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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Queen rearing techniques

The best queen cells are produced when the conditions are as near as possible to the natural conditions found when a strong colony of bees produces queen cells swarm as a result of the swarming impulse.

In general, as long as eggs are present in the colony then the bees will be able to rear a replacement queen to make a simple colony division. However, this emergency queen replacement procedure is not quite the same as natural queen replacement due to supersedure or swarming or queens raised using other queen rearing methods.

There is a difference between larvae that are specially raised from an egg with the intention of it becoming a queen and the queens raised as an emergency response to queenlessness. Nonetheless, as long as the larvae used to raise an emergency queen are sufficiently young then a queen raised in this fashion will be as good as any other for heading a colony. In practical terms a beekeeper using this technique to divide a colony should ensure that queen cells that are already sealed after 3 days are removed because they will have started using larvae that are too old to develop sufficient ovarioles to be a fully fecund queen. 

To raise queens, colonies have to be strong. The number and quality of the queen cells reared relates directly to the size of the cell building population in the cell building phase. Some beekeepers unite two colonies to get sufficient strength. Abundant food is critical in queen rearing and colonies being used for queen rearing need constant feeding with sugar syrup. They also need lots of pollen available to provide the quantities of protein needed for the workers to produce royal jelly.

Commercial queen rearing will start with very young larvae, ideally selected at the day of hatching from the egg, being placed by some means into a preformed queen cell. They must be very tiny or they will not make good queens. They need to be only one day old after the egg has hatched. The rule is that you almost should not be bale to see them. If you see them clearly they are too old. The bees can be persuaded to rear queens by grafting eggs from worker cells into specially prepared queen cells made out of bees wax and put onto a frame so the cells hang downwards. Thee cells are prepared with a little royal jelly in the bottom for the new larva to lie on. Then the larvae are transferred from worker cells using a simple tool such as a shaved matchstick or a small paintbrush. The slightly dampened grafting tool is used to gently lift the newly hatched lava out of the cell and place it into the newly prepared queen cup. As long as the workers accept the new cells as queen cells, from this point on it will be treated as if it were a young queen, lavishly fed on royal jelly only and reared into a new queen.

Other approaches use a special kit such as the 'Jenter' or 'Cup Kit' system. These are systems using specially designed plastic plugs. To start the process they are put into the colony that has been chosen to be the breeding colony as part of a worker comb. Once the queen has laid eggs in the cells, the beekeeper can take out the comb that has been laid, remove the small plastic plugs containing the egg or young larva, and place it into a queen rearing frame with another plastic component that encourages the bees to think this is a queen cell. Once the bees have decided it is a queen cell they will feed it lavishly and extend the cell sides as the larva grows.

A third method is by reorientating the worker cells so they appear to the bees to be queen cells. This is done again by moving worker cells so they hang downwards. Worker cells containing newly hatched larva are carefully cut into strips or punched out of the wax. They are then moved into a different direction so that the cells are pointing downward. They may be tied or waxed onto a frame or onto a top bar as is described in the article below by Mark Hardison.  Because queen cells always hang downward, a worker bee coming across a newly hatched larva in a cell that is pointing downwards will decide that the cell must be a queen cell and will extend the cell to make anew queen cell and feed the queens lavishly with royal jelly so they become queens.

Many queen bees can be raised using these methods. But a very strong colony of bees that is well fed is needed because only good feeding and many bees will produce good quality queens. The bees need to build, rear, provision and protect the new queen cells. This may be done all in one colony if the queen rearing is small scale or the queen cells may be moved in stages between several colonies where the bees are in the correct state to nurture the cells at that point in the cycle. Once queen cells are built and sealed they need protecting or moving before the young queens hatch. If the queens are allowed to hatch without being protected from each other the first queen to hatch will kill all the others.

Once the queens are safely sealed and close to hatching they must be transferred to small nucleus hives. These are hives with a small number of bees that will form the basis of a new colony.  When rearing queens the beekeeper must take into account that each of these new queens will need a small hive to head. These have to be prepared by moving worker bees taken from existing stocks so it is not sensible to rear a lot of queen bees if there are not enough stocks of bees to make new nucleus hives. It should also be borne in mine that where the new young nucleus colony is placed should be the permanent home of the new colony if it is not to cause problems later on.

Once the queens are hatched they will fly out and mate before settling down to become the mother of the colony. African bees have a shorter queen development period which needs to be taken into account. Tropical beekeeping books sometimes quote development periods that are in fact those of temperate bees which are longer. This can result in loss of all the queens if used. In addition, African bees are quicker to develop laying workers that can upset the idea of rearing queens. There are more things that can go wrong when rearing queens using either African bee (or African bee in the Americas) or Apis cerana. Consequently, it is sensible not to use these more complex techniques unless a significant number of bee colonies are already owned. The writer suggests risky techniques should not be considered if the beekeeper has less than 10 colonies. Simple colony division is a less risky option in this case.

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