Queen Cells

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The Queen Bee Grafting Tool

Imagine a tool that is designed to be as flimsy as possible.  If you went to The Home Depot and asked their staff for their flimsiest tools, they would laugh at you.  Who wants flimsy tools?  The answer is the queen producer, that’s who.

Although, historically, beekeepers have utilized a number of different kinds of tools for grafting (grafting is the act of transferring larvae from breeder colonies to queen cell production cups), most beekeepers nowadays have settled on the “Chinese grafting tool” (shown above), as their preferred queen bee grafting tool of choice.

The Chinese grafting tool is a simple pencil-like object made of plastic that contains a thin plastic reed, or spatula, at the end.  The reed is what picks up the delicate larvae.  The grafting tool also features a spring-loaded plunger that the beekeeper uses to gently push the larva off of the reed and into the cup, thus allowing the beekeeper to precisely transfer an individual bee larva to a queen cell cup.

As soon as someone begins to graft larvae in quantity and as a serious endeavor, it immediately becomes obvious that the reed tip needs to be as flimsy as possible.  A stiff reed does not give easily, making grafting more of a challenge than it needs to be.

Eventually a beekeeper will break in his or her favorite grafting tool and get used to the flimsy feel of that particular tool, to the point where it becomes like an old friend, something similar to the way a well broken-in baseball mitt feels to a nimble shortstop, or the way a priceless violin feels to a concert violinist.  The main difference, of course, is that a grafting tool only costs about $3, and an unassuming beekeeper performs not in front of a cheering crowd, but alone and in peace among the humble bee larvae and future queens.

The Queen Cell Builder

The workhorses of any queen rearing operation are the cell building colonies.  These are special bee colonies that are established with the specific purpose of raising queen cells.  Queen cells are larvae that are grafted from high quality breeder stock, and developed by the cell building colony to become queen bees.

How does the queen cell builder know to raise a queen bee, rather than a worker bee?  First, the cell building colony typically is queenless from the outset, so it has a natural desire to raise new queens.  The positioning of the queen cells is also important.  Rows of grafted larvae are placed in the center of the colony, hanging upside down in the same manner that a colony would naturally hang its own queen cells.  This makes the larvae recognizable to the colony as potential queen stock rather than worker stock.  Secondly, a cell building colony is packed full of young nurse bees, almost to the point of being overcrowded.  Young nurse bees are the best producers of royal jelly – the larvae’s food – and a good queen cell building colony should never be lacking for royal jelly production.  The beekeeper continuously feeds the cell building colonies, so that the nurse bees are never lacking for food themselves.  Lastly, the slight overcrowding of the colony tends to produce a swarming instinct, which in itself causes the colony to want to produce extra queens in anticipation of a possible swarming event.

The queenlessness, the larvae hanging upside down, the heavy population of nurse bees, the feeding, and the slight overcrowding – all create a potent brew of incentives for the cell building colony to produce a quality set of queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, when constructing our queen cell building colonies, we strive to create all of the these conditions.

Handling Queen Cells

Queen cells are very fragile, and an errant poke of a beekeeper’s finger into a queen cell can kill it, causing sadness for the queen breeder, and undoing hundreds of hours of hard work by the nurse bees.

Virgin queen bees typically hatch out of their queen cells on the twelfth day after grafting.  Many queen breeders, however, pull their queen cells from the cell building colonies on the ninth or tenth day, and store the queen cells inside an incubator for the remaining two or three days.   This early harvest frees up space in the cell building colony and reduces the chance of an early virgin queen bee hatching, running amok and destroying the rest of the cells.

When a mature queen cell is ready to be placed inside a queenless colony or inside a mating nuc, it needs to be transported from the queen-rearing apiary to the mating yard.  This is where the queen cell protector does its work.  The mature queen cells are placed into cell protectors and stacked into trays for transporting.  The protectors keep the queen cells from being accidentally damaged by the beekeeper during handling.  They also protect the queen cells from falling over or colliding into each other should the transporting vehicle hit a bump or should the driver need to stop suddenly.

Once the cells have arrived at the mating yard and begin their first step on becoming mated queen bees, the cell protectors can either be placed in the colony with the queen cell inside it; or the queen cell can be placed into the colony without the protector, and the protector saved for the next batch of queen cells.  Some beekeepers think that keeping the queen cells inside cell protectors within the bee hive aids in protecting the queen cell from being destroyed by the worker bees; but this is not really true.  If the bees want to remove a queen cell from a colony they are going to do it with or without the queen cell protector.