

Here's the design I came up with.  I cut entrance slots (3/8" by 1/2") in the bottom in the middle for the sides (one in the front for the middle nuc) so that the frames or comb won't be able to block the entrances if the hive gets bumped and water can drain out.  I also drill 1 1/2" holes at the back toward the top and screen them from the inside to foil robbers.

Medium Queen Castle
While the slot to hold the divider is 1/4", the divider is made from 5mm plywood which is very cheap.  5mm is just under 1/4" so the fit is just fine.  For lids, I cut a 1x6 to fit over the middle nuc and use two 1x6s of the correct length to cover the outer nucs.  They are just short of covering the entire wall of the hive so they work fine.  On top of that goes a regular telescoping cover.  I don't usually use telescoping covers, so I had to make a batch just for these nucs.

When mating nucs are needed, place a frame of open brood, a frame of honey, and a queen cell or two in the nuc.  When mating nucs are no longer needed, simply return the frames to your hives, or use one of the leftover queens to head up a new hive made up of all the mating nucs.

I made ten of these but some jackwagon stole one of them.


Queens on Hold

It’s a good idea to keep a few nucs around.  First, it’s the perfect way to keep a spare queen around in case something happens and you have a hive go queenless.  By placing the contents of the nuc in the bottom box and then placing a piece of newspaper over it, you can do what’s called a ‘newspaper combine’.  Place the queenless hive over the top of the newspaper and allow the bees to chew through it and get acquainted.  This is one of the most successful ways of requeening a hive.

Another benefit if having nucs is to draw comb, especially foundationless comb.  As the hive is small, it will want to draw as much brood comb as possible and so you if you want good brood comb with little or no drone in it, this is a good way to get it done.  Place an empty frame in the nuc and remove it when it is completed.