Queen Bees In the Making


Lots of hives looking for long term queens

After a few years of beekeeping, David began to wonder what his relationship was to the bees. Was he actively beekeeping them, or just having them around for the honey? Did he advance them or exploit them?

One way to answer this question was to ask whether his goal was honey, or whether it was to enhance the survival of bees in the Pacific Northwest.

To survive here, especially to be sustained here, bees need to adapt to our long, gloomy winters and late springs.

To do that, the colony needs a queen who passes on great traits, not just for bees in general, but for bees here in the Puget Sound region.

The central bee, with a shiny thorax, is the queen

Many beekeepers get in the habit of replacing their queen bees each year with new queens, usually brought up from California. This means every spring, a fresh, (hopefully – often they are not) healthy new queen populates the hive with workers, who collect food all summer.

There’s a good honey crop. But the behaviors and traits that would help bees survive here year round are not forwarded. The model is to treat the bees as replaceable, rather than as renewable.

To eventually produce bees that can overwinter here, we need to find ones that are already doing it. One way to do this is by buying from nearby breeders, another is by capturing swarms  http://severalgardens.blogspot.com/2012/07/hiving-swarm.html – offshoot bee colonies from populations that are doing well and starting to reproduce.

But swarms often carry older, less fertile queens, and local breeders are scarce and expensive. So why not repopulate our hives with bees already adapted to our cool climate – queen bees we raise ourselves!

Queen Licorice with workers and white larvae
Well organized, hygenic bees

Queen Licorice, or “first generation overwintered” as Noah more formally addresses her, is a productive queen who survived last winter and started laying eggs again in the spring.

Her hive is gentle, produces lots of honey, and organizes their food and brood areas well. Her workers gather close around her – a sign that she produces lots of pheromone, and is a strong queen. It would be awesome to have a bunch of new hives with some of her positive attributes.

The starts of 3 queen cells


Partially formed queen cell


A naturally occurring queen cell

A hive usually produces enough queens to replace old ones that are weak, and to found new colonies when they are doing well. To breed extra queens, more are needed. Queen bees have the same genes and chromosomes as worker bees, but are raised differently.

They mature in larger cells, fed a prolonged diet of royal jelly – 2 days for workers, 5 for queens – that lets their ovaries develop. They are fed approximately 1200 times in those critical five days and the royal jelly formula is continuously adjusted as needed.When bee hives make their own queen cells, they build just enough cells to be sure they will produce queens enough to replace the old one or to inherit the hive if the old one swarms.
They position the cells where they will have ample room, and often construct and tear them down several times during a season. For raising queens, we use a special structure with multiple pre-formed cells.

Grafting tool aka “the tongue”

By removing newly hatched bee larvae from their worker cells and placing them in specially designed queen cells, David can entice the colony to raise these babies as future queens.

This grafting is a delicate task. A bee larva is smaller than a grain of rice, and comes floating on a bed of royal jelly. She must be moved into the correct position without bumping her or drowning her in her own food.

The grafting tool (dubbed “the tongue” by Noah) is nicely engineered for the job.

To further nudge the hive to care for our young queens, David keeps them stocked up with nurse bees (the ones who make the most royal jelly),pollen and honey.

The box is packed full of bees and nearly every cell in the hive is full. To the bees, this abundance triggers the instinct to start new colonies – each of which needs a queen. Additionally, the colony has been made temporarily queenless to stimulate the bees to make queens.

Without a queen and her pheromones, the hive “smells” different. The bees perceive a need for a new one, and get to work providing for the little future queens in the cells.

There is still much we at Several Gardens Farm need to learn about raising and replacing queens. Timing is the biggest issue. Summer comes late and short here. During the winter, bees live 6 months. The colony needs to be full of them to survive and mobilize in spring. The balance between letting the bees gather food, and getting them settled in for the winter with a new queen, has been tricky. David fears he started too late in the summer this time. Will the new queens be active in time to produce ‘winter bees’ and next spring’s workers?

Stay tuned. This is an ongoing project.