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Queen Rearing

A Foray Into Queen Rearing
This year I decided that I wanted to do a bit more science with the bees. Following losses in the past my current stocks of bees have all come from locally collected swarms or bait hives. Up until now I have increased stocks by splitting large double brood colonies, harvesting emergency queen cells, harvesting queen cells from a colony preparing to swarm or moving brood with eggs from desirable colonies to prepared queen less nucs. All of these methods have worked well for me but they have quite an overhead on the donor colony. And as with all things bee keeping the conditions need to right to get a good result. So sometimes the work needs to be repeated ie. when the weather doesn't play ball, which results in further strains on the donor colonies.

So I decided the time had come for me to try my hand at grafting lava, as in theory this should have a lesser impact on the donor colony. I was fortunate to have seen Brian Clarke's and Mike Hunt's summer apiary session on grafting and also fortunate to be invited to attend a train the trainer practical session run by Will Messenger, where Graham Royle filled in a few more pieces of the "black art of queen rearing" jigsaw for me. So by now I was all fired up and keen to give it a go; here is an account of how things have worked out. The equipment I used:

  1. A grafting tool
  2. JZ-BZ Queen Cups
  3. Mini Nuc boxes
  4. Graft frame
  5. Donor Colony
  6. Receiver Colony

The grafting Tool
There are various choices of implement that can be employed to perform the grafting. Basically you need a device to lift the very tiny lava from a brood cell and deposit it in a queen cup. There are specialist grafting tools available, but a very tiny artists paint brush can be used or a long match stick carved to a fine spatula. I opted to try the match stick for my first attempts.

Queen cups
These can be easily be made from bees wax by repeatedly dipping a shaped wooden dowl into a pot of melted wax. It doesn't need to be hexagonal, a round section will do. To ease getting it off the dowl it is a good idea to slightly taper the dowl and give it a domed end profile. Alternatively you can use commercial cups. For my experiments I opted to use the JZ-BZ Cups. These come with an oval peg in the base which allows them to be fixed into a saw cut or hole in a top bar.

Graft Frame
For my first experiments I used an old super frame with no wax and placed the cups along the bottom edge.

Mini Nuc Box
I've never tried mini nucs before. There are pros and cons to using them over using full sized nuc boxes or brood boxes. The main advantages being their cost and small number of bees needed to start the colony. I decided to use the Apedia boxes mainly because the name came up at the train the trainer session and I could remember it long enough to find it on google when I got back home! The reviews I found were favourable, they are quite a clever design of inter locking polystyrene parts with three frames and a feeder box. They can be expanded up to 5 mini frames by adding a super feeder box. In theory they should allow a new queen to mate and be tested before moving the successful ones to standard equipment.

Donor Colony
This should be the colony who's traits you most want to have in your apiary. At the moment I'm going with gut feel but in the future I intend to keep better records of each colonies performance so I can better decide. The colony I wanted to use was off lay due to high nectar flows when I first wanted grafts so I chose the best developing colony of it's siblings from my earlier breeding this year. At this stage I only want to prove the process from end to end I am not looking for an amazing new strain of bees, that would be a bonus!

Receiver Colony
This is the colony that you use to raise the queen cells. It must have plenty of nurse bees and have food and pollen available close to the frame of grafts. A good feral strain of bees which readily raise queen cells is a desirable trait for your receiver Colony.

My Experiments
For my first attempts I tried to raise queens in a queen right colony, I've not tried this before. Effectively what happens is the simulating of a supersedure condition. To do this the colony is spread over two brood boxes. The queen is kept in the lower box by a QX and in the top box we make sure that there is, plenty of young bees, feed and pollen available.

I tried two cycles like this and got no grafts to take. Maybe it was me being too heavy handed with the grafts, the weather, my graft frame, or the bees more interest in the honey flow than in wanting to supersede? As an aside - For the first cycle I did the grafting right by the hives with my vail and gloves on. I found it difficult to see the tinniest lava in the side on evening light. For the second attempt I shook all the bees off and went well away from the hives so I could use my bare hands and remove the vail. It was much easier to see, the mid day sunlight from above helped a lot too.

I decided to make up a queen less receiver colony and try putting grafts into that - my thinking here here was that a queenless colony would be desperate to draw queen cells. I split the receiver colony into two brood boxes frame by frame to make sure each box had eggs and food. I didn't see the queen but during the operation I had a good hunch which of the two boxes she was in as a slight temperament change between the two be came evident, one box (the new one) was very calm and the other less so. I was proved right a week later when I inspected the colonies and broke down all the emergency queen cells.

Right then, grafting attempt three. This time into a queen less colony. I inserted the grafts and gave the colony a good lump of candy over the crown board feed hole for added food. I checked three days later and still no grafts taken, all cups cleaned out, no wax added to the plastic but the candy was going down! Maybe it was me, or maybe my ad hoc graft frame was at fault - were the cells placed too low down by having no foundation above? Not sure about this as in all cases the bees had cleaned out of the cups so they must have visited them.

Attempt 4. This time I tried putting some more grafts in my frame but this time I also put some cups at the top of the graft frame. I was really extra careful handling the lava. It does take a bit of practise but I found that I could just stick the middle of the lava onto my match stick grafting tool and place it in the cup, rather than scoop under the lava which then sometimes caused me some difficulty getting them off the blade and into middle of the cup. I'm also getting quicker at doing them which might help. It is important not to turn the lava upside down as they breathe through spiracles on their upper most side.

I've checked the results and attempt 4 has failed - all cells cleaned out again. I took a good look through the colony and found out why. The bees had found some more suitable queen raising lava of their own and raised three more queen cells after I'd broken their previous ones down. I thought they were beyond this ability when I did graft 3 - wrong!. With hind sight I should have checked for this after attempt 3. Note to self, leave enough time to be certain the colony is queen less before adding the graft cells. I did get a clue that they were up to something as they were busy building wax on the graft frame when I inspected after attempt 3 but I didn't act on it until after attempt 4. If they were queen (cell) less I don't think that they would be doing this, might be wrong?

Graft attempt 5 is now under way. I'm now hoping that the bees realise I've removed their own queen cells before tearing down my grafts again. Maybe I should have given them more time (they only had my grafting time to discover their queen cell less state) before I put in the graft frame? We will know soon enough. They have just about finished the candy I gave them so I will give them some sugar syrup later today. I also moved more graft cells to the top bar this time as I'm feeling that would be a more natural place for the bees to find them on than below an empty frame.

Houston we have lift off. Graft attempt 5 has produce three nice queen cells, on the underside of the top bar from the 4 cells I placed there. There are no grafts in the cells I placed along the bottom edge of the frame.

My next step is to transfer these cells into three mini nucs when they are 13 days old. At the same time I will unite the queenless receiver colony with it's queen right sister colony.

Today 26/08/12 at 8.30am I filled the mini nucs. I decided that I would use some bees from the receiver colony as it would automatically ensure no queens were put into the mini nucs and also help ensure the queen cells were excepted - we will see if this theory is correct later. To fill the mini nucs I shook the bees into a gardeners rubber trug which I had made the inside wet - by leaving it out in the rain! This allowed me to squeeze the handles together and form a nice spout to pour the bees into the upturned Apidea boxes. There is a video on you tube of a guy filling nucs. My method worked a treat and I had the job done in seconds. Next I closed the nucs and moved them into a shed, so that they would be in the dark. I filled the feed boxes with 1 - 1 syrup. Finally I put the BZ queen cells into the nucs.

To stop the cell falling through the access hole I wrapped a piece of wire around the cell to produce two long ends with a loop in the middle. Previously I had put a small strip of foundation at the top of each frame to give the bees a hint as to where to build their comb. The plan now is that I will give them a few days for each nuc to bond as a colony and then I will move the three nucs outside and let the queens fly to mate.

When I left the mini nucs in the morning, I could hear that there was a bit of fanning going on as the bees sorted themselves out. In the evening I popped down to shed to see what was going on. There was a loud roaring noise coming from the nucs I guess the bees were hard at work processing their syrup. I was surprised how loud it was, it sounded like one of those fan braked rowing machines going full tilt.

30/08/12 I moved the three Apidea mini nucs outside today and set them up in my apiary. I was excited to open them and see if we had any successful hatchings. The first Nuc was interesting in that the bees had pulled all my foundation out of the frames onto the floor and then built their own comb onto the queen cell, such that I could not withdraw the cell through the crown board hole. I broke the cell free from the wax and uncapped the cell. There was a white partly formed bee inside.

The next two Nucs where better, both had hatched queen cells. So I think we now have two nucs with virgin queens. I've been feeding three colonies in my apiary for a few weeks now in an attempt to keep them building so I am hoping that these new queens can get mated successfully with drones from them. The weather will play a part here too. As an aside I found that a few bees had managed to drown themselves in the feeder which I had filled with syrup. I thought it was such a small area they would be able to climb out. To avoid this in the future I will create some floating platforms for the bees to feed from. Also because I was feeding syrup which had to be added after the bees (they go in through the bottom which means the nuc box has to turned upside down) I had decided to put the crown board on top of the vent screen so I could slide it back keeping the bees section covered whilst I filled the feeder compartment. I was quite surprised to find that a few bees had subsequently managed to squeeze through the tiny space this leaves and get into the roof space of the Apidea. As an aside, the bees from the nuc which didn't hatch a queen cell were shaken out in front of one of the other mini nucs and I watched the bees climb up into the box.

01/09/12 Fitted the floating platforms today. In doing so I found that one of the nucs was out of feed, I had only topped them up two days ago so I suspect that there has been some robbing going on. Although the default entrance is not that big on these nucs, I've now pulled the sliding shutter right down to just one bee space. I'll check back tomorrow and see how much the feed has gone down. I also observed a drone walking along by the entrance, so I know that there are still some about.

08/09/12 The feeder floats have worked a treat and the bees have stopped drowing themselves. The rate of syrup consumption has slowed too, I'm checking every couple of days or so and it is now usually 1/2 full.

13/09/12 I couldn't resist any longer, so today I took a quick peek in side the bees brood area of each Nuc. In the first I found eggs and a couple of sealed cells on the first frame (nearest to the feeder). At the top of the frame there was sealed stores and there were a couple of cells with a dark pollen. The second frame was also drawn and full of syrup. Both of these had been drawn down from the top and were near the bottom of the frame legs but had quite a taper, the two sealed cells were in the taper section but built proud of the rest. I hope they are not drone. They had pulled the foundation sheet off the third frame so I swapped it for another. Maybe I need to learn how to stick the foundation in better. The second Nuc had no eggs but the bees had drawn two frames down and were working on the third. Most of the cells were full of syrup, some sealed at the top but there was no laying space. I think I will stop feeding for a while to balance the space. I didn't see either queen but it was only a quick peek. In order to be more dextrous I tried using nitrile milking gloves (Countrywide) rather than my heavy blue gloves (Maisemore), they worked a treat.

25/09/12 I checked the Nucs today to see how things were progressing. Still no eggs in the one which was empty last time. In the other one there was not much going on either, the small amount of laying had stopped and there was a single sealed queen cell. The bees had not started to draw the third frame but the foundation was still in place. I'm guessing that I was too slow getting grafts to take and by the time I got the process sorted it was just too late in the season for my queens to get mated properly. Whilst looking through the nucs I was visted by a hornet too. I couldn't catch it to squash it but I did manage to keep it out of the nucs. Given where were are in the season, I think we have probably reached the end of the road for this year with the queen rearing experiments. I've really learnt a lot and had good fun doing it, I can't wait until next May when I can try again building on the experience I have gained this season. I also now have some drawn out mini nuc frames. I hope the project has been of interest and that you might give QR a try, if you do let me know how you get on.


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