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Ross’s Bee Journal, #13: Raising Queens

December 20, 2009

I’m somewhat embarassed to see that it has been more than a year since I set down our bee adventures for my loyal readers. Reflecting on why I haven’t felt compelled to write, I realize that the bees have become just another part of the new “normal” of our lives here on the farm. You could say the novelty has worn off, but that cliché implies that it has become routine and humdrum. It is not. We continue to be thrilled, amazed, frustrated, and fulfilled by the bees. It simply no longer seems such an odd new thing that I can’t wait to tell everyone about it. Nevertheless, it is important to have a written record, so I will try to summarize our fifth season as beekeepers, then tell you about our attempts to raise queens, as part of the Illinois Queen program.

We went into last winter with six hives. Gave them each a pie tin of fondant each month until spring. Two of the hives got diarrhea and one failed in January. The other was looking dead to us in April, with only a small cluster of bees that could have been robbers from one of the other hives. This was the hive formerly known as Miles Davis (we gave up on naming them and slapped big reflective numbers on all). But when we finally were able to open up and inspect the hives in early May, we discovered a queen still present in this one. So we gave them some brood and nurse bees from another hive, to boost them up. A couple weeks later the queen was gone and there was no new brood, so we shook the remaining bees into one of the package hives.

We started three new hives from packages in April, so we had eight hives going until this failure knocked us down to seven. We managed to start a new colony from a nuc (pronounced “nuke”) later in the season. I’ll get into the details in a moment, but the result was that we ended the season with eight strong hives and two nucs. We managed to raise a few queens in the process, and successfully re-queened two hives. But it was more luck than skill.

In April, Janice took a class in queen rearing where she learned how to graft queen cells. This is the tedious process of removing eggs from cells shortly after they’ve been laid, and transferring them to tiny plastic cups that form the base of a new queen cell. If you are fortunate enough to have properly prepared a starter hive with just the right age of worker bees, these cups will be drawn out with wax by the bees and each will develop into a new queen bee. This is not as easy as it sounds; actually it doesn’t even sound easy. As we learned through trial and mostly error, raising queens is complicated stuff.

Illinois beekeepers involved with the state association decided to start a program this year to educate local beekeepers in queen rearing, with the eventual goal of greater independence from queen suppliers in far away, generally warmer climates. Our package queens come from Hawaii, for example. I think it must be a shock to these poor girls when our midwestern winter arrives. And that is exactly the point of the Illinois Queen program. We need winter hardy queens that are adapted to our climate and our seasonal changes. Besides, queens are getting more expensive each year ($20, $30, and more). Raising your own queens saves money, and depending on your success rate and personal need for queens, can also be a source of income.

Every beekeeper needs queens from time to time, and there are three ways to get them. Buy them from other beekeepers, raise your own, or let the bees raise them. Actually, those second two options are the same thing; they differ only in the amount of involvement the beekeeper has in the process.

To revisit some of our history together in this journal, I’ll remind you that bee colonies naturally and normally increase in size until they reach a critical mass and decide to split into two colonies (“swarming”). In nature, the bees plan for this split by raising a few queens and waiting for one to hatch. The old queen leaves with about half of the workers to find a new home, and the new queen takes over after (hopefully) successfully mating with drones in the area.

Beekeepers don’t like to lose bees to swarming, so we try to manage the process by splitting a crowded hive before it does so on its own. We then put a new queen (purchased or reared) in the queenless hive and thus increase our stock. If a new queen is not available, ensuring that the queenless hive has some frames of eggs gives these workers an opportunity to raise their own queen. This is called a “walkaway split” because you just split the colony into two and walk away, leaving the bees to do all the work. We have done this a few times, usually with success.

Remember, a queen bee is created by continued feeding of royal jelly throughout the larval phase, whereas the standard worker bee is only fed royal jelly for the first few days, then switched to a stunting diet of bee bread made from pollen and nectar. Any fertilized egg can be a queen or a worker, depending on this diet manipulation.

Bees will also raise new queens when they sense their current queen is failing or ill or near death. If they lose their queen unexpectedly and have no new eggs from which to make a new queen the colony will fail. We can try to forestall such failure by giving an otherwise doomed colony a frame of eggs from another hive, or by giving them a queen, or a queen cell from an overcrowded hive that is preparing to swarm. Most beekeepers regularly replace older queens with new queens, to prevent the hive from becoming queenless at all. Queens are good for two, perhaps three seasons before they start to run out of sperm stored from the mating flights undertaken in their first weeks of life.

The secret to queen rearing is to trick the bees by manipulating conditions in the hive to simulate queenlessness or overcrowding, so they are compelled to do the things that will result in new queen development. There are several methods and whole books have been written on the subject. Many very specifically timed functions must be performed. You need a “starter” colony that is jam-packed full of nurse bees of just the right age to produce the highest quality and quantity of royal jelly. They need to be good wax producers, too, because they must draw out your racks of queen cups into queen cells, while constantly feeding royal jelly to the developing larvae.

Once the queen cells have all been started, it seems to be better to have them in a queenright colony, that is, a colony with a producing queen. It has something to do with the general temperament of the worker bees. This is called a “finisher” colony because its purpose is to finish building the queen cells. So now, we have need of two specialized colonies for queen rearing, one queenless and one queenright, each with specific requirements for the age and quantity of worker bees. Whew! Already I’m confused.

What’s worse, if you only have eight hives to begin with and now two of them have been taken out of honey production for queen rearing, and a third may be providing eggs for grafting and thus inhibited somewhat in its production ability, well, this and a cold, wet summer leads to a poor honey harvest in the fall. We didn’t exactly dedicate two hives as “starter” and “finisher,” yet that was only part of our problem. The whole business kept us guessing. And I haven’t even gotten to the grafting process and the challenges therein.

Grafting is done with a small tool, about the size of a pencil, with a tiny spatula on the end. Actually, it’s more like two spatulas that slide across each other when a button at the other end is pressed. The flexible spatula tip is pressed into a cell containing an egg or newly hatched larva (24 hours old or less) and slid underneath the egg/larva to pick it up and remove it from the cell. Then, placing the spatula tip into a queen cup, you press the button to slide the egg/larva off and into the bottom of the cup. The cups are pressed into wood strips in a frame the size of a standard brood frame, hanging upside down. This frame of perhaps 30 queen cups is then placed in the starter colony.

Now the fun begins. If you have prepared the starter colony correctly, the bees will turn these cups into queen cells. If you have not, or the bees are not in the proper mindset, they’ll just clean the cups out, eggs, larvae, royal jelly and all. They did this to us twice, after Janice had painstakingly grafted, under magnifying glass and high intensity light, while newly hatching worker bees emerged and crawled around on the frame of eggs, larvae, and brood in front of her.

We later learned from fellow beekeepers in the queen program that a) they had no such problem, or b) they had put the frame and empty cups into a hive before grafting, to let the bees get their smell on it, which seemed to increase their acceptance of it after it was grafted. We also learned that bees will clean the cups if they detect damaged larvae or eggs in them. Damage can easily be done with the grafting tool, even if one is careful. I should point out here that we are dealing with an object about the size of a comma in this missive.

A larva is crescent shaped at this very early stage. We learned that you must slip the tip of the grafting tool in and under from the curved side of the crescent, rather than the side where the two ends meet, in order to minimize the possibility of damaging the larva. Oh, and if you damage one, and then continue using the grafting tool, you will taint other undamaged larva with the smell of the damaged one. Very delicate operation, this.

Halfway through the summer, there was a refresher class on queen rearing. I joined Janice in attending this. They gave us a no-graft method to try that involved a specially prepared frame of wax foundation. The so-called Miller method uses inverted triangles of foundation and is meant to encourage natural queen cell production along the edges of the triangles, where they can be easily removed once they are capped. We tried it. Bleh. The bees just drew out the whole frame, filling in the gaps, and gave us no queen cells.

We even purchased a cloak board, which is a sort of queen excluder with a removable metal shield that is supposed to allow you to combine the functions of a starter colony and a finisher colony in one hive. With the metal shield in, the upper box thinks it is queenless and functions as a starter colony. Later you remove the shield so the upper box can smell the queen down below. Now they are a queenright colony and function as a finisher. We never even got to use it. By now we could have bought several queens with the money we had spent on this project, I think.

The third graft attempt finally resulted in some finished queen cells, which Janice later transferred into nucs. Again, a “nuc” is a small hive, just four or five frames, in a box half the width of a normal brood box. It is the nucleus of a new colony, hence the shortened vernacular. She started six nucs over the course of the summer, some with naturally occuring queen cells that we would occasionally discover during normal hive inspections, and some with her grafted queen cells. All six managed to mate successfully.

We turned one very crowded nuc into a full hive, which brought us back to eight hives. Another hive lost its queen, so we took the frames of a nuc and put them in a full hive body on top of a piece of newspaper on top of the queenless hive body. This is a method of combining colonies that allows the queenless bees time to get comfortable with the smell of the new queen, as they painstakingly chew their way through the newspaper barrier. We did this again in late fall when our oldest queen, one of the big beautiful Italians that came along with the hives our friend gave us, finally perished from old age.

Three of the six nucs thus became three colonies. One nuc died in the fall. Starved. Our fault. We were not paying attention and they got too big and had no room to store food. Two nucs remain and we have them in the barn, propped in a window where the bees can still go out for cleansing flights. We thought they might have a better chance of surviving the winter if we brought them inside. Other beekeepers have successfully over-wintered nucs, but it takes some planning. These are very small clusters and there is not much room for error. A standard hive could go into winter with a fat cluster of bees, lose many to cold or hunger or dampness, and still emerge with enough bees to build up into a thriving colony. But when you start winter small you are already disadvantaged.

All eight of our hives were well populated and heavy with stored food when we wrapped them up in late November. We have had a mild fall and a delayed start to winter, and that is helpful. In a few weeks, we’ll be feeding them fondant, and in a few months we’ll be getting ready to split the ones that came through big and strong, and start trying to raise queens again.

All of the new queen breeders had varying degrees of success this first year, but all agree that we’ve only begun our project. It will take a few years to get good at raising queens, but the future of beekeeping in northern Illinois will be better for it.

Until spring, when I will try my best to update you all on our progress. Good winter!

Ross Thompson

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