Successful beekeeping often requires some degree of queen management. For example: the transfer of a wild colony to a hive, or the capture of a swarm often fails unless the queen can be caged and placed directly in the new hive. If the queen is seen during inspection of a hive, one can prevent her accidental injury by caging her until the end of the inspection. And of course, requeening a colony requires a new queen to be caged for several days to ensure she is accepted.
From 1995-1998 we assisted a beekeeping development project designed to improve the incomes of villagers living near Lore Lindu National Park, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Part of the project involved beekeeping with Apis cerana and the recently rediscovered species Apis nigrocincta. We were impressed by the queen cages the beekeepers invented to provide control over queens in their hives.
What criteria must a queen cage meet?
Bee biology determines what makes an effective cage. Worker bees will kill a foreign queen unless they have been given several days to learn and accept her scent, therefore they must be able to lick the queen to obtain her chemical pheromones. With this in mind, a queen cage:
Queen cage designs
The first queen cage we observed was a hollow stick (Figure 1). At ±30 cm long it was longer than necessary. Several long slits about 3 mm wide allowed workers to contact the queen inside. After shaping, a piece of corn cob was stuck in one end to close the tube. The cage in the photograph was wired to a top-bar within a hive, allowing the queen to be positioned centrally near the top of the hive. Despite its simplicity, this design met all three criteria listed above.
A second design (Figure 2) consisted of an L-shaped block of soft wood. A piece of window screen was held in place with small nails. A thin U-shaped piece of wood attached to the end of the wooden block by a single nail could be easily rotated to allow entry or release of the queen and attendant workers. Because the queen can be readily observed in this cage, it is easy to add or remove the attendants without accidental escape of the queen. Depending on availability of materials (for example screen, nails) this cage may be relatively expensive to make. It is also fragile and could be broken through mishandling.
The third cage was functional and beautiful. The inventor used a local palm Metroxylon sp with a thick hard stem that was soft inside and easily worked. A 10 cm slot was cut into a 12 cm section of stem.
The soft interior was hollowed out around the slot to create the space for the queen and attendants (Figure 3).
A row of seven small holes in each of the pithy ends of the cage enabled thin hard sticks made from the leaf rib to be inserted (Figure 4). By sliding the two longer central sticks towards one end, the queen and workers could be placed in the cage. One additional design feature could have been added: a hole in one end large enough for the queen to fit through. With such a hole filled with queen cage candy*, the caged queen could be placed in a hive and she would be released after several days without disturbance as the worker bees in the colony ate the plug of candy.
All three queen cages demonstrate functional designs. Cages can be made by copying the designs given above, but our intent was to provide ideas that can be adapted for whatever materials are locally available.
* Candy is made from icing sugar kneaded with a small amount of honey to the consistency of bread dough.
[Bees for Development Journal #56]