Natural versus Grafted Queen Rearing
Story and photos by: Kristi Cook Queen rearing can be as simple or as complex as the beekeeper chooses. Each system varies in its level of time commitment, amount of work required, necessary equipment, and even the amount of bees needed. However, two of the more common methods for raising queens are grafting and natural rearing with both being suitable for beginners and experienced beekeepers alike. So here’s a little primer detailing a few of the pros and cons of both to help you decide which version you may like to try.
Grafting queen bees is the process by which a beekeeper scoops a tiny larva out of its cell and places it in a wax or plastic queen cup that is attached to a frame. This frame is then placed into a box of bees called a starter so the bees can draw out the queen cells. For many beekeepers, this ability to graft larvae and turn them into queens is nearly akin to having superpowers. And this is the reason many beekeepers, regardless of years in beekeeping, stop their quest for raising their own queens.
But it shouldn’t be so. Grafting is a fairly straightforward process that only requires a little patience and practice to get the hang of it. Good eyesight, or the use of magnification and lighting, are necessary to ensure the correct size/aged larvae are grafted. However, less than ideal eyesight is easily remedied as all types of headlamps, desk lamps, and magnifiers are available to aid nearly any eyesight issue.
In addition to seeing the larvae, determining the correct size/aged larvae is also touted as a barrier by many. Yes, bees need larvae that are no more than 24-36 hours old. But figuring out which size to select is no different from going to the farmer’s market to select the best tomatoes—you learn from experience. To get started, check out queen rearing books, find a mentor, shadow a queen breeder, watch some reputable videos. Then get out there and graft. Your bees will tell you which size is correct when you pull that frame and see what they did with the cells. Empty cells usually mean wrong age or damaged larvae and should be noted for the next grafting.
The time commitment and physical labor involved in many grafted queen rearing systems do tend to run on the higher side which may be a downside to some and a non-issue for others. For example, some systems require the frame of grafts be left in the starter (the colony that starts the cells) as the starter also functions as a finisher (the colony that finishes drawing out the cells). Other systems move the frame from a starter to a separate finisher colony.
Regardless of which system is used, however, each of the cells must be relocated to individual queenless colonies where the queen can emerge safely, free from competition from her sisters. The starter/finishers must then be reassembled or otherwise manipulated once the grafted cells are removed. This changing of boxes multiple times requires time that is not always necessary, depending on the system used. However, because those who graft are often in need of more than a handful of queens, this extra time is often worth the effort as many queens can be raised at once.
Natural Queen Rearing
The most basic forms of natural queen rearing are when a colony swarms, supersedes a queen, or she dies/disappears and the bees incorporate the emergency queen rearing response. It is the swarming and emergency responses that are activated when beekeepers elect to raise their own queens naturally by either crowding the bees or removing the queen. Many articles, books, and videos detail how to purposely activate these systems for new queens and are very helpful. Yet, no grafting is needed so no videos on tiny bee larvae are required.
These natural responses allow the beekeeper to create heavily crowded starters the size of a nucleus capable of starting several emergency cells (or swarm cells, depending on which response you activate) at a time. These cells are drawn out on one or more frames of brood that the beekeeper elects to place in the starter. Cells can be left in the starter until capped since only a small number of cells will be built, thus no separate finisher is required to finish the cells. And if said starter is the only colony needing a new queen, then no cells have to be moved to individual queen-less colonies as the bees can be left to their own devices to determine which queen will reign. However, the beekeeper has the option to move them or sell them. When moving these cells, it’s a simple matter of placing them in any colony needing a queen or by making a handful of small splits.
Other advantages include no need for additional equipment such as queen cups, grafting tools, and frames for the grafts and no need to age the larvae. It is also easier to find homes for a few extra queen cells rather than a full frame of cells. So, if producing queens for yourself and maybe a few friends sounds appealing to you, then natural queen rearing is certainly worth exploring further.
Both grafting queen bees and natural rearing have their pros and cons, and both can benefit beekeepers of every skill level. The advantages to each are numerous and can make selecting one or the other a little difficult at times. But with a bit of practice, both types of queen rearing methods have the ability to produce high-quality queens that any beekeeper would be proud to call their own. So do a bit of research and jump right in. You may just find you like your own queens better than anyone else’s.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops, articles, and blog at tenderheartshomestead.com.
Originally published in May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.