Queens for Pennies
by Randy Oliver
I’ve been encouraged in recent years by the number of beekeepers who appear to be successfully keeping locally-adapted stocks of bees without treatment for varroa. I am a strong supporter of their efforts, and see them as the wave of the future.
But First a Rant
Unfortunately, there is also a great deal of confusion as to what “treatment free” beekeeping really means. Allow me to use an analogy to explain:
Dairymen prefer to keep Holstein cattle. Holsteins are thin-skinned, thoroughly domesticated cattle selected solely for milk production. Their normal care requires shelter, supplemental feeding, routine vaccinations, and treatment with antibiotics. If a dairyman turned his Holsteins out on the range to fend for themselves without care, and half of them died each year, he would be accused of having committed animal neglect—“the failure to provide the basic care required for an animal to thrive.”
Yet this is exactly what thousands of recreational beekeepers do every year. Under the misconception that they are practicing “treatment free” beekeeping, they are in actuality simply neglecting their domesticated animals. The reason for this is that they are starting with commercial package bees—bees akin to Holstein cattle, in that they are bred for high brood and honey production under standard management practices (notably mite management, but also supplemental feeding or antibiotic treatment if indicated). Most commercial bee stocks should be considered as domesticated animals. There is absolutely no reason to expect that your wishful thinking will miraculously transform your newly-purchased “domesticated” bees into hardy survivor stock able to survive as wild animals without standard care and treatment.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am no more criticizing the commercial queen producers than I would criticize the dedicated breeders of Holstein cattle. The queen breeders are producing the best breeds for beekeepers willing to provide their colonies with the “standard” degree of husbandry (which includes at this time, treatment(s) of some sort for varroa). I have no problem whatsoever with that; but my crystal ball says that someday the market will dwindle for bees that require regular treatment for mites.
Do not disillusion yourself. Allowing domesticated package colonies to die year after year is not in any way, shape, or form a contribution to the breeding of mite-resistant stocks. There is a vast difference between breeding for survivor stock and simply allowing commercial bees to die from neglect! By introducing commercial bees year after year into an area, and then allowing those package colonies to first produce drones and then to later die from varroa, these well-meaning but misguided beekeepers screw up any evolutionary progress that the local feral populations might be making towards developing natural resistance to varroa. Not only that, but those collapsing “mite bombs” create problems for your neighbors. Referring to yourself as a bee-keeper confers upon you a responsibility to the local beekeeping community. Allowing hives to collapse from AFB or varroa makes you a disease-spreading
Enough scolding. I strongly support those willing to actually practice selective breeding for treatment-free (or minimal treatment) locally-adapted stocks of bees. But let me be frank (try to stop me); if you start your hive with commercial stock, then by all means care for them as domesticated animals! If you want to go treatment free, then start with survivor stock bred to be naturally resistant to mites and viruses, such as VSH, Russian, or locally-adapted ferals. Do not kid yourself into thinking that allowing innocent domesticated bees to die a slow and ugly death is the same thing as breeding for survivor stock—“breeding” instead means the propagation of bees that don’t die—the key word being propagation. And this is a frustration for many well-intentioned beginners—no one in their area is propagating survivor stock for sale. That is why I wrote this article.
To me, it is a crime against nature not to breed daughters from that fantastic survivor colony. But most beekeepers think that it is beyond their scope of ability to raise queens. Nonsense! Let me show you how to raise about 10 queens at a time for pennies apiece. This is not the way we do it commercially, but this method can be easily practiced by most anyone.
A Simple Method
I’m going show you step by step how to raise about 10 queen cells in a simple queenless cell builder. Here’s a list of everything that you’ll need:
- A chosen breeder queen hive.
- A strong, healthy donor colony from which to make the cell builder hive.
- An empty brood box with a bottom board and cover to use for the cell builder hive.
- If there is no nectar flow occurring, a syrup feeder.
- If you’re over 40, a lighted magnifying headband.
- A few Chinese grafting tools.
- JZ’s BZ’s plastic cell cups.
- A damp towel
- Any sort of nuc boxes or divided hive bodies in which to mate out the queens.
Timing: It’s easiest, and you’ll get the best queens, by raising them during swarming season. Look for when your colonies start building queen cells on the bottom bars, or when they are full of emerged drones.
Day 0—Locate the future queen larvae: Before you start setting up the cell builder, first make sure that you can find larvae of the right age from your chosen breeder queen. Go into her colony and make sure that there’s an older, dark frame containing well-fed freshly-hatched larvae. Mark this frame for later recovery and put it back into the hive. You want to graft from the youngest larvae possible—when they are still the size of an egg, and just starting to curl (as in the photo above).
Choose a donor colony: This is the colony (or colonies) from which you will steal nurse bees to make up your cell builder. It must be healthy, full of brood, and the larvae should be well fed with jelly as an indicator of the nurses being in a good state of nutrition. Locate the queen of your donor colony and temporarily set her and the frame she’s on aside in a nuc box for safekeeping.
Set up the cell builder hive: Put down a bottom board with an empty brood box wherever you want to make your queenless cell builder (its entrance should be at least several feet away from the donor colony). Into this box, you are going to put at least 4 frames in the order above (the breeder larvae frame will be added later):
A comb of open larvae: Start with a comb containing some open brood and eggs. This will be the core of the cell builder, around which the nurse bees will cluster. You don’t want a solid frame of young brood competing with the queen cells for feeding—just a patch of young larvae emerging over the next few days to stimulate the nurse bees to produce an abundance of royal jelly. The rest of the frame can be sealed brood, beebread, or whatever.
Cut a channel the width of a hive tool: parallel to the top bar, at least midway up the frame, in either the pollen frame or open brood frame as shown. Scrape out the comb right down to the foundation.
Add the nurse bees: Now shake all the bees from all the frames of the donor hive (other than the one that the queen was on) into the cell builder hive. The older bees will quickly fly back to the donor hive, leaving your cell builder full of young nurse bees. You have now created a free-flying queenless cell builder colony. At this time you can temporarily add the frame of larvae to be grafted.
As you were shaking bees, if there was nectar shaking from the combs, the bees do not need to be fed. If not, then lightly drench all the bees with 1:1 syrup and add a quart of syrup in a top feeder jar. Put a cover on the cell builder and check back in an hour.
One-hour check back for strength: After an hour, your cell builder should look like this—bees covering the frames and hanging from the lid. If there are not this many bees, then shake additional bees (through a sieve box) off of brood combs from other donor colonies. A strong starter like this can rear up to 50 queen cells, even in a snowstorm.
Now wait a few to several hours. It takes a few hours for the bees to recognize that they are queenless, and to be ready to start building emergency queen cells. What you are going to now do is to give them chosen larvae from which to rear those cells.
I got the idea for this method from observing my bees building queen cells as in the photo above. It occurred to me that we could duplicate the process with prepared queen cups, thus avoiding the need for the recreational beekeeper to use cell bars to hold the queen cells (commercial guys typically put about 50 grafted cells distributed on 3 cell bars into a special frame).
Down to the nitty gritty—grafting. Yes, I said “grafting.” ......