Wednesday, May 6, 2009

LESSON 54: The Details Of Queen Rearing

Hello From Long Laney Honey Bee Farms! We are David & Sheri Burns helping you to learn and enjoy keeping honey bees. If you have not listened to our Studio Bee Live broadcast, please do. We answer beekeeping questions and give out good advice. Click here to listen now or go to:

This is where we just sit around and talk about beekeeping with you. Tune in and enjoy the fun.

Your bees should all be doing well now that there is plenty of nectar sources for the bees to forage on. Keep an eye on your mite populations and if you see more than you should, then consider using the GREEN DRONE COMB. These combs are plastic and have the drone cell size embossed on them already. The strategy behind the green comb is to have the queen lay these full of drone eggs, because the mites like the longer brood cycle of the drones (24 days until they emerge). Once the green drone comb is sealed, remove it, freeze it for 24 hours, scrap out the dead mites (and drones), then put it back in. Use 1 or 2 green comb against the wall of a deep hive body.

We've been busy trying to get our queen operation up to full speed. I want to try and wet your appetite about raising your own queens. It is very simple to do. There are many methods and one that we use is a combination of the Doolittle method and the Smith method. Jay Smith was a beekeeper in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Indiana. I like his method the most. He grafted larva into queen cells, and then placed them in a starter hive, then after a day or two he placed them into a finishing hive. We have found this to be very effective. Some people do not even use a starter hive, they just place the grafts into a large hive above a queen excluder.


In our last lesson, I gave you an overview and some simple approaches to raising your own queen. Today, I want to go into a bit more depth on this subject. Before I do, let me remind you that on May 16th, I will be offering a one day hands-on course here on our honey bee farm just on queen rearing. This is on Saturday from 9am - 3pm with lunch provided. I'll teach you the fundamentals on queen rearing as well as take you out into the apiary to see first hand how to build a starter hive and what to look for in a finishing colony. If you'd like to take this class, please call us as registration is limited to 12. Call 217-427-2678.
Several people have asked me to explain about making my own queen cell cups from our own wax. Because some wax has been found to be contaminated with chemicals used to treat mites, we prefer either to use plastic cell cups or to make our own cups from our wax.

My father-n-law made me my cell cup maker. He started with a 1/4 inch dowel rod. The harder the wood the better, but anything will work well. He then used his grinder to shape the ends down to about 3/8 of an inch that tapers down as seen in the picture, which you can click on for a larger image. He then drilled holes slightly smaller than 1/4 inch and inserted the rods into a piece of wood. To dip these rod, you must first dip the tips into cold water. The more wet the tips are the easier it is to remove the queen cups.

Now, heat up your wax. We use a skillet we bought for $50 at Wal-mart. It works great for us.It has a thermostat so controlling the wax is very easy.

Now, the trick is to not make your cups larger than they need to be. Otherwise, it makes grafting more difficult. Dip them so that the wax goes up onto the rods between 3/8-5/16 of an inch. Now, I dip once, pull it out for about 20 seconds and re-dip. And I do it again. I usually dip around 3 or 4 times. Then, I have a large pan of icy water near by and I dip my cells down into the cold icy water for a minute or so. Now, I can gently twist off my cells. The first time or two on new wood can make it hard to remove the cells. But always dip the wood tips in cold water prior to dipping into wax. The more you use it the easier it is to get the cups off because the tips are not as porous. You can see my hot skillet in the picture, and I leave it just like this all the time. When I'm finished, I turn it off and put a lid on it. Then, the next time I want to use it, I crank it up and it's ready. Never anything to clean up and my wife has more pots and pans since I bought my own.

Now you need to prepare to graft. It takes proper planning to graft successfully. I use a cutter's board for easy clean up and keeps my graft area clean and tidy. When grafting larvae, it is important to keep them moist. Temperature is not a factor but moisture is. You do not want them to dry out. I use wet paper towels. As you can see, I place several wet paper towels flat on the cutter's block so that when I set my frame of larvae on it, the underside will remain moist. By the way, larva is one and larvae is more than one.

So set up your area, whether it is the kitchen table or the dash of your pickup truck, make sure you have everything you need. Grafting tool, flash light, magnifying glass or reader glasses, wet paper towels (a box of wet wipes works fine too and can be stored easily), cell cups on bar and cell cup frame.

Here's one of my experimental cell bars. As you can see, I'm trying to see if any of these cups make better queens. The first cup on the left is a plastic cup which I dipped into wax. The second and third cups are plastic and not dipped. The forth cup is a homemade wax cup and the rest are plastic. Most have found very little difference between the above cup configuration and therefore most grafters use the plastic cups. We use a combination now, but we do enjoy making our own cell cups. One reason is we do not reuse our plastic cups. So we always feel bad just throwing away hundreds of these cups. They can be cleaned but the effort is too hard and not worth the time.

Now, go out to the hive of your choice, a gentle hive that produces great honey and is not prone to have pest and disease issues. You now want to find a good frame to take back to graft from. Obviously you do not want a frame of honey, sealed brood or pollen. Some sealed brood is fine, like in the picture, because around the edge of this frame are some perfect aged larvae. An egg stands up in the base of a cell. But it lays down around day 3 or 4 and becomes a larva. We want to find the perfect age larva which by the naked eye will look like a comma on this page , and is about the same size only without the little dot at the top of the comma. Slightly curved laying flat on the bottom of the cell in royal jelly...that's what you are looking for. If it is too old, it will be more shaped like the letter c. In which case, they will not be able to feed it the "queen's food" as early as needed and the quality of the queen will suffer.

Once you find the perfect frame with the larvae you want to graft take it into your grafting room. Some people transport their frames in a cooler with some moist towels or rags and this is needed if there is considerable distance between your hive and where you will graft. I have actually grafted out in the apiary if the weather is not too bad. Try not to mishandle the frame. Just don't toss it in the back of your pickup truck.
Now, we are in the grafting room. Hope fills the air. You feel like a scientist or a surgeon about to perform the unbelievable... the unimaginable. Okay...stop thinking that way. It's not a big deal. Calm down.
Place your frame on the board with the top of the frame closest to you. The cells are angled toward the top slightly so this will help you see down into the cells. Find your comma shaped larva and use your grafting tool to scoop under it, taking the royal jelly and all. Now, place it into your new cell cup. You MUST keep the larva on the same side. In other words, whatever side was facing up before you grafted, make sure she lands in the new cup with that same side facing up. Bees breathe through spiracles on each side, and if you flip the larva over they will suffocate.

I love the Chinese grafting tool. I'm fast with it. It has a nice feel for me, and even has a little click when I release the larva into the new cup. But you can experiment to see which cup you like best. As you can see in the image, the Chinese grafting tool has a red button at the top and a small tip on the end. The tip is flexible and made of some sort of animal horn. The tip is flexible enough to go down into a cell, bend underneath the larva and royal jelly and then you just lift it out, being careful not to scrap the wall of the cell on the way back up.

Now you press the tip down into the base of the cell, centering well and slowly push the red bottom which pushes a piece of wood forcing the larva and royal jelly off the tip and into the base of the new cell.
You can see the wood in this close up picture and the top of the flexible horn can be seen in this picture as well. These grafting tools are easy to clean and reuse again and again. However, many people make their own grafting tools out of used dentist tools, tooth picks and other items. There are even expensive, more professional type grafting tools as well, so you'll have to test and see which one works best for you.
Your grafting technique will improve with practice. If you are unsuccessful at first, try grafting older, larger larvae just to test with. They are too old to work as queens, but it might be a starting point for you to try and then keep grafting smaller and smaller until you are comfortable with a 4 day old larva the size of a ",".

When I first started I would watch my grafting, looking into each cell and watching the whole time. Now, once I see the right aged larva, I do not look but just scoop and drop.

You do need good lighting and you might need visual assistance if you can't see up close. I go to Wal-mart and purchase reader glasses that are around 2.75 or 3+ magnification. Then I can graft with the eyesight of a 10 year old.

The more you graft the more you'll set up your operation to your needs.
Once I find the right larva to graft then I allow my tool to go into the cell until the tip hits the bottom. Then I let it curve under the larva. Now, I tilt it slightly backward so that the sticky larva is lifted from the base of the cell. The smaller the larvae the better, but more difficult it is to see and transfer. You do not want to move eggs. Eggs are too attached to the bottom and can be easily damaged. Once you've placed the larvae into the cups, do not be afraid when you are finished to turn them over. They will not fall out as they are stuck!

I usually graft about 60 cells at a time. I have a second set of paper towels handy so that I can cover the cells that I graft to keep them moist. Remember temperature is not so much of an issue when larvae are this young, but they can dry out.

So when I finish each bar, I cover it with a wet paper towel and keep covering each one I complete until I am ready to place the frames of cells into my starter hive.

Last week I mentioned how to prepare your starter hive, but let me mention it again. You want young nurse bees packed into the starter nuc or hive. They need to be extremely over crowded! Your grafts will be much more successfully the more over crowded your starter hive is. It should be difficult to get the lid on! And, of course, it needs to be queenless and have some honey and pollen.

Now transfer your grafts into your starter hive for 24-36 hours. Then, move them over to a larger queenright hive above a queen excluder. Just remember, the cups are going to be capped around day 8 so you can remove the queen cells and place them in your nucs between day 8-10. In case you grafted older larva, you might have your timing of emergence off, so to avoid a queen killing the rest by emerging early, I like to gather my sealed cells on day 10, not day 11!
The reason we like the finishing hive is because of it's size, it can better tend to a larger number of grafts whereas the smaller nuc or starter hive may not raise all grafts due to limit resources.
Remember when handling queen cups after day 10 that you must be careful and they must stay around 92 degrees. Handle them gently and keep them in their vertical position. The wings are the last to develop and rough treatment could cause the wings to be underdeveloped and then they may not be able to fly and mate.

Once your queens emerge and you are ready to sell them, and you want to mark them. This makes it easier for the customer to find them in the future. The International queen color code is determined by the year. All years ending in their respective number determines the color as seen in this image.
The best way to mark your queen is to purchase a queen marking pen. These work really well. Some claimed a marked queen may not be as accepted, but we have never had hives act negatively toward a marked queen. I feel that marking a queen is a helpful way for you not only to find her, but to know if you still have the same queen.

In lesson 34 we demonstrated how to use a marking tube. But watch the video below as I show you how to mark a queen by holding her. First you pick her off the comb by her wings. Hold the tip of your index finger near her legs and she will hold on with her legs. Then, bring your thumb up and hold her by a couple of legs. We exclusively use this field approach to marking our queens. My video is a bit out of focus, but you can get the idea. Click on the image below to watch the video. If you are viewing this lesson within your Email program, you may not be able to view the video. If that's the case, then you'll need to read this lesson from our website at:
For those of you who will sell your queens and ship them to your customers, you will want to make up your own cage candy. I just made a batch here. It is tricky, and you need to experiment. You use powdered sugar and a special syrup that you buy at most beekeeping places. Your mix cannot be too hard or the bees cannot eat through it to release the queen. But, if it is too runny, it can warm up and drip onto the queen and cause her to perish. So practice with the right mixture. When you think it is right, ship and queen to a friend or your brother to be sure it stays the right consistency when mailed.

Well, we've had a hard day grafting queens, but the day is over and you did a great job. You grafted, raised your queens, marked them, made candy for their cages and shipped them out. Now we can sit back in our lawn chair and sip on a nice glass of iced tea, sweet tea of course with lemon and look at our bee yard of mating nucs and ponder great philosophical questions like why does a smoker always work better when you don't need it any more?

Until the next lesson, BEE-have yourself!

David & Sheri Burns

Long Lane Honey Bee Farms