Queenless!!

Queenlessness is probably the main cause of hive death during the beekeeping season – but it doesn’t have to be.  A hive can lose its  queen for several reasons – swarming, supersedure, beekeeper error,  etc.  Any time a new queen flies out to mate there is a significant chance that she won’t make it back.

When a strong hive becomes queenless for any reason you have about 4-5 weeks to take action to save the hive, but the sooner you do something the better it will be.  This is one reason that we do inspections.

What to do when you are queenless.

An Introduction to Queen Rearing

Honey bee eggs and young larva
As you can see in this great photo by Jeff LaSorsa You will most easily find the best larva for grafting – rearing queens from – by looking at the ones between unhatched eggs and larva that are too old for grafting on a frame of regular worker brood. Notice how easy it is to see eggs and brood on black plastic foundation.

 

This article was originally published in 2011 but contains seasonally relevant information.

There are a lot of reasons why a beekeeper might want to produce their own queens – to save money, to propagate bees with particular qualities, or just because it is an interesting thing to do.  Queen rearing will probably elevate your understanding of honey bees to a new level.

This article is derived from a more detailed one on my blog  – Beginner to Beginner Queen Rearing.

I am in no way pretending to be any kind of an expert – not only have I made many mistakes, but I expect to make many more next year.   As one beginner to another – I think I might have some useful insights into getting started in queen rearing.

I’m going to give several beginner-to-beginner tips in this article.  Things that might not be all that helpful to old hands but have really helped me.  Here’s the first – and I think, best:

Plan to practice rearing queens when it’s easiest – during the main flow/swarm season, that is – late April/Early June in Mid TN – when the bees want to reproduce.  It can be done earlier and later, but it’s a lot more difficult.

The Basic Principle of Honey Bee Queen Rearing

Any queenless hive of honey bees will try to make a new queen if it has the resources to do so.  The required resources being  1)  larva of an appropriate age 2)  food 3)  A sufficient number of worker bees 4)  Drones – male bees – that the new queen can mate with.  Most of the time such a hive will be successful in requeening itself.   The reason this is possible is that the only difference between a worker bee and a queen bee is the amount and type of food that they eat during the first few days after hatching from an egg.

So  if you want to raise a new queen, all you really have to do is create a hive without a queen which has eggs or very young larva and let the bees do the rest.    This is called a split and it is a fine way to increase the number of hives that you have.  And it’s exactly what I (mostly) did to go from 1 to 10 hives during my first 2 years.

brood frame with emergency queen cells
A frame of foundationless brood with “emergency” queen cells on it.  Ever heard that foundationless brood always has lots of drone brood on it?  Not when it’s drawn in a queen-right mating nuc.

The problem with making a split is that even though your queenless hive will probably make several queen cells only one of them will get a chance to fly out and mate – because the first one to emerge will kill the rest. And there is a significant chance that one won’t make it home either – many get eaten by predators, lost, or caught in bad weather.  So after committing a strong queenless hive to the project for about a month at best you only get one queen – and there’s a fair chance that you won’t even get one.

Also, high-quality queens must be fully fed, and immaculately cared for from the time they hatch from the egg – any queenless hive will do what they can with what they have, but you want your queens to be raised under the very best of conditions.  And that takes a lot of well-fed nurse bees – hundreds per each queen.

Queen Rearing – is a process whereby one strong queenless hive produces many well-fed/ well-grown queen cells at the same time, and then before they emerge and kill one another they are each given their own  “mating nucleus” hive to emerge into and head up until they are fully mature.

queen cells
finished queen cells – 10 days after grafting – ready to be put into mating nucs. Cells and picture by Joseph Clemens.

Worker cells lay horizontally in the hive – queen cells hang down vertically in the hive.  When nurse bees encounter larva in cells that hang down they tend to treat them as queen cells.  This concept is central to most queen rearing methods.

 

Using such a process one “Mother Queen” with desirable properties can produce many – in some cases thousands – of high-quality daughter queens.  You can use a similar system to produce a dozen or so good queens for your own use.  At $20-$40 each plus shipping for “store-bought” queens you don’t need to produce very many for it to make sense.  I would like to point out though, that after rearing queens myself a few times I understand why they are so expensive.  There is nothing all that hard about it, but there are several steps, and some of them absolutely must be done on a specific schedule.

A few Queen Rearing terms you should know:

Grafting – moving very young worker larva into artificial cell cups.  There are some graftless ways of producing queens but you will probably want to learn to graft sooner or later, and the thing is – it’s way easier than you probably think. It just takes practice. Grafting is pretty much the only way the pros use to produce large numbers of queens.

Cell Starter – An extremely populous – usually queenless – hive that will begin the process of turning worker larva into queen larva.  It can’t be overstated that both the cell starter and finisher need to be densely populated with young well-fed bees – overpopulated and overfed even to the point of being swarmy.

Cell Finisher – After about 24 hours in the cell starter, the cells are move into a finisher – Another populous (usually queenright) hive which will finish feeding/building the queen cells.

Starter/Finisher – One hive that combines the functions of the starter and finisher.  The Joseph Clemens System uses a starter/finisher as does the Cloake system.

ripe honey bee queen cell installed in a mating nuc
A ripe queen cell installed in a mating nuc – all you have to do is push the cell into the comb like this – preferably near brood.  That’s the kind of well-grown cell we all want to produce.

Mating Nucs – 10 days after grafting, the cells are removed from the finisher hive and each is put into their own queenless hives – mating nucs –  which they will emerge into, and fly out from to mate.  After mating the new queen will stay in the mating nuc at least until she is laying eggs and fully mature – 3 weeks more or less.

mating nucs
Any queenless hive can be used as a “mating nuc”  You can use a full size established hive, or a full-size setup with only a couple of frames of brood/bees.  Large operations sometimes use really tiny hives that contain only a cup full of bees.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages.  The mating nucs in the picture contain 3 medium frames. They are being fed syrup in mason jars through a matching hole in the covers – the coffee cans keep the sun from overheating the syrup and making it leak into the hives.

 

 

 

A nucleus hive overflowing with bees.
Queen cells can be produced in small hives, but to do a good job they have to have a dense population of well-fed young nurse bees.

You can start raising queens any time that you have drones, but it will be much easier to get good results – and easier period – during the main spring nectar flow/swarm season.  In our area of middle Tennessee, Swarm season started hot and heavy during the first week of April this past spring so counting back from that date One could set up a starter/finisher hive about March 15 and grafted for the first time around March 20.  The truth is that the weather this April was very unsettled, and not the best for queen mating flights, but the early start allows a little practice before the prime queen production season – the month of May through early June.   Think about that when you order a commercial queen for early spring delivery – what was the weather like when that queen was trying to mate?  Another reason to raise your own.

a cell bar frame for rearing honey bee queens
Homemade cell bar frame with JZBZs cells installed – ready for grafts.  Notice that when the grafts are installed in the starter hive the cell cups will point down – this fools the nurse bees into treating them as queen cells.

You can learn more about queen rearing here.

Queen Rearing – an excellent series of videos on the subject.

 

Be Careful with your Queen Excluder

Almost every beginning beekeeper has a queen excluder that came with a kit – and almost everyone is anxious to deploy it so that they can get a super or two of nice pristine honey without any brood to worry about. To everything there is a season, and your first year with bees is not the time to use your excluder – at least not like that.

Every year I get a question or run across someone who is wondering why their bees won’t go through their queen excluder – to get to the super of bare foundation sitting on top. Well the short answer is that they probably never will.

Almost every beginning beekeeper has a queen excluder that came with a kit – and almost everyone is anxious to deploy it so that they can get a super or two of nice pristine honey without any brood to worry about.  To everything there is a season, and your first year with bees is not the time to use your excluder – at least not like that.

Every year I get a question or run across someone who is wondering why their bees won’t go through their queen excluder – to get to the super of bare foundation sitting on top.   Well the short answer is that they probably never will.   Bees don’t really like to go through a queen excluder anyway, but if there isn’t anything above it that they want (bare foundation) then they almost surely won’t – unless the hive is absolutely cram packed with bees, in which case they are more likely to swarm than to go through an excluder to get to foundation.

As a general rule don’t use a queen excluder until after you have enough comb drawn out to fill your brood boxes and at least 1 honey super.  Then you can put the excluder between the brood chamber and the honey supers – with drawn comb in them – and the bees are much more likely to co-operate.   Although even then they make the hive more likely to swarm.

If you do want to use them so that you don’t have brood in your honey supers you can wait until most of the honey flow is over to add the excluder – say around May 20 or so, after the poplar and locust bloom are about over. Then any brood above it will emerge and the comb will get back filled with honey. As long as you get the queen below it that is.

If you use a queen excluder during the honey flow it will be more work to keep your bees from swarming. But it will also make it so that you have fewer boxes to inspect for queen cells.

It seems that a lot of hobby bee keepers don’t use them anymore – but commercial honey producers mostly do – I think.  If you use an excluder it won’t really make your bees produce less honey – not so you would notice anyway – but they may store more of it below the excluder therefore you won’t have to feed them as much.

As long as they are not out of room below they will be very reluctant to go through an excluder – which is kind of alright, because they will get the brood boxes fully stocked with honey before they go up into the supers.   Which is actually a good thing about the old tried and true method of using deep brood and shallow honey supers with an excluder always between them – if there is any honey in the supers that is yours, all honey below the excluder stays with the hive. It made it an easy call for new bee keepers and also results in pretty white honey combs that don’t have brood cocoons in them – for what that’s worth.

Queen excluders are just a tool, and like any tool can be useful if used correctly, but can be counterproductive if misused.   Because of this many people call them honey excluders, but research indicates that is not really the case.