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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?