Natural Queen Rearing
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Queen rearing is often seen as a beekeeping task best left ‘to the experts.’ After all, the idea of scooping up tiny bee larvae and slipping her into a queen cup, also known as grafting, seems daunting at best to many. However, queen rearing need not be scary as anyone with bees can raise a few queens with minimal equipment, time, and knowledge — with no grafting skills needed. In fact, raising queens the natural way is one of the things bees do best, so why not let them do the queen rearing for you?
To raise queens the natural way, an understanding of what drives them to raise new queens is needed. Honey bees only raise new queens under specific conditions such as supersedure (failing queen), emergency rearing (sudden queen loss), and reproductive swarming. However, while an extra queen or two may be obtained in the supersedure scenario, the best conditions for raising a handful of queens the natural way requires the colony to experience either a swarming or emergency queen rearing drive.
The most commonly witnessed natural queen rearing process seen within the bee yard is in relation to swarming and is an optimal opportunity to obtain several queen cells for transferring into queenless colonies. Once a colony reaches such a size that they feel cramped and crowded, a healthy colony will decide it’s time to split. This cramped condition may be caused by insufficient supering for the nectar flow, thus causing a honey-bound situation within the brood chamber and/or far too many bees within the hive to evenly disperse the queen’s pheromones throughout the colony. The decision to swarm causes workers to build several queen cups, most often along the bottom edge of one or more frames of comb or along the edges of damaged comb, in anticipation of swarming. Once the queen deposits her egg within one of these cups, the cup is then termed a queen cell, indicating the bees have made the final decision to swarm.
Once multiple swarm cells are present be assured they’ve decided to swarm in the very near future, often within a week or so as colonies tend to swarm just prior to or just after the first swarm cell is capped. These queen cells will be capped approximately nine days after the egg is laid and will need to be removed prior to the first queen emergence (16 days after the egg is laid) to prevent the virgin queen from assassinating her sisters still waiting inside their own cells.
This swarming nature and the inevitability of queen assassination are the downsides to using the swarming instinct as the beekeeper’s timing must be right on target. From the day the first egg is placed within a single queen cell to the day of swarming is no more than nine to 10 days and as little as seven days. This means if the beekeeper’s timing is off even by a single day, he/she will be left with swarm cells but will also lose the mother queen to a swarm.
Another downside to improper timing is in the late removal of the cells prior to first emergence, typically within 16 days of the first egg laid. Removing cells too late, as already mentioned, often gives the first virgin to emerge time to kill each and every one of her sisters either before each emerges or just after emergence. Therefore, proper timing is essential to ensure you walk away with extra queens instead of a bunch of dead virgins and a swarm that flew away to the trees.
However, to ensure control of the timing and prevent the swarming tendency, you can utilize the emergency queen rearing drive to take the guesswork out of just how old that queen cell really is. So, your goal as a natural queen rearer is to cause a queen loss. To do so, you just have to remove the queen.
First, select a parent colony that is strong, full of bees, and has loads of pollen and nectar — much like a colony getting ready to swarm. The strength of the queen-rearing colony directly affects the strength and vigor of new queens and should not be overlooked. If the selected colony is lacking in nectar/honey and pollen, feed 1:1 even if there’s a nectar flow on to ensure they pack the hive full. If small hive beetles aren’t a problem, you may consider a pollen patty or two, as well.
Once the colony has sufficient resources, remove the queen, a minimum of one-two frames of brood, preferably in all life stages, one-two frames of honey and pollen and at least three solid frames of bees with five frames of bees being the most optimum minimum. Move this split to a new location and monitor for strength for a few weeks, adding bees and brood as needed as the split grows in size.
After the queen is removed, the workers left behind quickly notice they have lost their queen and will begin raising new queens in emergency cells placed throughout the frames, often within 24-72 hours. These emergency cells may be somewhat differentiated from supersedure cells in that they are often in the middle of the frames with emergency cells typically discovered in random locations around the outer perimeter of the brood nest. However, with a strong colony, you may expect anywhere from five-ten supersedure cells in most colonies with the occasional odd colony that only produces two or three as is seen most often with emergency situations.
Be aware these newly queenless colonies often react like any other colony that has lost their queen — they may become more defensive of their home so wear protective gear when near this colony. It is best to avoid opening the hive until at least day seven to give the testy bees time to tend to their business without adding more stress by opening the hive. However, it is often difficult to not check and see what is going on inside the hive, so take a quick peak only if necessary to ensure queen building is being tended to and then close them up quickly but gently.
By day nine or 10, queen cells will be capped while the queens inside finish development. Most experts recommend not moving cells until day 13 as developing queens are fragile and easily damaged. When ready to remove cells, use a sharp knife to gently cut the cell from the frame/comb. If cells are on wax foundation, cut completely through to the other side in a wide circle around the cell. If using plastic foundation, slip the blade under the wax and slice up to the foundation to avoid injuring the queen. Place cells in a cell protector or press the outside perimeter of wax gently onto the new comb for adherence.
To increase acceptance of these cells in their new homes, make splits 12-24 hours prior to installing the cells. Double check the splits to remove any queen cells or cups already built as those bees often reject the newcomer in a preference for their own genetics when they are already in the making. Then sit back and wait for your new queens to emerge, mate, and begin laying.
Raising your own queens need not be complicated. Because with a strong colony, good food sources, and a little bit of planning, any beekeeper can reduce the cost of beekeeping by using the natural queen rearing tendencies of their own bees to produce a fair amount of queens each season. So don’t hesitate to give your hand at natural queen rearing a try this bee season. In many areas, it’s not too late to try a time or two before the bees begin their fall preparations.