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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Queen rearing

Queen rearing is the process of developing a new queen as the choice of the beekeeper rather than the choice of the bees themselves. There are a number of reasons why a beekeeper may want more queens. They may be used to head small new colonies (or nucleus colonies) to increase the number of colonies owned, to replace an old queen with a younger one to reduce the swarming impulse or to exchange a failing queen with a vigorous one to prevent a failed colony. Large scale queen rearing is central to the process of royal jelly production.

Queen rearing requires the use of a moveable comb or moveable frame hive so the hive components can be moved in the way the beekeeper requires to rear the new queens. The principle of queen rearing is elementary. The idea is to create the circumstances where the bees think they don't have a queen and then to give them the resources to make a new one. It requires an understanding of the queen's development times, honeybee biology and the seasonal cycle of the colony. However, the process of queen rearing is not straightforward with all types of bees and under all circumstances.   Consequently, it is important to be clear about the reasons for undertaking the procedure and to work with the bees' natural swarming instinct.

In the normal course of colony activity queens are reared under only three circumstances: queenlessness, supersedure and swarming. Supersedure is the natural replacement of an old queen with a young one without the colony undergoing swarming. It is not a very common occurrence in temperate bees but rates of supersedure are higher in tropical bees.

As long as there are eggs and plenty of bees in a colony the bees can rear new queens if the old queen is not in the colony.  Queens are reared in easily recognisable queen cells that hang downwards from the face of the comb. The beekeeper takes advantage of this knowledge to provide conditions that are as near as possible to that required by the bees produce new queen cells. There are many methods of queen rearing. Queen rearing can be as simple as utilising the queen cells developed under the swarming impulse to create new colonies to using specially designated colonies as breeding colonies, cell raising colonies and cell finishing colonies.

While it is not impossible, queen rearing is much more difficult if the beekeeper is using bees that frequently abscond. Behavioural and biological differences between temperate bees and tropical honey bees mean that the queen rearing methods described in all the books are not accurate for tropical circumstances and will lead to failure unless adapted with informed knowledge.  For example, African bees have shorter development periods, smaller cell sizes, are quicker to develop laying workers in the absence of a queen and are harder to requeen. Their defensive behaviour makes manipulation uncomfortable and their potential to abscond under manipulation makes success less likely.

Artificial queen rearing is not necessary for colony division especially in a place where the primary focus of beekeeping is for poverty alleviation. If beekeepers are troubled by lack of colonisation or want to increase the number of colonies owned looking at the simpler techniques for dividing colonies or improving natural colonisation rates may be a less complicated and more productive way forward.

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