Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed…

For the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping I am trying my hand at raising my own Queens. I’m excited for what this new skill means for my apiary and now wonder why I didn’t start sooner! We’re at the height of the growing season now and I am out there in the thick of it, loving every minute.

runamuk apiariesIn the field where the grasses are growing chest-high under the golden summer sunshine, elbow deep in a beehive amid a cloud of buzzing bees it is easy to forget that Runamuk is still homeless, that my vision for a pollinator conservation farm is still only a concept in my mind. Mostly I maintain a positive attitude about it: “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”; and “I’m so awesome I’m making an impact on my community even as a landless farmer.”

Raising my own Queens through propagation of hardy Maine honeybee stock means I will finally be able to stop buying in bees every year; it means I can move toward a more sustainable apiary. Such is the nature of beekeeping that the beekeeper must accept the fact that there will be annual losses of colonies; statistics site that the nationwide average of annual hive loss among American beekeepers is 38%. Beekeepers like Kirk Webster, Mike Palmer and Ross Conrad are mitigating those losses by producing their own bees to supply their apiaries. I figure if those guys can do it, so can I. I’ve read their books, listened to their talks, and this past winter I read Brother Adams’ book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey which lent more depth to the process of overwintering Queens as nucleus colonies.

Something about the Queen honeybee is a little intimidating though. I’ve always been super protective of her and the idea of being responsible for numerous Queens was─and still is─a little scary for me. However the rewards of learning to produce good Queens was too powerful a draw for this beekeeper to resist. Not only would producing my own Queens provide me with the means to grow my apiary, but also create opportunity to sell overwintered nucs and mated-Queens, which are in high demand. That’s money in the bank for Runamuk.

humble abodesI did my homework, had a plan mapped out, knew exactly what I needed for supplies, and we trucked down to Humble Abodes for equipment. Humble Abodes is my favorite place to purchase bee-equipment; made with pine and milled right there at their facility in Windsor, it’s local, reasonably priced and I can drive to pick it up to avoid shipping costs.

Forever bootstrapping Runamuk along, we sought the cheapest way to make this leap possible. I decided to just buy the deep boxes and turn them into double-nucs myself. We happened to have enough plywood on hand that we could create the divider, along with bottom boards and top-covers. Paul cut the pieces and I assembled it all and before we knew it we had 10 divided nuc-boxes ready to go.

divided deeps for queen rearing

Divided deep boxes for mating nucs.

ventilated nuc box

I simply took the bottom off a nuc box and stapled metal screening to the bottom.

I made my ventilated cell-starting boxes and loaded it with young nurse bees. Then I took a frame of eggs from one of the 2 colonies I have that survived this last winter: the one with the best brood pattern and the calmest temperament. Instead of grafting, which can have a lower success rate because you’re moving the larvae around, I opted to try another method where you simply cut the frame with the eggs into strips and adhere it to the Queen-cell frame with beeswax.

queen cells

Proof of concept: started Queen-cells!!!

We were right down to the wire on this project. I had started the first round of Queens and then we ran for the equipment and rushed to get it put together. I even started a second round and put those cells in the finisher-hive too. By the time I got to the apiary to move the Queen-cells into mating nucs the first Queen had hatched out and killed the other 17 Queens before they even had a chance to emerge.

destroyed queen cellsTiming is everything in raising Queens. Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.

queen cell prep in the field

Cutting comb to assemble another frame of potential Queen-cells. Since my apiary is not where I live, I found it was easier to set up right in the field than to truck my cell-starter all the way home to do it.

Not to be deterred, I’ve started a 3rd round. It’s a new skill and it takes time to master anything worth doing. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the process. Setting up the cell-starter seems to be the biggest pain, though prepping the Queen-cell frame is tedious. I’ve realized how crucial it is to know how old the larvae is that you use for Queen-production and how important the timing is too. There’s not much lee-way so the beekeeper has to be prepared.

the finisher hive

Queen-cells are started in a “cell-starter” then transferred to a “finisher hive” like this one!

Otherwise in the apiary this are going well. We’ve been selling the honey from the hives we lost this past winter at market all season; it feels really good to have that product on the table at the Runamuk at the Madison Farmers’ Market. The packages we bought from Peter Cowin ramped up with surprising speed and are now making honey. We got fewer nucleus colonies from Bob Egan than we’d initially planned, allowing me to pursue the Queen-project that was so important to me; those nucs have just about filled the brood nest and will be ready to make honey in earnest by the time the fall nectar-flow hits.

Depending on how many Queens I manage to produce the two colonies that came through the winter will get broken down to provide mating-nucs with combs and resources. It may seem counter-intuitive to take apart perfectly good, well established colonies, but those well established colonies also have well-established colonies of Varroa mites. Breaking up a colony also breaks up that mite-infestation and reduces the pest-pressure on the bees. Besides, if I can go from 2 hives to 40, it’s well worth the sacrifice in the long run.

To me it makes sense to raise my own Queens. What do you think? Have any tips for me? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

One thought on “Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed…

  1. ClaudeP.

    “Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.” LOL! Ya, seen it. Do not get discouraged. Learn, refine, try again. Raising queens is not hard. However, keeping a daily journal and attention to timing is crucial as you have unfortunately experienced.

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