Rearing Queen Bees

Frank and I attended a workshop last weekend on queen bee rearing at a really cool property that’s owned by The Wheen Bee Foundation. This is a small organisation that exists due to the generosity of its benefactor, Gretchen Wheen. It’s aim is to study, preserve and improve honey bees in Australia.

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Neither Frank nor I have any aspiration to rear queens for ourselves or for sale, but figured you can’t have too much knowledge about bees and bee management.

I walked away from the 3 hour session with a better understanding of bees, more confidence in my ability to work with them and with an even stronger belief that I’ll never rear my own queens. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just pretty specific in the steps, a new queen only costs $20 and, most of the time, bees will make their own queen (though maybe not as nice of one as a bee breeder would make) without any help from silly old humans.

There are 3 reasons bees make a new queen: 1) their old queen is lost or dies , 2) their old queen is under-performing which triggers a supersedure (a bee coup d’état), 3) their old queen is about to swarm. In the first case, bees are forced to create emergency cells. These are built out on existing brood cells which hold young (about 3 days old) bee larvae. In supersedure and swarming, bees make queen cells which hang from the base of the brood comb. Beekeepers do their best to mimic these conditions when rearing (or convincing the colony to rear) queens.

Beekeepers generally like to discourage bees from making their own queens by preventing swarming and replacing queens before they reach an age where a hive might decide to do it themselves. Beekeepers will also replace queens if the hive becomes unproductive or aggressive. As the queen is, so goes the hive. You can change the mood and activity of a hive in just 6 weeks by replacing the queen.

Queen rearing involves several steps which must be performed at the right time and in the right conditions. I’m sure I’d get it wrong if I detailed it all here (and bore myself and anyone reading this post in doing so) but I thought the whole thing interesting enough to share a précis of the process.

The beekeeper must first harvest larvae from existing brood cells (up to 40 at a time) and place them in artificial queen cells. These cells are then placed in a hive box with pollen-laden frames and plenty of nurse bees who have been prepared to create a new queen by being made queenless for a few hours.

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Bee larvae taken from uncapped brood cell

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Bee larvae placed in an artificial queen cell

The bees accept these queen cells and build them up with more wax while feeding the larvae with royal jelly. It is this feeding which turns a normal bee larvae into a queen. The cells in the photo below have been in a hive for 1 day – it’s impressive to see how much work the bees have put into building up the cells and making themselves a new queen.

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Artificial queen cells built up by bees, each with bee larvae and royal jelly inside

Depending on the method used, the queen cells can remain with the same hive or be moved from one that built them up to one that feeds and tends them to maturity.

If you really only want a single queen for your own use, it’s probably a good idea to start with about 10 larvae and destroy some of the successful queen cells early so the remaining are well cared for. The better the queen larvae is treated, the better the resulting queen will be.

It takes a total of 16 days from laying to hatching of a queen bee. She then goes around killing any potential rivals before they can be born. She wanders the hive for 10 days then goes on her mating flights where she’ll mate with about 15 drones, collect and store all the sperm she’ll ever need, then return to the hive where she’ll lay day-after-day, only leaving again if she swarms.

My Hive 1 Queen Bee

My Hive 1 Queen Bee. Lovely, long golden body, large thorax, short wings.

This description really oversimplifies the process and leaves out a pretty crucial step: to properly rear good, productive queens you need to worry about the genes of their baby-daddies as well. Hence the mating flight and drone populations within a couple of kilometres of your hive becomes significant. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I find the whole thing fascinating and feel I learned a lot at the workshop, but I don’t think I’ll ever take the step to rear a queen myself.

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
This entry was posted in bees, Nature, Sustainability and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Rearing Queen Bees

  1. vuchickens says:

    very fascinating indeed! and another beautiful photo of your queen as well. 🙂

  2. Max says:

    Another great Bee post! Your stories have reinforced my desire to become a beekeeper

    • I’ve yet to find a reason not to be one. What I love about bees is if I ignore them they are just as happy as if I “tend” them – probably happier. But I live in Australia where the climate is mild and the varroa mites are non-existent. I suspect if I had a couple of years where my hives died off I might sing a different tune. But till then I’m a great beekeeping evangelist – bring on the converts!

  3. Emily Heath says:

    Very interesting! Emma and I like to let our bees rear their own queens. Not about to try artificial insemination anytime soon…

    • Oh, no way on the artificial insemination thing. I’d also rather let my girls produce their own new queens, I just hope they do it without swarming (could be a problem with my neighbours) and that they are clever enough not to mate with their own drones and basically that they do a nice, neat and successful job of it. Am I asking too much???

      • Emily Heath says:

        Take advantage of any swarm cells they produce to do an artificial swarm, that way you get to keep the bees and get a new queen too. I think I read somewhere that drones can smell if they are closely related to a queen and avoid mating with her that way.

        • That is something I may try some day. The problem is catching them when they’re really ready (i.e. strong enough) to swarm and not weaken the hive by creating an artificial swarm at the wrong time. There are often 1 or 2 swarm cells in a hive “just because”. And by the time there are a dozen, they’ve probably already swarmed (oops). I don’t check the brood very often – with little disease and pest problem, the more I check the brood, the more disruption I cause for no advantage. It’s all a balancing act…

          I hadn’t heard that about the drone. That would be a very good evolutionary advantage. I do often hear about too much inbreeding and maybe it’s not a queen with her own drone but maybe her 2nd cousin or something similar. With a small bee garden, this has to be a risk.

          • Emily Heath says:

            If there are only one or two cells often (but not always) those are supercedure cells, when the bees just want to replace the queen, or sometimes emergency cells when the queen has died.

            I’ve heard inbreeding is becoming a problem in countries like the US, where the honey bee is not native and most of the feral colonies were killed off when varroa arrived. Lots of beekeepers there order their queens in from US breeders, who rely on a limited gene pool of drones for their queens to mate with. At least that’s what an article I read recently said. It’s not a worry for me, as in London we’re surrounded by hives everywhere! But in a more isolated location I can see if could be a problem.

            Seeing how well your bees do is making me want to move to Australia. The scary spiders put me off though!

            • Haven’t most of the wild colonies of bees in Europe been killed off by varroa as well? In Australia many people consider European Honey Bees a pest because they compete with native bees. It’s nice living somewhere that has healthy bee colonies in the wild and in the back garden.

              My bees are doing incredibly well. So far this season we’ve harvested 80 kilos per hive and we expect another harvest before their winter slow-down. No complaints from me.

  4. Wow, that is so interesting. I love raw honey and would love to raise our own, but in our climate I think it would be more work than it is worth to try to keep them alive through the winter, plus the fact that both my husband and I are allergic to bee stings (that’s the real reason). So we buy or trade for honey with people who can keep them. But I still enjoy reading your posts and learning about it!

    • I’d never try beekeeping if I was allergic, or if where I lived had a hard winter, or if varroa mites were in my area – I’m definitely a fair weather beekeeper. Otherwise it can be disheartening and a lot like hard work. I don’t like hard work 🙂

      I love the idea of trading your farm products for honey. The barter system makes sense at a very basic human level.

  5. I’m learning such a lot from your posts. I had seen those artificial queen cells in a magazine and couldn’t work it all out. I wouldn’t have thought the bees would have excepted something like that. It must have been a great workshop.

    • Funny how adaptable bees are. People say they don’t much like plastic but they accept it anyway. It was a great workshop. I love learning stuff about my new passion even if I never plan to put it into practice. Glad you’re learning along with me.

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