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.
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.
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.
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.
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.