In our previous article, we discussed the basic anatomy of workers, drones, and queens along with the roles they play in a honeybee colony. In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of queen rearing, including common techniques and equipment used by beekeepers.
In its natural state, a honey bee colony may experience several scenarios that trigger the production of a new queen. With an understanding of these triggers and how they affect honey bee behavior, beekeepers can utilize a number of different queen rearing techniques to produce healthy new queens for their hives.
Why Colonies Raise New Queens
A strong and actively laying queen is one of the essential components of a successful honey bee colony. She provides a constant source of new workers and, through her pheromones, helps to direct the activities that keep the colony healthy and productive. There are several scenarios, however, that will prompt a colony to naturally produce a new queen.
Aging or Ill Queens
An aging or ill queen will often produce fewer and/or lower quality eggs, and the pattern of her laying often becomes spotty. These and other specific cues will cause the workers to produce supersedure cells, where the colony will raise new queens to replace the failing queen.
Hives that become too crowded will often cause the queen to leave in search of a new home, usually taking more than half of the hive’s workers with her. When a colony senses their queen is preparing to swarm, they will produce swarm cells to raise a new queen who will take her place after she is gone.
When a hive loses its queen to illness or injury, a colony will quickly recognize her absence as the levels of her pheromones rapidly drop in the hive. This will trigger workers bees to select several young larvae and feed them exclusively on royal jelly to create new queens.
Why Beekeepers Raise New Queens
A beekeeper who understands the reasons behind these behaviors can create environments that encourage the colony to create new queens. There are several reasons why you may want to try your hand at raising your own queens.
Replacing Aging Queens
Beekeepers who notice dropping levels of new brood in their hives may choose to requeen them. This ensures that the colony has enough workers foraging for nectar and pollen during peak nectar flow to keep the hive well stocked for winter.
To avoid swarming, beekeepers may choose to split a large colony into two or more new hives. Supplying one or both of the new colonies with a new queen ensures a steady source of new brood.
Introducing a new queen derived from larva of a highly productive colony can help to improve the output of a less productive colony. Traits such as temperament, resistance to diseases and pests, seasonal population adjustments and levels of honey production are all affected by the colony’s genes. Within a few weeks, workers from the new queen will replace the older population and the colony will exhibit the desired traits.
Methods of Queen Rearing
Like most aspects of beekeeping, methods for queen rearing can vary greatly among individual beekeepers. Many of the most common methods practiced today fall into two general categories.
In the first method, an actively laying queen is separated from the main hive and provided synthetic queen cups where she will lay her eggs. In the second type, the beekeeper removes newly hatched larva from the brood comb to prepared queen cups, a technique known as grafting.
Specialized Hives for Raising Queens
In each of these methods, once the queen cells are filled with developing larvae they are moved into a series of specialized hives on a precise schedule. The first, known as the starter hive, is full of young nurse bees who care for the developing larva and feed them an exclusive diet of royal jelly.
The second box is known as the finishing hive, where nurse bees will finish raising the larvae and seal the queen cells. Once sealed, the larvae will undergo the final stages of development to become new queen bees.
Finally, individual queen cells are moved into mating nucs before they emerge. Each nuc is supplied with a single queen cell, from which a new queen will emerge and begin taking mating flights.
No matter what method or equipment is used to raise new queens, careful attention must be paid to timing throughout the process. For example, larvae are only suitable for grafting during the first few days after hatching. Near the end of the queen rearing process, it is crucial to separate the sealed cells before the first new queen emerges, otherwise she will destroy any other cells she finds.
The Doolittle Method of Queen Rearing
Many of the queen rearing methods practiced today are based on the techniques described in Scientific Queen Rearing, written by Gilbert M. Doolittle in 1889. In his book, Doolittle combined many different sources of information to outline a queen rearing method that could be practiced by both hobbyists and commercial beekeepers.
Doolittle’s method was very successful, and many of his techniques are still used to this day. When practiced with modern equipment and genetically strong stock, Doolittle’s method is a reliable way to produce queens of exceptional quality.
Queen Rearing Information
Raising your own queens is a fun and rewarding endeavor, and the best way to increase your chances of success is to do your homework before beginning. Online publications such as Raising Quality Queen Bees, produced by the University of Arkansas and the United States Department of Agriculture, are a great source for detailed explanations and more in-depth information.
Consulting with experienced, local beekeepers is a good way to get answers to specific questions and regional advice on queen rearing. Members of local beekeeping clubs and associations are often willing to share their experiences and lessons learned in raising queens.
Queen Rearing Equipment
Once you are armed with knowledge of queen rearing techniques and advice from experienced beekeepers, it’s important to have the right equipment. The following items available from Dadant & Sons are commonly used by beekeepers raising queens.
EZI Queen System
The EZI Queen System makes it simple to begin rearing your own queens. This no-touch system does not require grafting and includes a lay cage and 420 individual queen cells.
Dadant & Sons offers a wide range of nuc boxes in different sizes and configurations for use starting hives, finishing hives or mating nucs.
Handling, Marking and Shipping Queens
Accessories such as our One-handed Queen Catcher makes capturing queens easier for both the beekeeper and the bees. Once captured, use our Queen marking pens in industry-standard colors to quickly identify queens by year. For beekeepers raising large numbers of queens for sale, our queen cages and JZ BZ Queen Shipping Carton keep queens safe and secure during transport.
For beekeeping equipment and educational materials, visit our online store.