Raising queens can be as simple as doing a walk-away split and allowing the bees to raise their own queen, or as complicated as "breeding" as in instrumental insemination or using instrumentally inseminated queens to produce viable offspring. If you’ve ever considered raising your own queens, read our guide to learn more.
The techniques described below are the ones that we have had personal experience with, both success and failure. These fall into the category of raising, and not breeding.
Why raise queens?
If you understand the process that bees use to raise queens you will have a much more intimate knowledge of your colonies. If you actively pursue queen raising you will become a better beekeeper.
Sometimes raising queens may come from economic necessity, availability of supply, desirable trait propagation, or for income. For whatever reasons you decide to raise queens you will need a good working knowledge of developmental periods of the different castes. The chart below is averages and may vary due to weather and genetics. The numbers represent days.
Knowing these cycles will help you. For instance you wouldn’t want to introduce a virgin queen in the spring if you didn’t have mature drones for mating. This will also help you as to the timing of grafting, making cell builders and mating nucs.
Let’s first talk about the simplest way to grow a queen.
Walk-away Splits as Swarm Prevention
It is a species’ inherent nature to want to increase and propagate its numbers. Honeybees do this when their nests become overcrowded and in some races even when overcrowding has not occurred. I personally would rather manage my hives for swarm prevention than to try to catch them 20 feet up a tree. This requires careful attention to your colony. Normally you will see most swarming activity on the first strong honey flow in your area.
When doing your regular inspections you should note the available empty cells that your queen can lay eggs in. If the majority of cells contain eggs, larvae, stores of pollen, honey, and capped brood, they may begin swarm preparations. Note the emergency queen cups and observe them for the presence of eggs and further enlargement of their structure. Generally swarm cells are built towards the bottom of frames and supercedure cells are built closer to the top.
If in a two-deep brood nest situation, be sure to tip up the top box and observe the bottom of the frames for queen cells. It is best to keep on top of this as once the bees go into swarm mode, it is hard to talk them out of it. The queen will quit laying eggs and begin to slim down in anticipation of flying with the swarm.
The workers will cut down foraging activities and begin to gorge on honey and the scouts may begin to seek a new home. As the new queen cells approach maturity the swarm will launch with the old queen and up to 70% of the colony.
By keeping the brood nest open and adding room (drawn comb is preferable but blanks will do) as needed you can help to prevent this from occurring.
In a walk-away split, either into a nuc box or an 8- or 10-frame hive body, you want to transfer a good mix of eggs, open and capped brood, pollen, honey, and enough nurse bees to cover the brood. If you have a frame that contains swarm cells I would identify the largest (queen cell) with the most stippling or cratering on the surface and move this to the split.
We also recommend eliminating the other queen cells or use these in other splits. Another option for these queen cells is to create a queen bank and bank them for other uses. If doing that, you will need to secure the cells into queen cages so when they emerge they are confined. It is generally thought that if you have attendants also in the cage their survival may be better. A good queen bank is queenless and full of young nurse bees and open brood. Don’t hold virgins for more than eight (8) days in a bank or you may create drone laying queens.
Generally the largest queen cells will be the most viable as they have been fed better in the larval stage. These splits can be left in the same yard you’re splitting from or moved to another yard. If moving the splits, you may want to close the entrance prior to transferring the frames. These splits will need to be fed even during a flow as they contain mainly nurse bees and any foragers transferred on the frames will return to the parent colony. You’ll also want to reduce the entrance on this split as it should be considered weak and not able to defend itself as well from robbers.
If you have been on top of your observations through inspections you should have a pretty good idea of when that queen cell is going to hatch. From the chart above you know that if the queen cell is capped it will emerge sometime in the next 7-8 days, maybe sooner if you discovered it late. A queen cell will form a darkened ring around the bottom just prior to emergence.
In our experience, we do not like to disturb new virgins and will resist the temptation to open this hive for a period of days. When she emerges she will need a period to dry and depending on weather and mating success (multiple mating flights) it can be seven or more days before she lays an egg.
When you do open this hive for inspection you should do it rapidly but thoroughly and look for the queen and the presence of eggs. If you find eggs you know she has been successful. If eggs are not observed and you are certain she is not in the box you can assume one of two things; she is either on a mating flight right now or something has occurred while she was on her flight, and she’s not coming back. In this case, wait until the next day and inspect the hive again for her presence.
If she is lost and you have no hope of her coming back there are several things you can do:
- Add another frame of eggs and nurse bees from a donor hive and let the split raise their own queen
- Recombine the split with the original parent colony on the top using the newspaper method (while still having prevented the original from swarming)
- Add the split to another strong colony
- Buy a queen from a supplier and introduce it to the split
Walk-Away Splits for Increase
In a nutshell, everything above applies to this type of split only you don’t have the availability of a queen cell. One thing you want to make certain of when doing this split is adding a frame which contains fresh eggs. The bees can make their best queen from a recently hatched egg (larvae) when it is between 4-20 hours old.
Because of the time of the queen’s cycle you can tell from the chart that it will be at least 23 days before you will see any eggs from a queen raised this way. It would be advisable to check on the progress of this split through this cycle and adding a frame of open and capped brood may be necessary to prevent this split from developing laying workers.
As the name implies a double screen is two screens sandwiched between wood. They have closeable openings on 3 sides. This is a method best used in swarm control (in my opinion) when you have limited resources. As in the walk-away split for swarm prevention, you prepare your split box in the same fashion, only when completed, you set it on top of a double screen that is placed on the colony below.
Open the entrance opposite the colony below and allow the nurse bees to tend to the virgin queen. If the virgin is successful in her mating and returns and lays eggs you can then split off this box and move to another location. If the virgin does not return, simply remove the double screen and recombine the colony while still preventing the swarm.
This method of raising queens is probably the most intimidating to newer beekeepers but is employed exclusively by commercial and serious beekeepers everywhere. Once the basic techniques are learned and perfected it is the best way to raise large numbers of queens and gives you the best chance in selecting the traits you want in your queens.
Day 1- Queen Mother Colony
Select a strong colony that has the traits that you are trying to propagate such as gentleness, overwintering capabilities, rapid spring buildup, disease and mite resistance and or honey production, this is your parent or queen mother colony.
Find the queen in this colony and confine her to a single box with the use of a queen excluder if multiple boxes are in use.
You may additionally want to purchase our Queen Grafting Excluder Frame which will confine her to a single frame face. This will allow workers to come and go but she will be forced to lay eggs in available empty cells. Note the date and time of her confinement.
Day 2- Prepare Cell Builder
Transfer one frame of young larvae and capped brood along with three frames of pollen and honey stores from a strong colony into a 5-frame nuc box. Keep the frame of transferred brood in the center of the nuc box and fill in the sides with the frames of stores. Additionally you will want to shake nurse bees from about 4-5 frames of brood into this cell-building nucleus colony. If possible, remove this box some distance away to help reduce drifting, reduce the entrance and provide feed.
If using our Queen Rearing Starter Kit
From your Queen Rearing Starter Kit remove the bars from your cell bar frame and insert the desired number of pin cell cups into the groove, spacing these about ¾” apart. Make sure that these are fastened securely so they will not fall out, as this can be detrimental to your graft. Be sure to place a cloth over these bars so as not to allow dust to settle into the pin cell cups. You may want to rear more queens than you need due to the unpredictable nature of your grafting and mating success, for example trying doing twice as many as needed.
Inspect your nucleus cell-building colony for the presence of any started queen cells. If any are detected, remove them.
Returning to the parent colony, inspect the frame that the queen has been confined to. You are looking for egg hatch and the presence of new larvae. Eggs will hatch up to day three from being laid. The best queens are raised from larvae that are 4-20 hours old. These larvae will have barely begun to take on a “C” shape. The rings which will form on the larvae eventually will not be visible or are just beginning to form at this time.
If properly aged larvae are seen, release the queen back to the colony and carry the frame of larvae to your grafting area. This area should be well lit and warm.
- Have your cell bars with pin cell cups laid out along with your grafting tool. A lighted magnifying glass can be very helpful
- With the Chinese grafting tool in hand, slide the quill down along the side of the cell so the quill slides under the royal jelly and the larvae, remove in one motion straight up
- Deposit the larvae into your pin cell cup by pushing on the plunger while doing your best to keep it in the same position and centered in the pin cell cup
- After filling the cups on the bar, cover the bar with a cloth for warmth and to keep foreign material from entering the cells
- Once you have completed your grafts, reinsert the cell bars gently into your cell bar frame with the cups oriented downward
- Cover this frame with a cloth and take it carefully to your cell building unit
- Remove the cloth and place this frame into the center of your cell building unit
- Note the date and time
- Return the frame that you grafted from, back into the parent colony
- Continue to provide liquid feed to the cell building unit
Refer back to your notes as to when you confined your queen. Note that from the date the grafted larvae eggs were laid, you will have emergence of the new queens in 16 days plus or minus one day. If you have accidentally grafted larvae that were older, they will emerge earlier and could kill all the other developing queens in your graft. This is also why you inspect your cell building unit prior to installing your graft.
Painting Your Mating Box
As with all of your beekeeping equipment, you only paint the outside of your boxes to protect and preserve the wood from the elements. Note that your mating boxes have three different opposed openings; it may be beneficial for you to paint these three sides of the mating box in different colors for a higher queen return success.
Now is the time to make up your mating box:
- Install three frames into each compartment of open brood, stores and bees
- You may want to stuff grass into each individual compartment’s opening
- Place this box near a readily identifiable landmark such as on a tree line
- If they can be placed in shade, the grass can be left in place until you install your queen cells
- It would be good if this can be placed two miles from the colonies of which the frames were removed from to prevent drift
- Be sure not to transfer the queens from donor hives into your mating boxes, they need to be queenless
Because we know the queen may emerge from her cell as early as day 15 in warm weather we need to place her into our mating box no later than day 14.
- Going back to your cell-building unit, remove the cell bar frame and gently remove the pin cell cups containing the largest and most stippled of the cells
- Place each individual cell into one of the queen cell protectors
- With gentle handling, bring these to your mating boxes and press the cell protectors containing the queen cells into the wax between two frames.
- Remove the grass from the openings
By day 23-28 from the time the eggs were laid, you should see a pattern of eggs developing if your queen has been successful in her mating. These queens can now be removed and placed into splits that have been queenless for 24 hours or in the case of requeening an existing colony, placed into hives where you have removed the queens 24 hours earlier. You may want to use a queen introduction cage for housing her until acceptance.
What if I have extra queens from my graft?
- The round queen cages can be used to hold and confine extra emerging virgins in your cell builders
- These can be banked for a time in your cell building unit and used later
- These cages can also be used as introduction cages for your virgins
The raising of queens has been extensively covered in many books and we encourage you to read them and formulate a plan as to how you will proceed.