Yes, You Can Raise Queens!

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Man, oh man, things have been busy on the homestead. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in peaches, cucumbers, and tomatoes that need canning. We also picked a wheelbarrow full of apples to start our first batch of hard cider. We’ve taken turkeys to butcher, cut back some of the garden… it’s starting to feel like fall is coming. It’s pretty much been business-as-usual in the beeyard, however, but I wanted to share this queen-rearing technique that we’ve been playing around with.

First of all, it seems to me that everyone panics when their queen dies or isn’t laying. Certianly, if your hive is missing a queen and there are no eggs laid, you’re in a bit of a bind, but if you have eggs, the bees will make a queen. This summer we’ve been watching the hives weekly and really learning a lot about the business of raising queens.

As you may rememember, we installed four packages in the spring and two of the packages drifted into the third almost immediately after intallation. It resulted in what we call Mega Hive. We ended up splitting Mega Hive several times this summer, but also watched it like a hawk for swarming. We noticed that they built a lot of queen cups in that hive and then they started actually growing queens in the upper boxes. The queen was still alive and well and laying the most beautiful brood pattern in the brood boxes, so we decided to experiment and cut the queen cells out. We experimented with them by putting them in queen-less splits, or keeping them in queen cages to hatch. Pretty much all of them hatched. A few in the queen-less hives hatched, then the bees killed her, then raised their own. So it’s been an interesting summer, in that regard.

My husband even built this adorable tiny hive with tiny little frames and we’ve been using that has a holding tank for extra queens (one at a time, of course) with a few workers thrown in.

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About two months ago my husband found a free ebook called I.M.N. System Of Queen Rearing by Mel Disselkoen. This is a variation of The Hopkins Method of Queen-RearingWe thought this method was interesting, so we decided to give it a try.

In order for this to work, you have to use a hive that does not have a queen and you have to remove any eggs that are in there (and save one frame for the process outlined below). If you don’t, the bees will just build comb on the horizontal frame (see below) and raise their own queen from one of the eggs (we speak from experience).
So the first thing to do is fashion a cover that will allow you to install a frame horizontally in the hive:

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In order to do this, you need to use a frame of eggs in comb that is not built off of plasticell. The reason for this (as we learned the hard way) is that it is easier to cut the queen cells off when you aren’t trying to saw through plasticell.  The next thing you want to do is plug the same number of cells as you’d like queens (we went for 14 on attempt #1). My husband made bullet-shaped “plugs” out of wooden dowels, but anything that’s the right size will work (q-tips are another option):

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Then you sprinkle the entire frame with flour. It needs to be heavily coated. (The photo below was taken mid-sprinkle). The reason you’re doing this is to kill all of the eggs except the ones you want turned into queens.

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Shake off the excess flour, then remove the plugs, place the cover on, comb-side down, and go about your business.

12 days later, we came back to check our progress and found 10 queens! They are kind of in the frame all over the place (probably because we didn’t do an amazing job of flour-sprinkling), but they are there!

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Now, getting them out was a bit tricky because the comb was built on plasticell (live and learn).  First we tried cutting them out with a knife, but that was a mess, so then we used queen cups to kind of cut out circles around each one and then scoop each one out. We did squish a few in the process, but overall it was pretty much a success.

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So it wasn’t perfect and we lost a few, but it was seriously pretty darn easy. One thing that frustrates me whenever we go to beekeeping workshops and conferences is that it seems like many treat queen-rearing like some advanced skill that newbies better not try and do. Maybe because the people running the sessions sell queens too and your ignorance is their gain! You do need to know that it takes 16 days for a queen cell to hatch and, as a result, you really need to keep an eye on things, otherwise she’ll hatch before you have a chance to move the cell!

If nothing else, one thing we learned is that you might as well try! You never know what you might learn, and if you accidentally squish one, then cut it open and have a mini-dissection! Might as well make it a worthwhile death.

Other Resources to Check Out:

Bush Bees, Queen Rearing

The Hopkins Method of Queen Rearing, Bush Bees

The Hopkins Method of Queen-Rearing, Khalil Hamdan

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New (to me, at least): Ankle-Biting Honeybees

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This year my husband and I signed up to participate in the Michigan Pollinator Initiative.  Basically, as a participant, you have the opportunity to participate in various research projects.  I just received an email from the organizer, Dr. Meghan Milbrath, with the opportunity to order Michigan x Ankle Biter breeder queen for $150 on the condition that you are willing to make at least 100 queens available for sale.  Their hope is that this project will result in the addition of genetic material that yields desired traits to flourish within the honeybee population.

So, what’s an Ankle Biter bee?

Dr. Greg Hunt, at Purdue University, is breeding what he’s called ankle-biters. Now, I’m going to attempt summarize what this means and you’ll be nice because I’m not a biologist 🙂

Dr. Hunt and his team have been breeding from queens who come from colonies with significant grooming behavior. Bees are natural cleaners, but the researchers were looking for queens whose colonies were more “aggressively” cleaning. Specifically, Hunt’s bees bit the legs off of varroa mites – a pest that is devastating the honeybee population. Once legless, the mites eventually die.  His bees also have some of the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) trait, but I think the leg-biting is the exciting new element here.

As a review, varroa mites are present in most hives. They feed on bees and their larva. The result of this is bee death as they spread Deformed Wing Virus through the colony. Typically a colony can handle a small mite presence, but in more recent years, mite presence has grown to epic proportions. As a beekeeper, a big part of what you’re looking for when you inspect a hive, is the presence of varroa.

There are ways to treat varroa mites. There are, of course, harsh chemicals and also some natural treatments (spices, essential oils).  We have never treated in any way for mites because we’ve never noticed a huge impact, however, we’re now starting to wonder if some of our weaker colonies have been this way because of mite presence.

Anyway, if beekeepers are able to introduce the ankle-biter trait into honeybee colonies, this might mean the bees can begin to solve the problem themselves. This is interesting and also makes me curious if there will be a consequence of this behavior.  Will bees who eat the legs off of varroa be more aggressive? Will it change their hygiene in any other areas of the hive? Will the death of the varroa lead to the increase in a different, new pest?  All the reasons why I love science. Any one answer only opens the door to 100 new questions!

I’m not sure we’ll spend the money to obtain a queen. Committing to raising a 100 queens is no small task and we have never attempted queen-rearing at that level.  It’s definitely going to be a conversation for the dinner table, however!

Here’s Dr. Hunt’s presentation about the ankle-biter honeybee (it also includes information about the effect of pesticides on honeybees):

The Birds and the Bees of Honeybees

It’s spring, thus I offer this very simple, very shortened summary of a queen’s life…

When you buy a nuc or a package, the queen is already running the show, but if that queen dies or a colony swarms, the bees find themselves needing to make a new queen.  They do this in peanut-shaped cells called “queen cells.”  (Photo from BeekeepingStuff.com)

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It is not uncommon for a hive to create several queen cells. If more than one hatches at the same time, they fight to the death. The winner, of course, then declares her queendom.

  1. Newly hatched queens actually make what is called a “piping” sound. You can actually hear some examples of this HERE.
  1. The new queen must then leave the hive for a mating flight. It is while she’s on this flight that she will mate with many drones (male bees). These could be drones from your own hive, a neighbor’s hive, or feral bees. This also means your queen might be gobbled up by a bird or smashed on the windshield of a car if she’s not careful! The sperm she receives will last her for the rest of her life. The mating takes place 20-30 feet in the air and might be the only time the queen ever leaves the hive.

Here’s a clip from the documentary More than Honey that actually shows a mating flight.

4. When the queen returns home from her “night on the town,” she then begins laying eggs. She will pretty much spend the rest of her life doing this. Depending on the queen and the season, she can lay up to 1500 eggs per day! Eventually she will run out of sperm (and also her important queen pheromone) and this will signal the colony to begin to create new queen cells. Thus the process will start again. As a fun fact, if the new queen hatches and the old one is still alive, the bees in the colony may attack the old queen stinging and killing her.  It is also possible to have a hive that runs smoothly with two queens for a period. Typically, in that case, one of the queens will leave and take her swarm with her.

A queen can be identified by her long, brown abdomen. Typically she’ll move with her legs splayed out and the bees around her will usually turn to face her as she moves through.  She is generally surrounded by an entourage as you see in this picture my husband snapped last summer of our queen. The queen has a green dot on her back, but she’s being guarded by a worker.

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Here’s a clearer picture of a queen from CatskillMountaineer.com (the queen is in the middle)

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