Raising Queen Bees
Rearing queen bees as a hobby
There is one member of your hive that you simply cannot do without: the queen. She is the center of the entire process that the hive goes through. Without her, there are no more worker eggs that will be laid. Without more workers, the hive will slowly dwindle down to nothing.
If you find yourself in a situation of having a queenless hive, you will need to get your hands on a queen as soon as possible. Unfortunately, queens are not the cheapest thing to buy. They are typically $20 to $25 a pop. If you find yourself needing a few, you can quickly spend over a hundred dollars. If you raise your own queens you can bank them for emergency situations just like this.
On the other side of the coin, if you, as a beekeeper, need new queens from time to time, other beekeepers do too. You can turn this to your advantage. You can raise queens and sell them for that same $25. Sell a handful of these special little bugs and you now have a hobby that is paying for itself!
Queen Honey Bee
Center of the hive
The queen is the center of hive life. At her laying peak, she is laying 1500 - 2500 eggs a day. She has many nurse bees taking care of her and grooming her. She is so busy laying eggs, she really doesn't have time to feed herself. The more eggs she can lay, the more workers will hatch. The more workers there are, the more honey they will produce. The more honey there is, the better chance they have to survive the winter months.
As you can easily see, she is the main component. When you are inspecting your hive, take extreme care not to damage her in any way. It is not uncommon to hear of a beekeeper accidentally squashing her which will send the hive into a state of panic. It is also possible to damage her in other ways such as hurting her feet which secrete certain pheromones. The hive may decide that she isn't good enough because she no longer produces as much of these pheromones or possibly even lays fewer eggs. The name of the game is to be careful.
So how do you keep from hurting her? As a responsible beekeeper, you need to dig into your hives to make sure she is laying lots of eggs and that they are in a good pattern. The trick is that you don't actually have to see her to know she is there. If you crack open a hive and see evidence that she is doing well, just put it back together and trust that she is there. This gives far less chance of her getting hurt.
Splitting Bee Hives
Let them do the work
The easiest way to make a new queen is to simply split one hive into two, setting a top box next to the original. Interestingly, the original queen will be in one of the boxes, but it really doesn't matter which. As long as there are young larva or eggs in the other box the workers will turn one of the young larva into a queen.
It will take up to 10 hours before the hive knows that their queen is gone, but after that, they will get to work very quickly. They know that there isn't much time to start feeding some of the young larva the extra diet of Royal Jelly that is needed to turn a worker into a queen.
If you are one of those people that really need to know which hive your original queen is in, don't go poking around and trying to find her. That only gives you a better chance of hurting her. Wait a few hours and you will hear one of the boxes get very loud. Eventually you will notice a large percentage of the bees in the hive (and some that are hanging around outside) stick their thorax in the air and drum their wings. They are trying to move air through the hive so they can smell the pheromones of the queen. Once they begin doing this, they are starting to think something might have gone wrong but they aren't quite sure. The hive doing this does not have a queen.
After about a month, peek into that hive and check for signs of a laying queen. You should see eggs and larva by then. If you haven't seen eggs and larva after two months, something bad happened. At that point you simply combine that hive with another using the newspaper trick and start over with a different hive to split.
Queen cells are very easy to identify because they are much larger than the average cell not to mention they are a different shape. The queen cells typically hang vertically instead of horizontally as well. The workers start out by enlarging the actual cell the larva is in and then extend it as the larva matures. These cells are fairly tough but it is not advisable to bang them around as it could damage the queen inside.
From time to time the bees, for some unknown reason, will build a cell large enough to hold a queen but not actually put anything in it. If you start seeing queen cells in your hive, take a very close look inside it to determine if it is an actual queen cell or a fake one. A real queen cell will have a milky substance, royal jelly, with a larva floating on top.
Queen grafting is the most effective way of raising your own queen honey bee. While it is a more advanced technique, it is far more reliable and can produce many more queens than the others.
The basic idea of queen grafting is to make an artificial cup, place a young larva in it, and then place into a hive that is ready for a new queen.
To make an artificial queen cup, round the end of a 3/8 dowel rod. Melt extra wax that you have retrieved over time from your hives. Once the wax is melted, soak the dowel and then dip the rounded end into the melted wax. Quickly dip the wax covered dowel into cool water. Repeat this 4 to 6 times. Once the cup has been built up you will be able to remove it with your fingers.
Select a frame of larva, approximately 1 1/2 days old, from one of your favorite queen's hive. Gently scoop the young larva with its royal jelly and place it into the cup you made. This cup can then be placed into a queenless hive. The workers will build the cell up and take care of the young queen until it is time to cap the cell. Once capped you can move to a mating nuc.
Video Demo of Grafting Queen Cells
Mating nucs come in all sorts of styles. Some are normal hive boxes that have separated compartments and some are tiny baby boxes just big enough for a few hundred bees to fit into. No matter what the style, the purpose is the same, taking care of the queen until she is mated. These box's only function is to house the queen for a few months while she first emerges and is beginning her laying.
One thing to be careful about nucs is to make sure you don't use ones that are too small for your area. Where I am in Virginia, the mini nucs usually don't work very well because of the hive beetles that are in this area. Check with your local beekeeping guild to see what their experience is and what types of nucs they usually use.
Videos about raising queen bees
Here are some great videos from YouTube giving more information about raising queen bees.
Queen Mandibular Pheromone
Interestingly, a hive thrives on pheromones. The strongest of these is Queen Mandibular Pheromone. The queen secretes this substance which tells the other bees that she is there. If something happens to the queen they know because they can no longer detect any Queen Mandibular Pheromone. This tells them to start making new queens.
The way this is spread around the hive is primarily through touch. When workers groom the queen they get it all over themselves. They in turn come in contact with other bees in the hive and it spreads through a chain reaction of touches.
When a hive becomes too crowded the pheromone is not able to spread through the hive as well and some of the bees may begin to think she is no longer there. This will cause more queens to be raised which results in two queens in the hive. When there are two queens the hive will swarm. If you have ever seen a clump of bees hanging in a tree or bush, this is what happened. This is actually the bees natural way of reproducing and spreading.
Have you ever raised your own queen? Let us know how it went for you and how you did it.