Raising Your Own Queen Bees

Here at Wildflower Meadows, we take pride in being a reliable source for quality queen bees for our many loyal customers – both repeat and new. Raising queen bees is more than just our job; and we are pleased when our customers can enjoy the fruits of our hard work and expertise.

Believe it or not, we are also equally happy when a beekeeper takes it upon him or herself to learn the science and art of queen rearing.   At that point we share the joy of a beekeeper, who in learning how to raise queen bees, joins a select group of beekeepers who not only manage honeybees but are self-sufficient in meeting their own queen needs.  Queen rearing is advanced beekeeping.  There is a bit of a learning curve, but the benefits of knowing how to raise one’s own queens are huge.

The first and perhaps most valuable benefit is self-sufficiency.  Imagine the notion that you can have your own source of queen bees more or less whenever needed, on-demand.  This means no waiting during the peak season, no scheduling with your queen provider, and no placing orders months in advance. You’re the boss, and you raise your queens when you need them and when the timing is right for you and your hive.

Plus, you’ll likely save money – perhaps a lot of money.  The more queens that you raise, the lower your cost per queen becomes.  Sure, you need to purchase breeder queens and some basic supplies upfront, but once your system is in place, you can literally raise thousands of high-quality queen bees – or as many as you need.  After your initial outlay, the cost of producing every incremental queen is minimal, besides some basic ongoing supplies. The more queens you produce, the more money you save.

If you start with a Wildflower Meadows instrumentally inseminated breeder queen, your stock will carry the optimum Wildflower Meadows genetics that we are known for.  The difference is now you’re in control of both the timing and scale of your queen production.

Raising queens gives you the direct, satisfying experience of witnessing the joy and magic of a queen’s transformation first-hand: from larva to pupa, to virgin queen, and finally to a quality mated queen that you can truly call your own.

Breeder Queens vs. Mated Queens: What’s the Difference?

Beekeepers looking to purchase a queen bee sometimes ask us – what makes a breeder queen unique, and why does a breeder queen often cost nearly ten times the amount of a regular mated queen?

A breeder queen is the cornerstone of a successful bee breeding program. While a breeder queen could certainly take part in regular honey production and beekeeping activities, such as pollination – and most likely would be a superstar in such endeavors – this is not the breeder queen’s purpose. A breeder queen is the carrier of the finest, specially selected genetics, almost always instrumentally inseminated – she is a prized specimen, too precious for ordinary beekeeping.

The vast majority of queen honeybees sold by most queen producers (including Wildflower Meadows) are commonly known as mated queen bees, sometimes also called laying queen bees.  These queen honeybees have been naturally open mated.  While these mated queens are generally of high quality themselves, they are not instrumentally inseminated, and therefore always contain a percentage of unknown genetics.

Unknown genetics may present risks within a breeding program.  An open mated queen will mate with approximately 15 drone honeybees, all of which may potentially be from unknown origins.  If a regular open mated queen is used for breeding, she is guaranteed to pass along hybrid and unknown genetics to her daughter queens, creating variability in her offspring.  With up to 15 unknown drones (fathers) in her genetic profile, there is no guarantee of uniformity and optimum genetics in her offspring.  The open mated queen’s daughters will almost certainly be hybrids and may be inconsistent in performance and quality, which is not ideal for breeding.

A breeder queen has been specifically bred, selected, and inseminated for genetic excellence – which is breeder queens are more valuable for breeding.  The advantage of a breeder queen versus an open-mated queen is that a breeder features pre-selected F1 maternal AND F1 paternal lines that are 100% known and carefully identified. There are no unknowns with instrumental insemination – everything has been optimized for quality and uniformity.

Optimal genetics are vital to the growth of strong colonies. A beekeeper who wants to breed should start with carefully selected, pure genetic lines that are of known origin on both the maternal and paternal sides. This is the advantage of instrumental insemination and is what makes the breeder queen so unique and prized among honeybee breeders.

Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells

Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive.  When bees are working on frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of honeycomb cells: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees.  Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.

Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees.  This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees.  A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees.  In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb cells than drone-sized comb cells.

What about the queen though?

Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup.  A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup.  It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell.  It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen.  As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population.  Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible.  The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.

Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time.  If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell.  The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen.  Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier for the bees.

However, when a beekeeper discovers an actual live queen cell inside a colony, it is almost always a cause for concern.  Honeybees do not build queen cells unless they have an immediate and specific reason – unlike queen cups which bees will build just for their own sake. If honeybees are constructing queen cells it is likely due to one of several reasons.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of these reasons are good.

A few of the most common reasons bees that bees construct queen cells include:

  1. The hive is preparing to swarm
  2. The colony is without a queen and is in the process of raising an emergency replacement.
  3. The colony has decided that the current queen is of poor quality and needs to be replaced.

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

Promoting Drone Honeybee Production

For a queen breeder or anyone interested in raising a large number of queens, producing drone honeybees on a large scale requires some planning and foresight.  The first consideration – and, perhaps of the highest importance – is having the most desirable breeding stock near and surrounding the apiary at exactly the right time.  If you are going to need drones, you obviously want to be raising the highest quality drones from the very best colonies that you have.  There is no sense in promoting drone honeybee production in undesirable colonies.  But how do you get your best colonies to produce the highest number of drones?

There are several key factors toward encouraging a colony to raise an abundance of drones.  Here are the top three in order of importance:

  • Pollen and Food Abundance
  • Seasonality
  • Drone-Laying Space Availability

The most significant factor for abundant drone production is having a plentiful source of pollen.  Natural pollen is far and away more superior.  And, a substantial quantity of that natural pollen is even better.  When an area is naturally rich in pollen, beehives can’t help but to produce drones, regardless of many of the other factors.  This is the reason that you will find the majority of California queen producers located in more or less the same area of California – an area that is known to consistently produce enormous amounts of pollen – hence drones, during the critical queen rearing months of April and May.

If you are trying to produce drones in an area that has poor or inconsistent pollen availability, then you either need to aggressively feed these colonies with pollen substitute, or consider moving the colonies – at least temporarily – to a richer area, so that the bees begin to raise drones.

Moving bees to rich pollen areas is often another advantage of California queen breeders.  Well before the pollen becomes abundant in their queen rearing apiaries, most California queen breeders move their strongest colonies into almond pollination.  The explosion of almond blossom pollen that occurs over the relatively short period of almond bloom turbocharges drone production.  In this way, most queen breeders enjoy an abundance of drones and quality drone brood well in advance of queen rearing.

The second key to promoting drone production is the season.  April and May – the spring – is the ideal season for drone production.  Bees are instinctively aware of the position of the sun and the timing of the seasons.  This is why they naturally ramp up worker brood production during the spring, even during times of drought, and then cut back on brood production later in the fall, regardless of the conditions.  As the days lengthen in spring, the bees begin to instinctively raise drone brood.  This means that if you are trying to promote drone production in a less-than-ideal season such as late summer or fall, you need to compensate by aggressively feeding pollen or a pollen substitute.  An abundance of pollen becomes even more important during the less-than-optimal months of the year.

Finally, anytime that you are aiming to promote drone production, you have to provide the queen ample space to lay drone brood.  Ideally, providing a frame or two of drone comb during a time of high pollen availability, and during the right season, will almost guarantee having more than enough high quality drones.

The Pros And Cons Of Early Season Queen Bees

One of the constants in the world of beekeeping is that most beekeepers prefer to order and receive queen bees as early in the season as possible.  Having access to early season queens means that a beekeeper can divide colonies at the front end of the season, well before the spring honey flow begins in earnest, and well before the risk of swarming gets out of hand.  It also means that winter losses can be recovered quickly; with these new colonies getting an early start to the season with young, vigorous queens.  These young colonies typically have an excellent chance to build up rapidly in advance of the main honey flows.  Young queens are also less likely to swarm, which is another benefit of having an early-season queen prior to the swarming season.

All things being equal, a young queen is better than an old queen, so having young queens in hand as the beekeeping season begins is often an ideal way to get the season off to a good start.

However, with Mother Nature, not all things are equal.

In our current era of adverse climate conditions and high colony losses, counting on early season queens is not always a successful strategy.  First and foremost, because of the relentless trend towards higher annual bee losses, the demand for queen bees in general – and early season queens in particular – far outpaces the supply.  In short, it can be difficult to obtain early season queens, at any price.  Nearly all beekeepers, from the small backyard hobbyist, to the small-scale part-timer, to full commercial operations, and the queen breeders themselves, face high losses that need to be replaced each and every year.  These losses come from various sources, such as pesticides, varroa mites, viruses, nutrition, extreme weather, and increasingly, fire.  Each loss that needs to be replaced requires a new queen bee.  And, unfortunately, most queen breeders cannot produce enough queen bees during the earliest portion of the season to meet this tremendous demand.  Therefore, availability is usually extremely limited, or even non-existent, during the earliest portion of the season.

The availability, and quality, of early season queens is also more greatly affected by weather conditions, unlike queens that are produced later in the year.  Here in Southern California, while our spring and early summer weather is known for generally being sunny and pleasant, the weather in March and April can often be unpredictable, and sometimes downright stormy.  This means that the earliest queens may not always experience the most ideal mating conditions.  Even though early season drones are usually more than plentiful, due to weather, these drones may not be able to fly (or to fly in sufficient numbers) to ensure successful queen mating.  This means that sometimes, in spite of a queen breeder’s best intentions, an early season queen may not have mated as well as a later season queen, who will have experienced ideal weather for her mating flights.

Given these limitations, in recent years, many beekeepers have switched to a strategy of securing queens later in the season, when a large number of high-quality queens are readily available.  Instead of utilizing the early spring for dividing colonies, these beekeepers instead divide colonies later in the season, utilizing the last part of the summer honey flow to divide colonies and make up any losses.

There are several advantages to this strategy.  First, high-quality well-mated queens are usually readily available later in the season, and it is much easier to reliably obtain them.  Second, by not dividing colonies before the first honey flow, a beekeeper can head into the earliest portion of the honey making season with incredibly strong and powerful bee colonies.  A strong colony will nearly always produce more honey than an average colony.

And, finally, when colonies are divided later in the season, these newly created colonies head into the critical autumn season with relatively young and vigorous queens.  These young queens are often very enthusiastic about laying eggs upon their arrival, often resulting in a robust autumn build-up.  This typically ensures that the late summer divides have a near ideal bee population heading into winter, bettering their chances for winter survival.

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.

Say Hello To “Wheels”

We imagine that some beekeepers fall in love with certain queens and even go so far as to name them.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is completely out of the question since we keep far too many colonies to be able to name individual queens!  Plus, queens are constantly coming and going as we prepare our weekly shipments of queen bees for sale.

Once in a while, however, a queen stands apart from the rest.  We once had an artificially inseminated breeder queen who was missing an antenna, but in fact turned out to be Wildflower Meadows’ best breeder queen of 2011.  Naturally, she was named “Antoinette,” and became a legend for several years.

This year, another legend was born.  Her name is “Wheels.”

Wheels originally had no name.  At first she was just one of nearly a thousand queens that we shipped during the last week of May.  A customer purchased her, and the queen’s destination was a remote UPS Customer Center in Eastern New Mexico.  The customer was planning to pick up the queen early in the week.  But by Friday, the UPS tracking number showed that the queen was still waiting at the customer center.  UPS had been calling the customer several times a day throughout the week to ask her to come and retrieve her queen, but with no success.  It seems the customer was nowhere to be found and the queen had been completely abandoned, an orphan of sorts.

We didn’t have the heart to let her die such a pointless death, so we arranged with UPS to ship her back to Wildflower Meadows.  But by then, however, UPS was shutting down for the Memorial Day weekend.  UPS thought that they might be able to get her back to us by Saturday, so she was expressed back to the airport in Albuquerque, and then overnighted to California.  We then sent an employee 40 miles into San Diego on Saturday to retrieve her!

Unfortunately, she never arrived.

Then Memorial Day came. Would she survive such a lengthy delay?  A week is a long time for a queen to last without water.  She urgently needed to be placed inside of a colony that could take care of her and attend to her every need.

However, after what seemed like a long Memorial Day holiday, and another 40 miles into San Diego, on Tuesday she arrived!  Tired and thirsty, she required several drops of water at the UPS Customer Center just to revive her strength.  She was then driven back to Wildflower Meadows and installed into a queenless colony.  And then, we all just hoped for the best.

It turns out she’s just fine.  With all the traveling, she was naturally named Wheels.  She is a great Wildflower Meadows’ queen: an abundant brood layer, her offspring are golden and gentle, and Varroa mites are nowhere to be found in her colony.  Naturally, Wheels is now one of our favorite queens, and also one of this year’s top performers!

The Boys’ Club

When a beekeeper looks inside a hive it is a very rare occurrence to find drone honeybees inside of the brood nest.  Either the worker bees do not tolerate drones near the brood, or the drones themselves have little desire to visit the center of the colony.  More often than not, drones can be found on the outskirts of the brood, usually on a frame or two at the very edge of the colony, hanging out together with lots of other drones – the classic boys’ club of sorts.

Many things about the drones are different from the worker bees.  Besides the obvious differences of sex, honey production (drones do not produce honey), stinging (drones do not sting), and their large body sizes and ridiculously large eyes, drones mature and live at their own, more leisurely pace.

Whereas worker bees emerge from their brood cells in 21 days, drones take an unhurried 24 days.  When worker bees emerge they “hit the ground running”; before long they are attending to the many tasks inside the hive.  Drones, on the other hand, mature slowly.  They are not capable of mating until they are at least 6 days old.  During this time, they appear to have not much to do other than to eat and relax.

Even eating itself is relaxing, because young drones do not even feed themselves!  When drones are born they quickly learn how to solicit workers for food – especially nurse bees, which will feed them a mixture of honey, pollen and brood food.  Then, after feeding, it’s back to another stress free day in their own little man cave . . .

An Ideal Queen Mating Yard

Central to all queen-rearing activities is the queen mating yard, where the queens make their home between the time that they are hatched from a queen cell, until the time that they are ready for sale.  A typical commercial queen mating yard contains hundreds of mating nuclei, each with at least a pound of worker bees, a small frame or two of brood, sufficient honey stores or feed, and a queen cell.

Not all mating yards are of the same quality. When we evaluate locations for establishing a mating yard, we always consider the following very important factors:

  1. First and most importantly, all mating yards need to be within optimal flying distance (approximately one half mile, give or take) to our drone-rearing colonies.  There has to be an abundance of quality drones in the area; otherwise, what’s the point?
  2. The mating yard should also be near rich pollen sources.  Young, growing queens need proper nutrition during their formative days, and nearby pollen enables the queens to be well nourished as they prepare for and take their multiple mating flights.
  3. An ideal queen-mating yard must also have landmarks, such as trees or bushes interspersed throughout the yard.  That way the queens do not get lost when returning home from their mating flights.
  4. A clean water source nearby is also important, so that the bees stay clear of swimming pools or other dangers
  5. And, the mating yard should be free from ants or other small pests that can overrun the small and relatively defenseless mating nucs.

The above photo is one of our favorite mating yards, and has all the key elements to make it a success.  It also features an additional benefit that we didn’t mention above: beautiful tall pine trees that provide plenty of shade for a relaxing lunch break after a morning of selecting and caging queen bees!