Queen Rearing: An Introduction for Beekeepers

Many amateur apiarists are discovering that honey production is only part of the challenge and reward of beekeeping.

| May/June 1984

  • Queen Rearing Frame
    Learn the fascinating art of queen rearing. 
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    Grafting a larva into a queen cup is a very delicate operation.
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    Marie and Noel Blanchet are large scale honey producers and queen breeders. 

  • Queen Rearing Frame
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  • 087-050-01-im5

The queen bee truly lives up to her royal reputation: An efficient, untiring, yet graceful monarch that can insure either the survival or the demise of her subjects, she is the key to a honeybee colony's operation. Filling up to 1,500 cells a day (at the peak of the season) with fertilized ova that will hatch into worker bees, she's attended by a fanatically loyal following of nurses that fan her, clean her, and generally see to Her Highness's comfort as she goes about her sole and constant chore of laying eggs. The mystery and reverence surrounding this winged ruler have long played major roles in the lore of beekeeping . . . and rightly so. A "good laying" queen (one that deposits brood eggs in solid, even patterns across the comb) is a valuable commodity, as any apiarist will confirm.

Queens are, however, exceedingly delicate creatures and are subject to any of a number of mishaps. A ruler might have an accident on her initial mating flights, for instance, or she could be replaced by a new, younger queen (in a process called supersedure), or she might—for reasons often unknown—suddenly begin to lay useless drone brood. A hive can't get along without a queen bee, though, and since one can be lost all too easily, it behooves a serious apiculturist to learn and practice queen-rearing methods before necessity drives him or her to replace a royal layer. When these basic techniques are mastered, a beekeeper-turned-queen-breeder can also use that new knowledge to create totally new colonies, divide old hives, revive sickly ones, or even raise queens on a large scale for sale to other apiarists. The possibilities are abundant, so if you're already a practicing beekeeper (with any number of hives), you can use the methods described in this article to widen your range of abilities, delve deeper into the mysteries of queen production, and maybe even begin a side business to augment your income from honey sales.

Simple Queen Rearing

All queen-rearing methods are centered on one basic fact of bee biology: Nurse bees in a hive can turn one-day-old female (worker) larvae into queens by enlarging the young grubs' cells and feeding them a steady diet of hormone-rich royal jelly. Hence, every technique is based upon introducing tiny, still uncurled eggs (which stand up in their cells and look a bit like slivers) or hatched one-day-old larvae (which recline and may be beginning to curl) to a group of queenless—and thus highly motivated—nurse bees.

The easiest way to raise queens, and the one most often used by hobbyist and backyard beekeepers, is the Sommerford system, which was named after the Texas apiarist who developed it at the beginning of this century. This simple and natural technique allows the bees themselves to choose the brood cells in which they'll nourish and rear a new queen, insuring production of a strong, healthy ruler that's especially adapted to a particular hive in a particular location . . . unlike a packaged queen, which may be unsuited to her new environment.

To raise one or several queens the Sommerford way, first select your best and busiest hive, then remove two frames of brood comb (sealed cells filled with eggs) and another frame that contains honey, the queen, and a number of adhering bees. Next, install them all in an empty hive or a nucleus (a small, temporary hive, usually called a nuc, that's used just for this purpose), tucking the brood frames snugly in the middle racks. It's much better to do this during a good honey flow . . . that is, when many nectar-producing flowers are in bloom. If that isn't possible, provide the deprived parent hive with a feeder of sugar-and-water syrup or thinned honey. Then leave the hive alone for nine or ten days. The deserted bees will soon become aware that their queen is gone and will start building queen cells in the remaining brood frames.

Later, when you open the hive to inspect the new peanut-shaped structures that contain the royal-jelly-fed pupae, destroy any cells that are uncapped, small, or appear to be defective (these will be dark and smooth-sided). Carefully extract the healthy cells, along with a bit of surrounding comb. Handle these pupal cocoons with great care, as excessive shaking or jarring can damage a developing queen.



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