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Young Larvae

When you look at a healthy young queen bee, it is sometimes hard to imagine that only a month or so earlier, she was actually not recognizable as a bee, but rather existed as a larva.  For the first four to five days after emerging from an egg, a future queen bee is a larva, which is helpless and must be cared for and fed by other bees.  For these four or five critical days, the worker (nurse) bees feed the larva generous servings of royal jelly.  The size and health of the future queen is directly dependent on both the quality and quantity of the royal jelly that the larva receives during this brief and critical time window.

Each larva has a life span of only about four and half days between the time that it hatches from an egg to the time that the surrounding bees seal it and it begins its transformation into a pupa, eventually becoming a queen bee.  Therefore, a conscientious queen producer needs to take as many steps as possible to ensure that each and every queen larva is well cared for during this vital metamorphosis period.  Well-fed and well-nourished larvae result in high quality queen bees.

In order that each larva receive the maximum amount of royal jelly during its brief life, a good queen producer will graft larvae that are young – as close to egg emergence as possible.  Older larvae are already too far into their four-day window to receive the maximum quantity of royal jelly needed during their short lifespan as a larva.  A young grafted larva will receive a full four days of royal jelly feeding before it is sealed, whereas a two day old larva has already missed out on up to two days of royal jelly and has only two days left to be fed before it is sealed.

Once the young larvae are grafted, they are placed into cell building colonies that are packed with healthy and well-fed nurse bees.  Having a strong cell building colony ensures that the larvae will be well-attended and abundantly fed from the time that they are placed into the cell builder cups until the time they are sealed shut.

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.

Grafting Queen Bees

The act of transferring young larvae from breeder queens into cell building colonies is called “grafting.”  Queen producers do a lot of grafting.  Every future queen bee for sale begins with the simple act of grafting; the transferring of larvae from a breeder queen into a cell cup, and then into a queen cell building colony.  It is with this method that the entire commercial queen rearing industry produces queen cells, which hatch into future queen bees.

Grafting is one of the more technically challenging parts of raising queens.  The grafter should have excellent eyesight, and a sure hand to be able to pick up tiny larvae that are about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen.  The grafter uses a special tool (known as a grafting tool), which slips underneath a larva and scoops it up along with some of the surrounding jelly.  The larva is then carefully placed in the center of the receiving cell cup.  Ideally, there should be no impact on the larva whatsoever; as the act of grafting needs to be a smooth and gentle process.  Larvae are extremely fragile, and grafting needs to be done in a warm, well-lit, and relatively humid environment.  Speed is also important, as the larvae should not spend too much time outside of the colony and run the risk of drying out.

We have found that our best grafting sessions take place when we are calm and relaxed.  Too much sugar or caffeine can lead to a shaky hand!  Calm and steady is the key, one larva at a time.

Photo is courtesy of Glenn Apiaries, with permission.