by Oldtimer, member of the Beesource Forums.
I want to say upfront that there are many ways to raise queens. This is a way that suits me, after using many methods. But any experienced queen breeder will find parts of this method he does differently / doesn’t agree with. Also, this is a bit different to what I did when raising queens as a full time job, it is more to suit a small scale operation, wishing to raise from perhaps a dozen to perhaps a thousand queens per year. Also, a couple of bits of equipment are shown, a swarm box, and a breeder hive. However if you don’t have these, explanations are given how to do it with no special equipment.
Day 0. (Wednesday) This picture shows a bar with a bit of foundation being put into the breeder hive. You can see the hive is sectioned off with a queen excluder and the queen is in the part that fits three frames.
Here’s what it looks like from underneath. Before assembly a saw cut is made in the two end pieces of the super so the queen excluder can be slid into place.Then the excluder is bent over as per the pic and one queen excluder happens to fit just right for a 3 frame division. The only other thing required is a hole drilled in the box into the queen compartment as a drone escape.
In most commercial breeder hives the frames hung in the queen compartment are blanked out with wood and only have a piece of comb in the middle perhaps 5 inches square, to restrict the queens laying. But the hive pictured just has normal frames which means it is self sustaining, I don’t ever have to add any bees to it.
When I was breeding queens full time we used a purpose built breeder hive that was a bit different but the principle is the same. The queen is kept in a small area which encourages her to lay straight away in the comb we put in, plus it extends her life because she is not laying as many eggs.
Day 1. (Thursday) The next day if the hive is vigorous the bees have drawn the foundation and there are eggs in it. (And some drone comb built). The comb is removed and put over the other side of the excluder for the bees to look after for the next few days.
For those who do not want to set up a breeder hive as pictured, just take the queen and two full combs from the hive you want to breed from and leave them in the hive with the bar of foundation in the middle. Move the rest of the hive away just a few yards. 24 hours later the hive can be put back together and the comb should have eggs in it and can be stored over an excluder. If the bees might not draw the foundation fast enough, it could be put in a hive for a day or two to be drawn, before being put in with the queen.
Day 4. (Sunday) The comb now has eggs starting to hatch. It is in the shed ready for cutting.
The cells are cut into strips one cell wide.
Cell bars are painted with melted wax.
The wax melter does not have to be high tech, here’s what I use. Don’t use for other jobs where you want quality wax though, it will burn it over time.
The strips of cells are put onto the cell bars. This has to be done FAST, before the wax that has been painted on hardens. The bees are not allowed to raise all the cells, they are too close. Every third cell is left alive, the other two are thinned out by poking a hole in the bottom of the cell, in this case with a nail.
The bars of cells are hung in a frame, with the cells hanging downwards, and the frame is put into a swarm box (or cell starter as many call it). The swarm box is basically a box able to hold 6 frames, with some extra space at the bottom with gauze attached to allow ventilation. There are also holes in the lid with gauze. In this case, the swarm box was prepared by putting in two combs containing unsealed honey, and pollen. We want the larvae well fed so there should be plenty of food available, also fresh unsealed honey, not capped honey which does not hold enough water.
Three pounds of bees were added, which is enough bees that the two combs are boiling with bees, and plenty more bees again. The bees are added a few hours before the cells go in, so they have time to realize they are queenless and are desperate to raise queen cells by the time we add the cells. They cannot leave the swarm box, the entrance is closed.
The frame with the queen cells is hung in the middle, and one comb of pollen and honey (and no brood), is put tightly on each side of it.
If you don’t want to make a swarm box, it can be done in a nuc or super, just as long as you can get enough ventilation, perhaps nail some mesh on the bottom and the top.
Day 5. (Monday), the cells are taken from the cell starter and put into the cell finisher. The photo shows the cell finisher hive and the starter box with the frame of cells between the two feed combs.
To make a cell finisher hive you need a strong two or three box hive. Since finding queens is quite a time wasting procedure, I don’t, I put an excluder between the two brood boxes. 5 days later I know which box the queen is in because it has eggs in it. This should be timed to coincide with the day old cells being ready. The box with the queen in is put on a new bottom board and moved away a few yards and has a lid put on. The other box, which is now queenless, is put on the original bottom board, and this becomes the cell finisher.
This is the frame holding the queen cell bars. The bees have started 24 cells. The reason there are some empty patches with no cells is because my eyesight is not as good as it once was, and I have to guess which cells have larva in, so a few strips with no larvae were put in. If the bees had more larvae they would have started more cells. However the advantage with this method is that now I struggle to graft because of poor eyesight, I can still use the cut cell method & get a decent number of cells.
This is the cell finishing hive after the cells have been put into it. At least two combs of eggs or young larvae from the queenright box (that was moved way) are put into the middle of the cell finisher, and the frame of queen cells from the starter box are put in between these combs. There must be plenty of unsealed honey and pollen near the frame of queen cells. The bees from the starter box are dumped in, making a very strong hive. Additionally, any bees returning will go to the original site and boost the cell finisher.
Because the cell finisher is now very crowded, a box of honey frames has been added on top as somewhere for surplus bees to go.
Day 9. (Friday) We now have some nice looking queen cells, just capped. The bees have built some burr comb also, this can be cut away when we remove the cells to put into hives to mate.
Also day 9, the finisher hive can be re-united with it’s queen. The box with the queen, that was moved away, is put back on the bottom board. Then a queen excluder, and over that the box with the queen cells. Then the honey box on top. There is no need to use newspaper or similar, the bees have not been separated too long and will re-unite peacefully.
Because there was young larvae in the combs of the cell finisher when it was queenless, we have to go over those combs to check for queen cells and kill any we find. They could hatch early and kill our cells.
On day 12 (Monday) the queens in the nuc hives are caged so the nucs will be queenless 24 hours before the cells go in.
Day 13 (Tuesday) the queen cells are taken from the finisher hive. Here they are being cut from the bar, there is quite a bit of burr comb so they are cut off in a strip.
They are then cut into individual cells. The bees finished 26 cells, 2 had to be sacrificed too close together, so I ended up with 24 cells, exactly what I wanted, because the previous day I had made 24 queenless nucs.
The cell carrier box is prepared by filling a water container with water set to 35 degrees C, 95 Fahrenheit.
The sealed water container is put in the styrofoam box, the cloth is put in and the cells are laid on their side. If the box has any knocks during transport, the cells do better on their side, than if they were vertical. The cloth is folded over the cells and the lid put on. The cells can take lower temperatures, but it is higher temperatures that will more quickly kill them.
The nucs, in this case, are standard sized frames in a standard deep Langstroth. There are two bits of hardboard dividing the box into 3 nucs with 3 frames each, and a bottom board giving each one an entrance. Random patterns are painted on the boxes to help the queens orientate to the right one.
During queen caging the previous day I noticed the nucs were very strong and with bees hanging out. So bees and frames were taken away, to make into hives that will be sold. Each nuc has been reduced to one frame of brood and 2 frames of foundation. This is because very strong nucs sometimes kill the queen cell given them, but weaker ones are more likely to accept it.
The cell correctly positioned on the comb, at the top middle of the brood. It is attached just by pushing it on, and some of that burr comb comes in handy to wedge onto the brood comb and make sure the cell will not drop off before the bees properly attach it. Don’t stick the cell onto pure capped brood, there is a good chance of it falling off, in this picture there are some non capped brood cells at the top of the cell that the cell was easily waxed onto.
Also, one thing bees do not always do, is look after the cell properly if it is away from brood, sometimes they just abandon it. There are certain ways to put a cell in a broodless hive where the bees will look after it, but if not experienced with this try to put the cell among brood.
Hard to see in the picture but the bees, who have now been queenless for a day, are already taking a keen interest in the cell and licking and fussing over it, these bees will certainly accept the virgin when she hatches.
Day 27. The final product, mated, laying, and ready to go into a customers hive. Out of 24 cells that were put out 23 are now laying, that’s despite some bad weather so a decent result. These black ones never look as impressive as an italian but she is a good example of her breed and will get a litle bigger over the next week or two and when she takes over a full sized hive. She will be capable of solidly laying up two deeps. The green pen is not a date code just the only color I have.
Queen banking, it’s what commercial guys do if they find themselves with more queens than they can immediately use.
Here’s a picture of some queen banking cages. One can be seen with the “door” open. The queen is put in, no bees with her and the door closed. One important thing with banking is to use mesh with quite small holes. If the holes are larger the queens can be damaged by bees pulling on their legs they will sometimes lose a foot.
Here’s a picture of a frame that can hold 60 queens. The hive is prepared by putting the queen below an excluder, then some frames of young larvae are put up above the excluder, and the banking frame is put between the brood frames. When i was doing this commercially we could store up to around 180 queens in a queen bank hive, although less is better. The hive was maintained weekly by lifting fresh frames of eggs and young larvae up around the banking frames to keep a good supply of nurse bees there. They feed the queens through the wire and queens will often continue to lay, the cages will sometimes have a pile of eggs in the bottom.
The frame is built to fit in a standard lang with correct bee space (same as a normal frame but wider). 3 shelves works best for good cage size. The cages were made from strips of timber 1 inch wide, 1/4 inch thick, and 1 7/8 inch long. Just cut timber to those lengths, assemble as per the pic and cut the door and the mesh to fit. Leave a little bit of wiggle room on the door but not too much.
Queen banking attracts controversy because some people believe keeping the queen locked up for a couple of months must have a bad effect on her, although it has never been proved one way or the other. However it sometimes has to be done if there just isn’t anywhere else for the breeder to put his spare queens temporarily.
Other literature on queen banking talks about losses, and sometimes recommends keeping quite a low number of banked queens in a hive. However I don’t remember ever losing a queen in a bank, I think it’s just about having a healthy strong hive, and not asking more of them than what they can do.
Now I’m just doing a few queens as a hobby I haven’t banked any for years, but I’ve made a couple of banking frames just in case I ever get caught.
If you read up about queen banking there is a lot of conflicting info, plus it is often made to sound very complex. I’m wondering if this might be due to different areas and locations, but I don’t know.
I only have personal experience banking queens in one location and it was quite a bee friendly one. However for us anyway, we did it in queenright hives, which kept the hives going and provided fresh young nurse bees. The hives were kept strong and brood from other hives was added if need be. We wanted to see LOTS of attentive nurse bees around the cages. We added or removed queens as needed, no need to do “all or nothing”.
If doing queen banking, I’d recommend staying away from plastic cages, use wooden ones made from a softish non aromatic type timber. If no flow, feed the bees and ensure adequate pollen, real not artificial substitute.
Regarding my nucs, 4 x’s 2 framers in a box will work, just a little more management required. I’ve gone for 3 framers because in my location a 3 framer can get through the winter without too much help from me so it’s a lazy way of doing it. And I can do late fall queens & have them ready for those guys who want them early spring.
Commercial guys mostly use much smaller nucs and comb sizes for mating, I’ve just gone this way as I’m only doing a few queens and don’t want shed loads of gear. So I keep everything standard, as I sell ready to go hives also, so everything is interchangeable. The other thing with a larger nuc is I can let the queen lay for a while & properly test brood pattern before selling it.