Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
A Beekeeping Diary #5: Early Summer—Queen Rearing Begins
I know that summer doesn’t officially begin until June 20 or so; but around here we really need to have all of June as a summer month. Otherwise our only warm season would be too short and we would get very depressed. The weather in Vermont has been described as “Eleven months of winter, and 30 days of damn poor sledding”. But that’s not accurate. The “poor sledding” part lasts about 90 days, and starts on the first of June.
As the work of selling bees, requeening and equalizing colonies starts to wind down toward the end of May, the focus shifts to the cell-building yard and preparations for making nucleus colonies. The first steps in getting the queen rearing process started actually do occur in May—collecting the breeder queens, managing the drone mothers, and setting up the first group of colonies for raising cells. At the moment I am raising five or six batches of about 250 cells, and grafting the first batch on May 30 or 31. I use a schedule where a new batch of cells is ready every eight days. In my cell building method, the cells are started and finished in the same box. If I wanted to have cells ready at shorter intervals, or every day, I would move to a two stage process, using separate starters and finishers. You can find excellent descriptions of many such methods in Harry Laidlaw’s Contemporary Queen Rearing; a book which everyone who wants to raise a large number of queens should possess.
My own method was lifted from Brother Adam’s book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey; (another must for all beekeepers) and adapted for Langstroth sized equipment. Over the last four years I have also made some changes so that good cells can be raised in colonies that are never treated, and with varroa constantly present. I use this method and the 8-day schedule because the method is extremely reliable and the schedule spreads out the work and the risk. It’s almost always possible to work around or through periods of bad weather. Since I started in 1985, I have always had good cells to put out on the appointed day, and only one batch of queens was completely lost—during a two week steady deluge in 2000. Raising extra cells in each batch, and doing all of the queen rearing during mid-summer also helps in maintaining a high rate of success.
In the grafting yard I have 30-40 colonies designated for cell-building. Each colony raises just one batch of cells, so I move gradually through the yard, using groups of 4 or 8 colonies for each batch. These colonies are given excluders and honey supers whenever they are needed, but the brood boxes are always worked the same way, no matter how many supers are on any one colony. The groups used for the last batches of cells are started off in the spring as small nucs—so they don’t reach their peak populations until they are needed for cell building in late June or early July. There are usually between 12-20 breeder colonies in the yard, in special boxes with excluder partitions. Extra frames of bees and brood from the breeders are used to strengthen the cell-builders if necessary. Ten days before I want to graft into a certain group, I make sure each colony is strong in two boxes, and has brood in all stages. There must be no preparations for swarming underway. The queen is either found and placed below or shaken down into the lower box and the excluder is placed between the two brood boxes. This job is called Set-Up.
On the sixth day following Set-Up, I go through all the breeder colonies, where the queens are confined on three combs by an excluder partition. Usually I move a frame of sealed brood to the other side of the partition, and give the queen a clean empty comb, or a comb from the same colony where bees have been hatching for at least a few days. These combs will have plenty of 12-24 hour larvae on the grafting day, and can be easily identified and removed, even if it is raining. I call this job: Working the Breeders.
On the ninth day following the Set-Up day, the upper brood box is examined, and all queen cells present are destroyed. Some of the bees are shaken from each comb to make sure no cells are missed. Two frames of honey are removed, and a frame of freshly stored pollen is placed in the center of the brood nest. As far as I can tell, one of the secrets of always getting good queen cells is to make sure that frame of pollen is next to the cells while they are being built. The pollen must be just recently packed into the cells, without any glaze of honey over the top. I collect frames like this when I am making nucs, but in this case you must also be sure there are no eggs or unsealed brood anywhere on the frames. Usually, I take a clean, empty comb and fill 2/3 of one side with pollen pellets from my pollen traps. Lower the comb carefully down into the hive, keeping as much of the pollen in the cells as possible. By the next morning any spilled pollen will have been dumped outside the hive, and the rest will be packed into the comb, ready for use by the nurse bees. The only other thing to do on this day is start feeding the cell-builders, if no honey flow is in progress. I call this day: Prepare.
The next day is for: Grafting. In the morning each cell-builder is worked as follows: The lower brood box with the queen and brood in all stages is set alongside the original stand on a super horse. The upper box (which was “prepared” the day before) is set on a new bottom board on the original site. This box is now the “cell-builder”. A space is made next to the pollen comb, and the grafting frame with three bars of empty plastic cell cups (48 total) is inserted –to be polished before the grafting is done later in the afternoon. Four to six frames of bees are then shaken from the queenright box into the cell-builder. The bees are either shaken through an excluder, or the queen is located first and set aside. While you’re doing this shaking, one of the brood frames should be removed from the queenright box, and replaced with a frame of honey. It should be a frame with brood that will be sealed during the next six or seven days. As each cell builder is prepared, these frames can be put into an empty hive body until four have been accumulated. Then two frames of honey are put on each side of the brood frames, and the whole box is placed, above an excluder, on any other colony in the yard that is building up too fast, and can spare some young bees. We’ll come back to this box in a couple of days.
Any supers and the feeder are now returned to the cell-builder and the feeder is refilled if necessary. The queenright box is screened, covered and loaded on the truck. When the whole group of cell-builders have been worked this way, the queenright boxes are taken to another location. Currently I’m allowing most of these colonies to recover their strength for about three weeks, and then using the brood and bees for nucleus colonies.
After lunch, I return to the cell-builders and do the grafting, using the special frames and cell cups that were being polished for the last few hours. Remember the breeders had empty combs put into them so that plenty of 12-24 hour larvae are available and easy to find on the grafting day. The cell-builders have fresh pollen and unsealed honey or syrup. They are crawling with nurse bees, but have no queen or open brood. Just a couple of hours after making them up, these colonies are already desperate to raise queen cells, and if they have a little syrup to work on every day they will build excellent cells even during the coldest and wettest possible weather. They will also build great cells during a heavy honey flow—which is not true of some commonly used queen rearing methods. Most methods work best during a weak or moderate honey flow, when colonies are gaining a couple of pounds every day.
Now, here’s the step I added when I started raising cells in untreated colonies: Two days after grafting, I go back to those boxes of brood and honey frames, set on top of strong colonies on the grafting day. By now lots of young bees have run up through the excluders to feed and continue capping the brood. On the second day after grafting, I lift those boxes off, and return one frame of sealing brood, with adhering bees, to each cell-builder. I also shake in the bees from the frames of honey. This way the cells are started in the optimum situation where all the royal jelly must go into the queen cells during the critical early hours. Then, some additional bees are added for finishing, and the worker brood attracts varroa mites away from the queen cells as they are being sealed. I’ve read that varroa mites don’t infest queen cells, but apparently my specially selected strain of mites never learned to read, and I can find them in the queen cells if I don’t include this extra step. If this cell building method is made into an 8-day schedule, producing successive batches of cells, then this extra job occurs on the same day that cells from a previous batch are harvested and put out; and so the work can be conveniently done at the same time. In general, it’s best to go to whatever length is necessary to produce high quality queen cells. The entire future of your apiary is represented in those cells, and cutting corners here is really short sighted. Over the last ten years many beekeepers learned, at great cost, that poorly reared cells and queens (and/or those reared in unhealthy environments) are worse than useless. Always plan to raise more cells than you actually need. Even the most experienced and capable people swing and miss sometimes when Nature throws a good curve ball. The trick is to always get at least a solid hit, and not strike out.
In the event of a dearth, the cell builders should be fed while the cells are being built: for five days after grafting. On the tenth day following grafting, the cells are removed and taken immediately to the nucleus colonies. Inside the cell carrying box I record the origin of each group of cells and also the identity of the nucs which receive them. The cell builder (after checking on that last-added frame of brood for rogue queen cells) is given a cell and then left alone for three weeks before checking on the new queen. Just after cell building they are very strong and have no brood to feed. They can store a lot of honey in the first 10-14 days if a flow is in progress. During the next four weeks they have very limited potential to produce surplus honey—most of the remaining bees are needed for building a new brood nest. After that, their honey gathering ability rises once again. At any one time, the grafting yard has colonies in all these different stages, and so the yard as a whole takes advantage of any honey flows that occur. The overall average honey production is very good, and with the extra colonies created during the cell-building process, these are the most productive colonies in the apiary. The broodless period interrupts the build-up of varroa mites, and even with open mated queens from tested mothers, a good percentage of the cell-building colonies survive the winter and have healthy clusters the following spring ready to start the cycle over again.
For anyone who wants to try raising successive batches of cells this way, here’s how it works on an 8-day schedule. It would be nice to have a 7-day plan and have the same days off every week, but that would create a 14 day interval for catching queens from the baby nucs; which is not quite long enough—especially for Russian-type bees. These are the different jobs to do on the 8-day schedule I use:
Day #1: SET-UP
Day #2: PREPARE
Day #3: GRAFT
Day #4: CATCH QUEENS
Day #5: PUT OUT CELLS
Day #7: WORK BREEDER COLONIES
(#6 and #8 are your “days off”, with no scheduled queen rearing work. I’m sure you’ll find something to do!)
Start your calendar like this: first decide when you want to graft the first batch of cells. Mark 3/1 on that day. The top number always shows the job to do on that date (Grafting); while the lower one shows which batch of queens is being dealt with (the first in this case). Then count backwards 10 days on the calendar, and put 1/1 on that date. This is the beginning of your queen rearing season—the day you Set-up the first group of cell builders. After that the 1-8 pattern repeats itself as long as you want to keep raising cells and queens.
Now look at my calendars for May and June 2006 to see how the whole thing works. I only write the numbers in when there is some actual work to be done that day. My queen rearing season begins on May , when I Set-up the first group of cell builders. Things go slowly at first, and there’s no more work to do until May , when empty combs are put into the breeder colonies (Work Breeder Colonies). On May I Set-Up the second group of cell builders. On the th I Prepare the first group of cell builders, and the following day I Graft into them. As time goes on the schedule fills in, and as you can see by June -- I am Working the Breeders for batch #4; Setting-Up batch #5; Preparing and Grafting batch #4; Catching batch#1; and Putting Out Cells for batch #3. During July, after the last grafting has been done, the schedule gradually winds down, and by early August the only thing left to do is catch or check the last batches of queens.
This all looks and sounds much too complicated; but it’s like calculus—once you can see the flow of it you’re all set. In practice it works very well. The work goes steadily on no matter what the weather is like, and there’s time to keep up with the honey producing colonies, and do some other things as well. Next month we’ll look at the nucleus colonies that receive all these queen cells.