Queen rearing

Small Scale Queen Rearing

By Rudy Repka, Sidcup, Kent BKA.

Queen rearing is easy, interesting and a rewarding beekeeping activity. Unlike queen breeding, it does not require any particular knowledge of genetics. There are several methods for queen rearing, each with some modifications, but they all pursue the same principle: to follow bees’ instincts and with a measure of control create the conditions, which will encourage your selected colony to favour its reproduction.

 Timing for queen rearing

 It  is  an  advantage  to  use favourable  climatic  conditions  in  the  late  spring,  which  naturally  stimulate  this  colony reproduction.  In the UK,  the  best  time  to  start  queen  rearing  is  from  mid  May  to  mid  June.  With luck,  you  may catch  the  spring  nectar  flow,  which  will  help  to  feed  your  developing  queen  larvae.  A month later your newly mated queens will start laying with the help of the early summer flow, establish their little colonies thus allowing you to assess their qualities soon after. If you do it a little earlier or much later, it can be something of a challenge.

Rearing  one’s replacement  queens allows the  beekeeper  to  have  a  real influence  on  the selection  for  the  desired over undesirable colony qualities. This basis of good bee management and enables the beekeeper to replace at will the queens which are heading his or her colonies. With small adjustments, the technique is suitable for rearing any number of mated queens. The  limiting  factor  is  the  number  of support  colonies  you  wish  to  maintain.  One large colony, dedicated to the queen rearing, can on its own raise a batch of perhaps twelve to fifteen mated queens. Such a colony will easily nurture forty or more grafted larvae, but you will need the equipment and bees for populating the mating nucleus hives. For scaling up your queen rearing to raise many more queens, you may need several large prosperous support colonies, providing an adequate supply of fresh frames with emerging brood and young bees to your main queen rearing colony, so that it can nurture further batches of fresh grafts. These can be inserted every five days. The previous batch of sealed queen cells can be moved on to other incubator colonies. If you do not wish to  run  incubator  colonies,  you  can  insert  a  fresh  batch  of  grafted  cells  into  your  queen  rearing  colony  every  ten days.

Drone selection

Although I am not dealing with queen breeding here, it is still worthwhile to consider the drones your queens will mate with. They will mate  with any fit drones in the drone congregation area, but you can, if you choose, add  to this  mix  a  proportion  of  your  own  drones  possessing  the  qualities  you  want.  If you wish, try rearing your own drones and you will notice a clear influence on the quality of your queens; give your drones a head start, about a month before you commence with queen rearing. Drones take longer to develop at the larval stage, and even longer to  reach  their sexual  maturity  after  emerging  so  you  need  to  consider  starting  this  part  of  your  queen  rearing process in late March, weather permitting. Surprisingly, rearing of your sought-after and fit drones, with viable sperm, can be more difficult than anticipated. Select  a  suitable  colony,  whose  bees  have  the  required  qualities,  and  insert a  frame  or  two,  fitted  with  the  drone base foundation. Feed this colony well with both syrup and pollen, or with pollen substitute. Once drawn out and laid up with eggs, the frames can be transferred to other foster colonies to raise the drones. The colonies, which are raising the drones intended to mate with your virgins should not be subjected to any varroa treatments based on pyrethroids, organophosphates, or thymol.  These acaricides have detrimental effects on the sperm viability and on the general fitness of drones.

 Larval transfer techniques

There is a variety of larval transfer methods that can be used. It is not strictly essential to learn the simple skill of larval  transfer,  or  ‘grafting ‘using  a  grafting  tool,  but  the  technique  is very easy  to  learn, so  it  is  well  worth adopting.  Queen  rearing  students,  who  have  never  done  this  before,  usually  achieve  on  their  first  attempt  60%-75% graft acceptance. If grafting is not for you, perhaps because you may have poor eyesight, for around £70 you can buy a kit from thebe equipment suppliers, which will enable you to do larval transfer without the need for any skillet all. The main drawbacks of this, apparently easier method, is the need to find and entrap the queen in the cage supplied with the kit, in your breeding colony. Bees resent having their queen separated from her brood and once freed from her cage, they sometimes proceed to supersede her soon after.  A sad loss if her progeny has excellent qualities.

2The life cycle of the European races of an Apis mellifera queen:

Crucial timings to know when queen rearing

Stage                                                      Time

Egg                                                          3 days

Larva feeding                                        5 days or slightly less

Metamorphosis (pupa)                       7 days or so

Emerging                                               16th day or so, after egg has been laid. This can be slightly earlier.

1st orientation flight                            18th day or later

Earliest mating flight                           21st day or later

More usual mating flights                  23rd –28th day, or on day 7 –12 after emerging

Mating window closes                        32nd day, or about 16 days after emerging

Starts laying                                          about 2 –4 days after mating

The life cycle of honeybee queens

A few of the timings are important when rearing queens, so let us consider some basic facts of the life cycle of the European races of the Apis mellifera queen. All are close approximations; the actual time can vary slightly due to race, amount of food, climate and temperature among other reasons. We usually recognize four stages of queen rearing:

1. Graft acceptance or start up 

2. Cell building

3. Incubation and emergence

4. Mating

As  amateurs,  raising  only  a  few  queens,  we  usually  compress  these  four  stages  into  just  two:  Acceptance  of  the graft,  cell  building,  and  the  first  three  quarters  of  the  incubation  period  is  the  first  stage.  The last one quarter of incubation period, emergence and mating is the second stage. This second stage usually takes place in different and often quite small mating colonies.

A more advanced beekeeper may prefer three stages. Graft  acceptance  in  the  first,  usually  crowded,  but  small, queen less  colony,  is  the  first  stage.  Cell  building  plus  three quarters  of the  incubation  period,  often  in  a  different prosperous, queen right colony, is the second stage, and the last one quarter incubation, plus emergence and mating in nucleus colonies is the last stage. However, most professional breeders adhere to four separate stages, so let us consider each stage in little more detail.

Stage 1: Graft acceptance, start up

The start up colony needs to be suitably conditioned and prepared before it will start building queen cells. Bees will start building queen cells under one of three impulses; swarming, emergency, and supersedure.

 Swarming

If we do not wish to propagate the swarming tendency, we should reject the swarming impulse for raising queen cells. However, the conditions in the colony, which is making preparation to swarm, are perfect for raising queen cells.  Removing their queen and destroying all existing queen cells, will persuade bees to raise many queen cells from our donated material. You can use a swarmy colony but it is essential to destroy all queen cells which the bees will have started from their own larvae about a week after insertion of your grafts.

Emergency

Very soon after losing their queen, whether by accident or by design; bees are willing to start building queen cells. The first larvae they choose in such an emergency can be too old. The subsequent ones will be larvae of the right age. Rendering the whole colony queen less will cause a considerable set-back for the colony. It is better to make-up a five or six frames nucleus, ideally with no other very young brood, although very crowded with bees from your out-apiary. If you insert your frame with grafted cells into this fairly small queen less colony, you can get a large number of queen cells started. These  can  be  transferred the  following  day  and  finished  in  the  ‘finishing  colony’,  in  the  top  brood  box  of a Demareed, queen right colony as described in the next paragraph.

Supersedure

Bees, which naturally supersede, are desirable. This is not under our control although we can simulate supersedure artificially. The queen should be at least one year old, since a younger queen, particularly a current season queen, produces too much of the queen substance pheromones for this method to succeed reliably. If we exclude the queen from a part of the hive where there is young brood, the bees will often feel as though the queen is  failing and  they may be  willing to build queen cells; usually, but not always.  Such conditions are easily produced in the upper brood box of a Demareed colony, which is the original vertically split colony concept for the swarm control.  If  bees  are  not  willing  to  start  queen  cells,  we  can  achieve  their  co-operation  by  temporary confinement.  Placing  a  temporary  barrier  under  the  upper  brood  chamber  of  the  Demareed  colony,  such  as  a travelling screen, or a Snelgrove board, or a Cloake board, will persuade bees to co-operate and a large number of cells  will get accepted. The barrier must be removed and replaced with a queen excluder the following day, once the grafted queen cells have been started.

This method has the advantage of inducing the non-swarming strains of bees into raising queens.

How  do  we  recognise  the  cell  has  been  accepted  and  started?  In approximately twelve to eighteen hours there appears a newly extended wax collar on each accepted cell. Because grafted eggs are often rejected, we try grafting larvae, which are only about a day old or less. The larvae should be no bigger than 8pt letter c, but preferably, after some practice, larvae no bigger than a comma or an apostrophe are better, producing better queens.

Stage2: Cell building this is the period from graft acceptance to the sealing of the cell. Bees continue feeding the larva and extend, build and complete the cell by sealing it. This is the most important stage, as it is during this short period of a few days, that bees decide whether a larva should be born a queen, or a worker.

The best grafted queen cells are nursed and built in a very strong, well provisioned, prosperous, queen-right colony, with plenty of young nurse bees, which will generously feed the young, grafted or transferred larvae. I often use a colony, which is very vigorous, healthy, but may not be always the easiest one to live with.

Before  we  select  a  suitable  colony  for the  cell  building,  it  is  worth  checking  its  nosema  status. A colony heavily infected with nosema spores may not show any symptoms, however it should be rejected for such task, as nosema is the vector for the black queen cell virus.

The selected colony is usually Demareed, comprising of at least two brood chambers, which are separated by one but more often by two honey supers, or by a third brood chamber.

Stage 3: Incubation

This is the period from the cell being sealed to the adult virgin emerging.  Cells need warmth, humidity and quiescence during this time.

Large  scale  breeders  incubate  sealed  cells  in  electric  incubators  in  a  similar  manner  to  hens’  eggs,  or  in  the specially designated incubator colonies, allowing virgins to emerge in to individual little cages. These prevent the first queen to emerge destroying all others in the batch.

As most of us operate on a small scale, it is easier for us and better for our queens, if the first five or six days of the incubation period during the transformation or metamorphosis are done in the cell building colony and we let our bees  manage  the  temperature  and  humidity  requirements  of  the  sealed  queen  cells.  Freshly sealed cells require a complete quiescence during their first few days of pupation. After this period of quiescence, on day five or six of metamorphosis,  or  on  day  nine  or  ten  after  grafting,  the  larval queens’ transformation is close to completion, the cells are more robust. They can be now carefully taken out of the cell building colony to be distributed into mating nucs for their emergence and mating. Adherence to these crucial timings is essential. Distribute the sealed cells too early and some of the emerged queens will be injured and deformed. Leave it too late, and the first virgin to emerge will kill all others in your batch.

Stage 4: Emergence and mating nucleus

Professionals,  raising  queens  for  sale,  use mini-nuc  hives for  their  virgins  to  mature  in  and go  on  their  mating flights. Such small colonies require precise timing, very intensive management, careful feeding, etc., for the virgins to mate and start lying successfully. The queens must ‘get on’ with the whole mating process in a hurry, as the number of bees in such nucleus can initially dwindle, and only much later rises rapidly.

The  use  of minimating  hives is  very  economical  on  bees,  as  relatively  few  are  needed  for  each  small  hive.  The most  commonly  used, Apidea,  or  similar  size  hives,  require  only  about  a  mug  full  of  bees.  The queens mated in mini hives are often superseded later in the same season.

Better queens are produced in the larger mating nucleus hives. These can be full size frame ‘normal’ nucleus hives, or dedicated mating nucleus hive containing three or four full size frames, allowing the queens to emerge in larger colonies. Two  frames  of  emerging  brood  and  one  frame  of  food,  with  all  attached  bees  will  make  quite  suitable mating colonies. The queens, mated from these larger nucleus hives, can take a little longer to mate and longer to start laying, but invariably such queens will turn out to be much better mated and longer lived.

The cell building colony with all its frames and bees can be used for distribution into mating nucleus hives, which can be conveniently arranged in a circle around the parent colony. The entrances should all face inwards towards the centre of the circle. Once empty, the parent hive is removed from the site. The mating nucleus hives with full size  frames  can  be  supplemented  with  frames  of  brood,  but  with  no  bees  attached,  from  the  top  chambers of  the other supporting, Demareed colonies from within your apiary. These larger nucleus colonies can be built into full colonies, or to over-winter as nuclei, or they can be used for the re-queening of your existing colonies.

Mating hives house small colonies, with few foragers.  The amount of food available to them must be closely monitored and if needed supplemented frequently. If you feed sugar syrup, do so late in the evening, preventing the bees from the big colonies robbing your small nuclei hives.

Once your queens are mated and within about two weeks start lying, they can be marked. After  about  three  weeks  from  the  set  up  of  your  mating  nuc,  if  there  is  no  evidence  that  the  queen  is  laying, dismantle the colony and destroy its queen.

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