All posts by harrishoneyco@gmail.com

grafting queen bees

Grafting Queen Bees at Harris Honey

A colony of honeybees is a fascinating thing. Tens of thousands of individual bees working together as a single unit. At the center of this unit is the queen bee. She is the mother of every bee in the hive and without a strong queen bee the structure of the colony will break down and eventually die out.

A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single day. The majority of these eggs will hatch into worker bees 21 days after they are laid. Some will be drone, or male bees, who live for the single purpose of mating once with a queen from a different colony, and a few will be new queen bees, raised to either produce a swarm or to takeover the colony when the old queen leaves with a swarm or is growing weak.

While worker bees live an average of 3-6 weeks, a queen bee lives an average of 2-3 years and some have even been known to live up to 9 years in rare instances. Since every bee in a colony takes on the characteristics of it’s mother, the queen bee, it is very important to have good strong queens that display the characteristics the beekeeper wants. The characteristic of an entire colony of honeybees can be changed in just a few weeks time by simply replacing the queen bee.

The characteristics I want in my colonies are these:

1. Gentle – I don’t want bees that are overly aggressive for a few obvious reasons: I don’t enjoy getting stung. I keep most of my bees in my back yard where my five young children play. I have neighbors in close proximity to my house.

2. Resistance to pests and diseases – In case you haven’t heard, honeybees are having a tough time surviving the onslaught of pests and diseases that are coming against them these days. Mites that spread viruses, harmful bacteria that attack the young bee larvae and small hive beetles that can take over hive space in a weak colony. These are just a few of the challenges bees face these days. Mix in the many harmful chemicals and pesticides that bees encounter in fields, lawns and landscaping and you have the recipe for disaster. But bees are hardy creatures that  are adapting to the challenges they face. Some bees do better than others at surviving adversity. The colonies that display the most hygienic behavior in cleaning their hives, survive the best. I look for colonies that have survived adversity in choosing which queen stocks to raise. Many commercially raised bees have become so dependent on miticides and antibiotics that they quickly die without them. My hardiest and most productive colonies are those I have raised from feral survivor bees that still have a gentle disposition.

3. Not too prone to swarm. – While all colonies are programmed to swarm occasionally, there are some colonies that are just too swarmy. As soon as they get strong they swarm and your back to a weak hive. These hives are never very productive.

4. Good honey producers. – Some colonies of bees are just better at bringing in the sweet golden nectar that is the icing on the cake for beekeepers.

When I am ready to raise more queen bees I look for the hives that display the above characteristics. These are the hives I want to reproduce and the key to doing this is in reproducing their queens.

I currently have a few hives that are weak because they have queens that aren’t very impressive. I want to replace these weak queens with new ones. Yesterday I began the process of raising new queens by grafting queen cells. Here’s a little explanation of the process of grafting queen bees.

IMG_5753 grafting queen bees
Grafting larvae into queen cups

When grafting queen bees I first I choose a strong starter hive with plenty of honey, pollen and young nurse bees to raise queen cells. This is a hive that does not have a queen and the absence of her pheromone triggers the worker bees to raise new queen cells with any available larvae.

Next I choose a queen stock I want to reproduce. From this colony I pull a frame of new eggs and larvae. I then carefully pick out one day old larvae with a small grafting tool and carefully place them in plastic queen cups lined up on a wooden frame bar. These plastic queen cups mimic queen cells that bees naturally make to raise queens. Grafting one day old larvae like this requires a sharp eye and a very steady hand.

I then place the modified frame with the queen cups in the starter colony. The bees immediately begin feeding the larvae royal jelly as they draw out the queen cells with wax. After about four days the workers cap the queen cells which now look like waxy peanuts. Ten days after grafting, I place the finished queen cells in the colonies that I want them to lead, after first removing the original queens in those colonies the day before.

grafting queen bees
Queen cells being drawn out

On the 14th day the new queens will emerge from their cells. After becoming acquainted with their new colony they will go on afternoon mating flights a few days in a row. During these flights they will mate with up to 20 different drones that will provide the fertilization for them to lay eggs for the rest of their life. About a week after mating they will begin laying eggs and repopulating the colony, that is if all goes well.

There you have it. Grafting queen bees. Simple, right?

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Making Spring Splits

When a beekeeper wants to expand the number of hives they manage, there are many different options. The more pricey routes include buying package bees or established colonies from other beekeepers that can run anywhere from $100-$200 per colony. The more cost effective routes include catching swarms, doing a cutout of a feral colony, or splitting existing hives. Of all these, the most common and efficient is making splits from existing colonies. While we have used nearly every one of these options in the past, this year we are relying on making splits to reach our goal of 20 hives by the beginning of Summer.

Dark queen from 2013 split
Dark queen from 2013 split

Honeybees naturally reproduce colonies through a process called swarming. A typical swarm is when a colony of bees make new queen cells within the hive. Then right before the first new queen emerges, the old queen will leave the hive, taking half of the colony with her. They will cluster on a branch while scout bees look for a good place to establish a new colony. Shortly after the old queen leaves, a new queen will emerge in the old hive, and inherit the job of populating the original colony. Swarming typically takes place when a colony is strong and their numbers are outgrowing their hive space.

When beekeepers split hives, they are manipulating the bees to start a new colony. Splits are made both to control swarming and to expand hives. There are many different methods to making splits and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. A beekeeper can simply split a box of bees in two, whichever one doesn’t have the queen will raise a new queen as long as they have young larva in the box. Another method is to place a purchased queen or queen cell in the split so that the colony doesn’t have to wait about three weeks while they are raising a new queen.

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New queen cells

We already split our two strongest hives last week by taking the queen, three frames of brood, two frames of pollen and honey, then putting them into a nucleus box, which is a half size hive body, and moving them to a different location. The original colonies are still very strong and they shouldn’t skip a beat in raising new queens. We checked on all of them today and the nucleus hives are bursting and ready to put in full size hive boxes. The original colonies have drawn many nice queen cells. The first queen to emerge in each hive will immediately begin chewing out the sides of the other queen cells in order to kill the other queens before they emerge. There can only be one queen per colony. She will then go on mating flights for a few days and a week or so later begin laying eggs if all goes well.

Later in the Spring when we have a lot of hives to split at once we will graft queen cells in order to get a bunch of queens ready at the same time to put into the new splits. Grafting queens is an interesting process that we will share more about on the next post.

 

 

backyard beehives

Preparing For Spring Nectar Flow!

Besides on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, I never gave much thought to flowers; that is until I started beekeeping. Now I find passion beemyself constantly noticing what flowers are blooming as I drive around town. I have come to learn what time of month each flower that provides a significant nectar flow in my neighborhood is supposed to bloom. I get excited when I see the jacaranda trees bloom in April, when the palm trees bloom in July and when the Brazilian pepper trees begin to bloom at the end of September. But from December through February there isn’t much to get excited about besides a few Spanish needles here and there.

During these winter months our bees go from thrive to survive mode. The queens slow down their laying and the populations shrink in the hive. It is during this time that bees are most susceptible to pests, disease and starvation. Most beekeepers are used to the fact that at least a percentage of hives will be lost during the Winter. We have been very fortunate so far this Winter. We have not lost a single hive and I was actually able to make an early split from a hive that is unusually strong coming out of the Winter.

Even though we are only half way through February, I am already starting to see the first blooms of Spring on trees around bee boxes my neighborhood and the large honeysuckle vine at the end of my alley is erupting in orange flowers that are buzzing with our bees. The Queens seem to know Spring is coming early as they have picked up their egg laying. I am starting to see drones bees once again in the hives that can mate with the new queens of Spring. With the nectar flow of March and April just around the corner and the explosion in bee population that follows, I have been busy putting together new boxes and frames with the help of my son Judah who loves to pull the trigger as I hold the nail gun.

With just a few gallons of honey left from the Fall harvest I am anxious to bring in a good Spring harvest come May. But with more demand for our honey than we can supply I am faced with a catch 22. With beekeeping you either have to focus on bringing in lots of honey or expanding hives because you can’t do both at the same time. Big strong hives bring in a lot of surplus honey but when you are expanding hives you are splitting up those big strong hives to make more hives. One large hive will bring in more honey than 3-5 small hives so you are definitely sacrificing honey to split hives. But the earlier I do my splits the sooner they will get strong and become honey producing hives. Therefore my plan is to make as many splits as I can this Spring and build them up for the Summer and Fall nectar flows. That will mean a smaller honey harvest this Spring but a lot more honey this Summer and Fall.

Even so, we will still get a harvest this Spring and it can’t come soon enough for us! In our next post we’ll give an update on our Spring splits and explain the process in more detail.