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What’s in Queen Rearing for me?


Swarming is probably the main bugbear of the beekeeper. The tendency to swarm is heritable and can be reduced or increased by selective breeding. That’s why it always seems to me a contradiction that so many beekeepers use swarm cells to rear replacement queens. We are unintentionally selecting for strains that have a higher tendency to swarm. So there’s no surprise that swarming remains a major frustration.

The other common method of rearing replacement queens is by dividing colonies. But the resulting queens from emergency queen cells are normally of inferior quality due to the poor care of the larvae.

Either way, the results are suboptimal. One reason why so many of us persist with this counter-productive behaviour may be that we lack the confidence to rear good queens routinely.

Dromore Beekeepers’ Association (in Co. Down) has 67 members but only a few have ever attempted to rear queens (other than from swarm or emergency cells). Even fewer do so annually. Not many of us recognise “what’s in it for me?”

I suspect that we are fairly typical, but it is certainly not best practice. It was against this background that the committee decided to set up a practical demonstration of queen rearing to increase confidence and encourage all members to do it routinely.

Getting the Programme Organised

It was agreed that a group of four committee members would take the lead. So Billy Douglas, Robert McCreery, Norman Walsh and I decided that the demonstration would take place in the Association Apiary on Saturday 19th June 2004. The process would feature the Cupkit System for day-old larvae, the Ben Harden system for cell rearing, and mini-nucs for mating.

There are many alternatives but these were all tried and tested systems and were chosen as being simple, effective and relatively idiot-proof (the prospect of public embarrassment concentrates the mind!). We judged that this compensated for the fact that the Cupkit System is not the lowest cost method. They also interfered to a minimal extent with normal honey production.

There were to be 2 physical demonstrations on the day;

  • transfer of day-old larvae in cell cups from Cupkit to rearing frame,
  • transfer of 14-day sealed cells from rearing frame to mini-nucs

A detailed timetable was drawn up to ensure that the demonstration colonies would be exactly at these two stages on 19th June (easy, because the process is predictable).

The four of us decided to use our own colonies – it would make preparations for the demonstrations more convenient than if using the Association colonies. By providing one colony each we would have two colonies for each demonstration to give us a back-up if something went wrong.

The four colonies were to be moved to the Association apiary in the week commencing 13th June. On 19th Individual members would each be invited to bring a charged mini-nuc to the demonstration and each would receive a sealed queen cell to take home in it (how’s that for confidence!).

The physical demonstration was to be supported by a series of presentations at the monthly Association meetings (3rd Tuesday each month at 8.00 in Dromore town hall – everyone welcome). We invited Ben Harden to talk about the system of queen rearing set out in no 59 of the “Beekeeping in a Nutshell” series of booklets, and of course, we made the booklet available to members.

We discussed the project in the April meeting and again at the May meeting when we established the number of people intending to bring charged mini-nucs (to get commitment of members).

Our meeting on Tuesday 15th June was dedicated to explaining in detail the whole process and what was going to be demonstrated on the following Saturday. We also demonstrated, as far as was possible indoors, how to charge mini-nucs with young bees so that members would do the job themselves on Saturday morning, 19th.

The Results

Then all we had to do was to hope for a good day – and we got it! They say fortune favours the brave! However, we did not get everything our own way. Dromore in 2004 was in a part of Co. Down that had not yet seen the Varroa mite, but a few weeks before the demonstration Billy discovered the beast in his apiary. We didn’t want to transfer his colony to the Association apiary and spread the infection further so we simply cancelled that one. The earlier decision to have a back-up was justified!

The loss of one demonstration colony meant that we had only one Cupkit in place but each contains 110 cups. There must have been 100 of those cups containing day-old larvae so we had no problem there.

When it came to the transfer of sealed cells to the mini-nucs, we also had a good show. From the two colonies we transferred 23 ripe cells. Moreover on the day, we took a spontaneous decision to replace the ripe cells with further day-old larvae and so started another 2 batches. We also started a batch in the colony that had supplied the day-old larvae.

In all, we produced a total of 69 ripe queen cells for members from those 3 demonstration colonies. There were smiles all round as members took away their gift in their mini-nucs (most were Apideas but the ingenuity of Dromore beekeepers in making their own mini-nuc designs made an impressive side-show).

My Doubts

The membership declared the day a complete success, but was it really? The proof of success is not whether we can lay on a successful demonstration – the easy bit. It’s about whether many more members will start queen rearing themselves. That’s much more doubtful.

Unfortunately we did not follow up members to record what happened next. We do know that many members have achieved successfully mated queens. However some complained of difficulties with their mini-nucs, such as absconding, or queens going missing before or after starting to lay. But these are not the main reason for my doubts.

My main concern is that while members appreciated a good demonstration, most still haven’t committed to queen rearing themselves. Perhaps it’s the cost of Apideas and the Cupkit System. Maybe it’s continuing lack of confidence.

Whatever the reason, we need even better communication of the benefits of queen rearing. To my mind, they far outweigh the costs and fully justify the effort of learning to do it properly. But how can everyone else be convinced?

I believe that the key issue is that not enough beekeepers foresee the advantages of selection – rearing queens from only the best colonies.

Because beekeeping is only a hobby for most, we don’t feel any strong pressure to improve. But the pay-back is not just financial, it is in the satisfaction of doing a job better, of being a master craftsman.

There is a massive amount of experience and knowledge in farming and horticulture that is applicable to beekeeping. For example, I find it impressive that, starting from Wolves, we have produced Poodles, Collies and Great Danes as well as many other breeds of dog.

There are myriads of similar examples. We improved several different species of grass so that today we have yields of many tonnes/acre of wheat, rice, maize, etc. Furthermore, within each of these species we now have many cultivars, or strains, for different circumstances. Getting more beekeepers interested in such opportunities is the real challenge.

Next Steps

It is clear that we in Dromore still have unfinished business. The monthly programme for early 2005 will have to include more and much better communication of “What’s in queen rearing for me?”

On the physical side, we propose to repeat the main aspects of the 2004 demonstration but with more emphasis on the management of the mating phase.

More importantly, the actual demonstrations will be carried out by “volunteers” from the wider Association membership. Last year’s demonstrators will support in the background but a new set of people will front-up the project this year. Of course, they don’t know it yet and despite the impression that some readers might have gained, Dromore Association is democratic! So it’s all about persuasion!

Bees are different from wolves and grasses, but not that different. To take advantage of the vast opportunities more of us first have to learn to rear queens routinely. There’s a lot in it for all beekeepers!

Mervyn Eddie