Queen rearing in a combined starter and cell building colony

My favorite way of queen breeding. Still, every queen breeder has his own method. The most important thing is to have a good grasp of the method you are using. I must point out, though, that the method presented here is not suited for breeding large numbers of queens, but then again, this is not necessary in my small beekeeping operation.

The method

The cell building colony must of course be strong and completely fill the hive, both the brood box(es) and the honey super. Without a good cell builder colony you simply cannot produce good queens.

The queen is found nine days before the actual rearing starts – at times, this is not easy in a strong colony, but it has to be done. The frame with the queen is temporarily put aside safely, for example in a nucleus box. Now we brush the bees off the super(s) into the brood box. The more bees we have, the better the final result will be.

Next, we put a queen excluder on the brood box and put the now empty honey box back in its place. We put the brood frame with the queen in it together with a total of 4 frames containing drawn comb to the left and right of it. We put a partition next to these five frames. The remaining frames from the super are given to other colonies. One frame is used to fill the empty space in the brood box.

If we want to avoid all risk, we also put a piece of queen excluder in front of the hive entrance to prevent foreign queens from entering the hive. This kind of event is not hypothetical: it actually happens.

Nine days later all brood is closed. Now the time has come to make the colony, which will serve both as a starter and as a cell builder colony, queenless. First of all, we check the brood box for any queen cells, since the bees under the excluder might feel queenless. This is rarely the case, by the way. All such queen cells are removed. We then take a frame from the brood box, preferably with as little brood on it as possible. Every bee, current or future, counts in the cell builder colony. In its place we put a frame with 1-1.5 day old larvae from the super, obviously without the queen, in a central position in the brood nest. We mark this frame, for example with a pushpin.

We put the queen with one frame containing brood into a nucleus, and add some bees of other colonies. This can be done without danger in May/June. We do not use the bees from the super for this, because they are needed for the queen rearing. We brush the remaining bees from the super into the brood box. We can give the remaining brood frames from the super to the nucleus we just made or give them to other colonies that can actually cope with this extra burden. We can put the now empty super back if we want to place a feeder inside it.

Now comes the main part of the rearing. After six hours, or preferably the next day, we make a cell bar frame containing larvae of our choice, from an excellent colony, of course. How you obtain the larvae, whether by grafting or otherwise, does not really matter. The marked brood frame that we had temporarily introduced is now removed from the colony, after brushing off all the bees, and given to another colony. Any queen cells on this frame are to be removed.

The cell bar frame is placed in the position of the frame we just removed. It should contain no more than 20-25 cells for best results. We feed the cell building colony with diluted honey (and not with sugar water!). We continue this until all queen cells are closed (after 4 to 5 days). Feeding with diluted honey is essential for successful rearing.

Twelve hours after introducing the cell bar frame, we check the number of accepted queen cells. 15 to 20 would be a very nice result. More than this could result in unsatisfactory young queens, because the nurse bees would then have to divide their attention too much.

The crux of the method lies in the fact that the queen cells remain in the same colony until the closing of the cells or even until the young queens emerge, if we do not decide to place the cells caps in an incubator. The colony is then finally split up and used to fill the nuclei. Consequently, this queen rearing method costs a production colony, but is less at the expense of the strength of other colonies than when we use the starter and finisher method.

Because the queen cells are continuously supplied with royal jelly from the beginning until cell closure, an interruption in feeding the larvae does not occur, as might be the case when working with a starter and a finisher. The larvae are optimally cared for throughout their entire larval existence.

By using bees from the colony to fill the nuclei, very harmonious small colonies are created, which increases the chance of successful fertilisation of the virgin queens.

In the past, it was recommended to remove the queen from the colony 9 days before the start of rearing. This is known as ‘queen rearing in a queenless colony’. However, this method has the disadvantage that the bees waste a lot of energy in drawing up queen cells in a hurry, which are then broken by the beekeeper after 9 days. However, at that point the real nursing mood of the bees is already diminishing. With the method described here, the colony has to continuously look after open brood, which contributes to the maximum production of royal jelly.

Many people will wonder why it is necessary to first introduce a brood frame for 6 hours or even longer, instead of immediately introducing the selected larvae. This extra action has the advantage of attracting nurse bees to this location, which then immediately start working as soon as the brood frame is introduced.