Queen Rearing - The Parker Process


What's on this page?



Introduction

Raising queens is one of the most important thing you can do to be a sustainable and self-sustaining beekeeper.  It is freeing not to be dependent on a queen producer to have your back when something happens to your queen.  Naturally, the time you will most likely need a queen (mid-summer) is also the time in which it may be the least advantageous to make or buy one.  But it does depend on your location and situation.  Another benefit is having more than just one or two hives.  When you have four or more hives, one going queenless is not a big deal.  You can devote one to raising a few queens without putting all or half of your hives to the process.

I have never been reliant on queen breeders.  I've never had less than seven hives at the end of a year and that has allowed me never to have fewer than two at the beginning of a year.  When a hive goes queenless, I generally just let it die and reuse the comb.  But I know you may not want to do that.  You will probably want to keep some nucs (nucleus hives) around to provide spare queens if needed.

But more than that, breeding queens allows you to use the bees you want and replace the ones you don't.  You will know what the mother queen can do.  You won't be reliant on the reputation and scheduling prowess of a commercial queen breeder.


The Ben Harden Method

So how do I do it?  How can you do it?

First of all, you should read the Queens page.  It will help you get your mind around what the queen is, what her usefulness is, and what she is not.  It explains some of the main methods, but on this page, I'll talk about what I actually do and how to do it.  My method is the one I find the most effective, the most useful, and overall, my favorite word to describe things I find to work, utilitarian.

It's called the Ben Harden Method and I learned about it here.

I've made a few changes, some of them accidental, some on purpose.  But what I'm trying to present is something that works and something that is the most useful for the small beekeeper to side-liner sized operations.


Timing

You have to have the timing right.  You need to get or make a queen rearing calender or download the spreadsheet I made which you can find here.  All you need to do is enter in the date of the graft in the correct format and the spreadsheet will tell you all the important dates and things to do from then on.  If you don't have Microsoft Office or the Mac equivalent, you can download Open Office, a free open source office suite.

Timing controls everything in queen rearing.  If your dates are off, you risk (or guarantee) a virgin hatching out and killing all your new queens.  Remember from the Queens page, it's inefficient to devote a whole bunch of time to only making one queen.  One of the handy timing things I've discovered with the Harden Method is this: four days before you plan to graft, set up your cell builder hive and give the brood nest of the mother hive a frame of empty comb.  When you go to graft four days later, that comb will be full of just the right aged larvae.  More about the setup in a minute.


The Mother

This method allows you to use the mother hive as the cell builder hive as well.  I figure that's the best option because you only have to mess around in one hive.  However, if you want to graft queens from multiple mothers on the same frame, you can do that too.  You should chose your mother carefully as usual.  I pick based on three primary traits, and the rest are less important to me and often come with queen qualified in the first three.  My breeder hive must have survived one of my winters in my common hive conditions, it must be gentle enough to work in the rain without smoke, and it must have a history of producing a goodly amount of honey or in some other way proving its sufficiency in performance.  My breeder this year was used for the cell builder and finisher, then as brood donor for mating nucs, and still made a honey crop.  Hard to beat that.


The Setup

The setup is fairly simple but it will depend a little on conditions.  You want a hive with at least a full deep of brood, and one that has moved in to two will be even better.  I'm going to use deeps as an example, but using two mediums as a broodnest and one as a cell builder will work just fine as well.  All my cell builder frames are mediums anyway.  The hive will consist of a bottom deep (or two mediums) and an upper deep, with any supers you might think you need above that.  You will need a queen excluder between these two sections as problems will likely happen if the queen is allowed to walk on the cell bar frame.  However, at worst, you just won't get any queens.  You will construct two frame blanks (some skip this step) which take up the space of two or three frames each.  They should be sized either to occupy all the beespace in the box, or just like a frame, leaving bee space at the ends.  Mine leave the space.  The dimensions are easy to figure out but I will try to post them at some point.  Making them out of half in plywood, just build a box with the perimeter dimension of a frame and width allowing space for 4 or 5 frames.  The cell bar frame goes in the middle with a frame of open brood on one side and a frame of pollen on the other.  I find that frames of open brood with good pollen supplies on both sides works just fine.  It's a good idea to replace the open brood frames with new ones as soon as they begin to be capped.  You want nurse bees in this area at all times feeding larvae and keeping them warm.

The bottom of the hive will be the brood nest.  You want this to be fairly well full.  And you're going to need to know where the queen is.  Remember the handy trick above?  Place an empty comb in the broodnest four days before you plan to graft.  At the same time, assemble the whole system including the empty cell cups for the bees to polish.  The queen must be confined to the bottom away from the cell cups.  If she steps on them her pheromones will get on them and the bees may not allow queens to develop.

If you want to build several sets of cells, you can keep this system going by replacing the open brood and pollen frames as they become depleted, remember you want open brood at all times and the younger the better so you have those nurse bees around to feed the queen larvae royal jelly.  This is the most important thing to work on so you get big, healthy, and numerous queens.  If you have troubles, this is the first place to start troubleshooting.


Grafting


Please don't be afraid of grafting.  It's really not that bad.  There are a lot of methods widely talked about that portray grafting as really hard or troublesome or difficult for people of poor eyesight.  Using a Chinese grafting tool, I find eyesight not to be a big problem.  You locate the proper sized and positioned larva, insert the tool at the correct angle, withdraw it, check for aquired larva, place in cell cup.  If it doesn't work, try again.  If you do genuinely have problems with seeing what you're doing, you might find another method, but those of you with the physical capability, don't be scared of grafting until you've tried it.  It really is a very useful tool.  Worst case scenario, you've wasted a couple of dollars on a Chinese grafting tool.  They're made of plastic and bamboo, they're not that big of a deal.

I graft under a daylight fluorescent bulb that hangs above my computer desk. In fact, I just move my keyboard (the one upon which I am typing right now) and do the whole thing right there.  I also practice with empty comb to get the feel of it.  May not help, but can't hurt.  I place a wetted paper towel over the already grafted cups though I don't worry about it too much because it is inside the house.  Yes, a couple of bees do get loose as it is near impossible to get them all off the frame outside.

I use wax cell cups because they are cheaper, and made of wax which real queen cells are.  They can be recycled into new cups and you can make your own as you read on the Queens page.

The number of cells is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Naturally, you don't need more than you need.  At the same time, you must compensate for your take rate which you won't know yet.  But extra cells is not much of a problem, you can always place more than one in a mating nuc and may the best one win.  At this point, I have tried as many as 24 but have had a maximum of 17 finished.  Keep in mind, this method is adapted from a method to produce royal jelly so producing the maximum number of cells like you can with other methods is not necessary or indeed always desirable.  18 grafts worked very well with 17 resulting in fully formed queens which hatched and flew out on their mating flights.  Only a couple of those did not return.


Queen Cells

After you've grafted, it's time to place the grafts into the hive.  You might even want to add some more young open brood next to the grafts above the queen excluder.  If the cells get cold or starve, it won't work.  Let me reiterate that nurse bees with royal jelly need to be present to assure that the queen larvae get plentiful nutrition.

I have tried using an upper entrance during this time and had lower success, however, it was a colder than average year and some queen cells suffered chilling, so it may be a better idea to remove upper entrances to keep the cells warm.

After a couple days, but before the deadline for capped cells at which point you should leave them alone, you should check to see how many queens have been successfully created.  Four days is a good number because of if something went wrong, you can re-graft right then and you should have some of the right aged larvae available.  You will need to know this number in order to prepare for the mating nuc phase of the project.  If something didn't happen right, try again.  With this method, you're not relying on an inherently unstable queenless hive to do your work, you're relying on a queenright hive which can go about its business with not a whole lot of disturbance from your interference.  They're only losing the number larvae present in the failed queen cells and the number of larvae you've bungled in the grafting process.  More bees are probably lost every day to spiders.  It's not a big problem.


Mating Nucs

After the proscribed time has past, it's time to make mating nucs.  Mating nucs are the small hives used to hatch and mate the queen.  From there, they can be used to introduce the queen into a new hive as a replacement, the queen can be sold by herself and the mating nuc reused or united with another hive, or the whole thing can grow and graduate into a whole new hive on its own.

I use queen castles as mating nucs.  A queen castle is a normal sized box divided up into three (or four) smaller nucs.  I use three.  Commercially available deep ones use four two-frame nucs, and mediums use three three-frame nucs.  I built mine as three frame deeps because I was planning on converting to mediums anyway.  Plus, it allows some time and empty comb for the nuc to grow a little bit and I find that is utilitarian.

My mating nucs consist of one frame of brood with adhering bees, one frame of stores with adhering bees, and one empty frame.  You can add another frame of brood or a frame of foundation, but you need brood, bees, and some stores.  There must be enough bees to keep the small hive warm, feed the brood, and guard.  A mating nuc should have a very small entrance (I use a 3/8" hole) to limit or eliminate robbing.  I also use a larger screened hole away from the entrance to confuse robbers further.

Some methods recommend creating the nucs the day before placing the queen cell, but I find doing it the same day works just fine too.  In fact, so far, that's the only way I've done it.  I don't have two days to mess around with it, so one will have to do.  I go out and gather the brood, taking it from hives which will likely not produce much honey that year or hives which in some other way are not the greatest.  If you want to make honey, it's important to leave some hives alone to do that.  They cannot do everything.  If the hive is really bad, off the queen and take all the brood and honey, dissolving the hive altogether.  There's no gain in having hives that aren't doing what's required of them.

After all the nucs are set up, I take a break.  It's been a hard morning, and the bees could use a few minutes to realize that they are queenless.

Okay, break is over.  Time to go grab the cells out of the cell builder.  At this point, the cells should have begun to have their outer layers shaved off by the worker bees in preparation for the new queen to chew her way out.  If not, just make sure you have the date right, if temperatures have been low, the process can take a day or two longer.  I have used JZBZ queen cell protectors.  They are not really big enough to totally encompass a queen cell, but if you press it in just enough, it will do the job to keep workers from chewing the side open and they have the added benefit of little prongs that you can stick into the comb which keeps the cell right were you want it.  Stick it right in the middle of capped brood if you have any.  I have also just stuck the queen cells into the comb, held in only by the cell base, and that has works pretty well too.

Now, it's back to waiting.  You can wait as long as you want, you can open the hive to try to spot the virgin, or you can wait until she should be laying eggs.  Be careful though.  Young queens are soft and easily squished.  I lost a perfectly good queen one time because I partially squished her while looking for her.

After allowing her to lay for three weeks, you can cage her and sell her or whatever you plan to do.  If you cage her before that, you risk damaging her ability to lay to her full potential.  Another risk of relying on commercial queen breeders, who cage queens usually two weeks or less after they start laying.  Rely on the queen calender for best results.


5-Frame Nucs

Quite a bit of my goal in producing queens is making nucs.  I do sell queens, but I feel the best beekeeping practice does not involve requeening all the time.  Plus nucs fetch more money.  After a few weeks, when the first round of brood begins to emerge, I move the nucs out of the queen castles and into five frame nucs.  These nucs are made of plywood, they're cheap, and you can find the design on the Equipment page.  They make it easier to figure out which are the very best queens and which need to just be ended.  When they've grown, they can be sold.  Or, instead of adding empty comb or foundation, you can add more brood and have them ready quicker.  Speaking of foundation, they are an excellent way to get foundation drawn, even plastic frames.  They are very quick at it.  Another good reason for keeping nucs.


The Full Size Hive


Ultimately, the goal is to make full size hives out of what you've made here, right?  Whether it's you who do it or your customers, eventually the goal is large productive and healthy hives.  Here in Northwest Arkansas, growing a mating nuc into a 5-frame or even 10-frame single is easy going.  In the spring, there's more than enough nectar available for the bees to grow well without being fed.  Much beyond 10 frames is going to be a whole other ball of wax so to speak.  Now you're getting into summer when there may or may not be any nectar available whatsoever.  Without help, growth is over.  Survivors will make it through the summer lighter than when they went in.  The last two years (as of spring 2013) I've lost more hives in summer than over winter.  The choice here is to feed or not to feed.  After a couple of times around that cat fight, I've decided feeding is a bad nasty idea.  Here's some evidence.


That was a mess, but thanks to some timely intervention, the hive survived.  I didn't even feed this hive.  Robbing gets really bad.  Here, it cannot be stopped once going full scale.  You just have to let it finish and pick up the pieces.  Anyway, I've gotten off track.  Your choices are to not feed and let the hive build or not on its own, feed and grow the hive, risking robbing and poorly nourished bees.  I prefer not to feed.  At this point, I'm looking for stronger hives and not more hives.  That gives me the opportunity to thin the herd, using poor conditions to cull the stragglers.

Coming out of the nuc stage also gives you the opportunity to classify your new queens.  There will be a few who are always wanting for room, spilling out when you open the hive due to the sheer volume of bees.  These should go in hives by themselves and given the chance to grow.  You want to keep these, don't sell them.  There will also be dinks, hives that haven't grown at all.  They may show signs or poor performance like a shotgun brood pattern, or they may have lost their queen on her mating flights.  They should be merged with other nucs, those planned to be kept and grown into new hives, or they can be merged into existing hives.  The rest, the middle third or so can be sold, or used for increase.  They are your mainstay production hives.  They make honey, but they're not superstars.  Don't part with your superstars.  They are your foundation for the next generation.  Use them to requeen your bottom rungs opening up opportunities as next year's breeders.


First Winter


Many new hives don't survive the first winter.  I've heard varying estimates, but as many as 60-90% of swarms do not survive the first winter.  We would like our odds to be better but we mustn't coddle our hives.  There are those who would call feeding "treating for starvation."  While I have not subscribed to that theory in the past, I am coming around to the idea.  Now that I have more hives, I can afford to lose more.  I don't want to keep hives that can't survive in our native conditions.  I don't want to keep hives that can't bring in enough stores to survive the winter.  In 2012, I should have merged hives that didn't have enough stores, but many of my yearling hives I needed to survive because they were in medium boxes and I want to make a wholesale switch to mediums.  So I fed some of them granulated sugar.  Each year is different, and each year I am more pragmatic as opportunities arise.  The winter of 2013-4 I only fed one hive.


The Next Spring

Here is where the process starts all over again.  Here is your opportunity to evaluate spring buildup.  Poor builders can fairly accurately be predicted to be poor nectar collectors.  They should donate their brood and frames to the next generation of queens and their queen should be donated to a jar of alcohol to bait the next generation of swarms.  Those who do well and show all positive traits can be used as the queen mother for the next generation.  For a queenright cell builder, you can use the mother hive to raise the queens, or you can use another hive.  It doesn't matter.  The beauty of the method is your ability to raise queens without sacrificing the productivity of the cell builder, or at least not much.  Hives looking to make a good crop of honey should not be split as is so often done.  Perform swarm management (or don't) and let them bring in that honey.  Don't disturb them by using them for other purposes unless those other purposes are more important and you are willing to forgo honey harvest.

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