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Bee larvae from new queen.

Bee larvae from new queen.

It has been two weeks since the new queen emerged and today I not only got to see her ( so young and beautiful) but I saw all the new larvae she has produced.  That means her mating flight was successful and she is now mistress of her domain.  If you look carefully in the center cells, you will be able to see the very young larvae swimming in royal jelly. They are fed this for only about 3 days and then they are given only pollen and honey. The royal jelly gets them off to a good start, but they don’t get enough of it to develop their reproductive organs so they will be sterile when they emerge. ( Larvae destined to be queens will be fed royal jelly throughout their entire larvae stage and therefore have fully developed ovaries ) Now the hive is busy producing comb, honey and of course more bees.  Hail to the Queen!

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Here’s the story. Earlier this year I ordered a new queen to be delivered in June( from BeeWeaver in Texas) thinking that my old queen, now in her third year,  would  be replaced by her worker bees, sensing that her time was coming to an end. The colony wasn’t large enough to swarm so the “mail order  bride” was to be a backup if the colony wasn’t successful in making a new queen by itself.  Well, in May, the old queen kicked into high gear and began laying up a storm and the colony went in to full production mode…. lots of new brood, comb and honey.  Then the new queen arrived . USPS.  So…. I took the old queen and 5 combs of brood and honey and transferred them to an empty hive.  I then lowered the newly arrived queen into the old hive in her transport cage.  It takes about 2-3 days for the workers to release her from her quarters, and by then her odor has permeated the hive and they will accept her as their queen.  Three days later I opened the hive but could not find the queen. Nowhere. Not only that, I did not see any evidence of newly laid eggs.  I waited another three days and went in to look. Still no queen.  But I did see a number of queen cells and when I looked into them each one had a small larva swimming around in royal jelly; evidence that the colony was creating a new queen by itself.  For one reason or another, the workers were not satisfied with their Texan Queen so they took her eggs, placed them into queen cells and began to raise one by themselves.  And the queen?  She either died or was killed off by the workers. (probably the latter)  After a week I saw that they had successfully reared the larva and capped it off.  ( You can see the queen cell in the photo below…. it looks like a large peanut. )  There were actually three of these on the comb in various places.  A couple days ago I checked in on them and the queens had hatched as evidenced by the fact that they cells were empty.  The first queen to emerge went around and killed off the others that were still in their cells.  After a couple days she will be escorted out of her hive by a group of workers for her “nuptial flight”, taken to a tree or area where lots of male drones hang out for the day, mate with 6 – 12 different males and then return to the hive.  If all goes well, in about a couple weeks I should notice newly laid eggs and tiny larva once again.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

 

Queen Cell

Queen Cell

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We have been having unusually mild weather lately with temperatures in the 50’s. That means the bees are out, but Spring is  still a long way away, and there’s really not much out there to eat.   I noticed that my bees were all over the chicken feeder… I had never seen this before.

Bee's 'n chickens

Bee’s ‘n chickens

Tuns out they’re just getting a little mid-winter protein snack from the fine particles in the chicken feed! I figured it was time to go into the hive and check on the bees.  Much to my relief, the colony made it though the coldest part of winter and the queen is alive and laying brood. I noticed that she’s looking a bit raggedy, and at age 3 probably past her prime.  I could replace her with another queen but I’d really like to see what will happen naturally.  The workers will notice that she is not as strong and will replace her.  This is called “supersedure”.  They do so by putting an egg into a special queen cell and feeding it royal jelly.

Queen Cell

Queen Cell

Since only one queen can occupy the hive, the workers will kill the old queen by “balling” or clustering tightly around her and stinging her.  But I have another plan…… I’ll check the hive often now, and if I see that they have built a queen cell and capped it ( meaning the larva is pupating) I will remove the comb contain the queen cell and put it and a large number of bees from the original hive into a second hive.  They will sense the developing queen and will stay with her until she hatches out. The new queen will fly out, mate with local drones and return to the hive.  Now I will have two colonies . The rest of the bees will stay with the old queen until she dies or they again try to replace her .        Well…. that’s my plan.    Stay tuned!

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Got a call the other day from my bee mentor, Steve.  He said he was ready to inspect all his mating nucs and collect the successful queens, Remember that we had first “grafted” very young larvae, put them in to queen cups and placed them all into one queenless hive.  The worker bees, sensing that they didn’t have a queen, began to feed all of these ( and there were 60 of them ) with royal jelly to make for themselves a new queen ( guess they can’t count…. haha)  After a week we went back in and took out 24 queen pupas and put each one into a small queenless nuc of just two combs.  Within days the queen would emerge and IF the bees accepted her, and IF she was able to fly out and successfully mate and IF she found her way back to her new home and IF she is able to begin laying eggs, then we would have a good queen.  We opened up each of the 24 small nucs; some had no queen, but some had what looked like there was a queen laying eggs, but as we inspected closely, we could see that there were many cells with 2 or 3 eggs in them… a clear sign that a “laying worker” had developed..not a queen.  ( and that’s another story)

Looking for the queen

Looking for the queen bee

Marking the queen

Marking the queen with a red paint pen

It can be difficult finding the queen, but after a while I got the hang of it . She is a bit larger and her abdomen is much longer than a worker bee. When the queen is spotted, Steve reached in a picked up the queen by her wings. ( the Queen bee will not sting) and transferred her to his other hand by gently grabbing her around the thorax with his thumb and forefinger, exposing her back. Then he dabbed a bit of red paint from a paint pen ( found at any craft store)  on her back and placed her in a special queen cage.  ( why red? ….that, too is another story)  I was able to help him by handing him the marker and cage at the appropriate time, speeding up the process.  For each nuc, Steve recorded what we had found.  He will then go back another day and return the queenless frames back into the hives from which he took them out of.

I found this video of queen marking on YouTube…….. www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4Sb6J_uY3E

About halfway through this process, I found a queen on one of the frames Steve was holding, and he said, OK, why don’t you mark this one?  I took a deep breath, reached in. grabbed her wings, marked her and put her into a queen cage. Just like that. ( it’s a good thing I didn’t have time to think about it)  I did a couple more and got better at it.  We ended up with 12 queens.  They will be fine for a day cooped up in their little cages.  Steve will take these queens out to his hives and use them to replace old, weak queens to to add to a hive that had lost their queen.

Queens cost about $25 each from a commercial apiary ( not including shipping costs) so it is a real cost savings to be able to rear your own queens, especially if you have a lot of beehives.  I have just three hives, and know that I know how to do this, I might just try to make a couple for myself.  For now, my three queens are doing well.

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After collecting the larvae, putting them in the plastic queen cups ( the process is called grafting) and then putting the frame into a  queenless hive, we waited 10 days for the larvae to develop. The nurse bees sense that they are without a Queen, so they take good care of the potential queens, feeding them lots of royal jelly.   Queen bees take 16 days from egg to emergence.  It was important to take a very young larva… perhaps only one or two days old , so  by day 10 ( about  8-9 days after we grafted the larvae into the plastic cups) the potential queens will have formed a pupa and the queen bee cell is sealed over for protection.  The queens will emerge about 6 days later.   I went back to the hive with Steve to check on their development.  Out of the 60 larvae that we grafted we counted 24 capped queen cells. They look like large peanuts.  6 of the larvae that I grafted were successful!   I was pretty excited about my success until Steve said that he usually gets a 75-80% success rate and the big time professionals get 90 – 95%!  Takes lots of practice and a keen eye.

Successful queen cells

Successful queen cells

The day before we checked on the queens, Steve had prepared special hives…small units with just a few combs and no queens. Steve calls this a mating nuc.  We took the queens ( still in their cells) to the hives and put one into each hive by pressing the wax cell into the comb.  When the queen emerges, the bees will hopefully accept her and begin to feed her.  A week later she will be mature enough to leave the hive for a mating flight.  The workers will escort her to an area where a large number of drones congregate each day ( the bee equivalent of a singles bar) and she will mate with up to 10 different males.  Hopefully she will find her way back to her hive and within another week, she will begin laying eggs.

Attaching queen cell to comb

Attaching queen cell to comb

Placing comb back into the mating nuc

Placing comb back into the mating nuc

We will leave all this up to the bees, returning to the hive in about three weeks to see if this whole process has been successful.   I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

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I spent the afternoon with my bee mentor, Steve Wall who showed me how to begin to raise my own queen bees.   Queen bees can live 3  to 5 years, but they are the most productive in their first two years. The bees in the colony are sensitive to the strength of their queen and as she gets older or dies, they will naturally replace her. It is the worker bees that produce the queens. How do they do that?  Well, all fertilized eggs that the queen lays are female and therefore are potential queens. For the first 3 days after the egg hatches in to a tiny larva, it is fed a special substance called “royal jelly” . This stimulates the development of the larva. After three days, however, larva destined to become worker bees are no longer fed this royal jelly and instead are given a lower grade food of pollen and nectar. Their reproductive organs do not develop and they turn in to into sterile worker bees. .  Only those larvae that reside in specially built “queen cells” continue to get royal jelly . Being fed royal jelly will continue the development of their female reproductive organs and the result will be a fertile queen bee.

We can use this knowledge then to get the bees to make a number of queens for us.

And this is how to do it:

1. Select a comb that  has a lot of open brood ( larvae ) in it. This is where the queen has been actively laying eggs.

Comb with open brood

Comb with open brood

2. With a special tool…like a thin pen with a flexible blade at the end…. gently scoop up a very young larva…it must only be 1 or 2 days old. ( see how small it is?  This takes a lot of patience and good eyesight and practice!

Collected larva

Collected larva

Steve looking for larvae

Steve looking for larvae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Carefully place the larva into one of the “queen cups”.  This mimics the special “queen cell” that the workers make to hold the special egg that will develop into a queen. We used commercial plastic cups.

Plastic "queen cups"

Plastic “queen cups”

4. Once all the cups have been filled ( we transferred 60 larvae…. Steve did the first 40 and I followed with the other 20)  the bars are placed back in to a new  hive that has had the queen removed from it .  The workers now will sense that they have no queen and will begin to feed these new larvae royal jelly , as they are in what the workers think are “queen cells”in order to produce a new queen for their colony.

5. It takes 10 days for the larvae to develop and form a pupa( cocoon) . That will be May 3. At this time we will open up the hive and see how many of the 60 larvae have made it to this stage.  If we are lucky we may get 10 – 15 .  Fingers crossed!

I’ll report on our success and the next series of steps to take.  Stay tuned!

Good reference books to read if you are considering this:

“Successful Queen Rearing”: Dr. Marla Spivak and Gary S. Reuter. University of Minnesota Extension Service publication.

Queen Rearing Essentials. Lawrence John Conner

The Beekeepers Handbook, 4th Edition.  Diana Sammartaro and Alphonse Avitablile

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