Native Irish Honey Bee Society – Apis mellifera mellifera

Native Irish Honey Bee Society
Apis mellifera mellifera

Queen rearing – Tom Prendergast (spring 2008)

Anyone involved with industry will be familiar with the term “continuous Improvement”.  Beekeepers should adopt a similar approach and implement an improvement programme.  This can vary from year to year depending on your requirements and can simply mean replacing hive stands or maybe building a honey house to comply with health regulations.  Queen rearing should also be part of that improvement.  Every beekeeper should strive to increase their yield by breeding a better bee suitable for local conditions.  When we are assessing a colony we are really only judging one bee, the queen, for she is the mother of all bees in the colony.  To select the best hives, record keeping should always be part of any improvement plan. What most beekeepers want is “Maximum yield every year with minimum input of time and effort”.  To achieve this, you need a bee with certain characteristics, such as:

     Vigour:  Colonies must be able to lay up all fames by the end of May, so that three weeks later it has the maximum foraging force at the start of the honey flow;

     Productivity:  Some bees are very slow to enter the supers or draw out foundation; therefore their ability to store a surplus crop is restricted;

     Queen cell production:  All colonies swarm at some stage, but a colony that draws down 20-30 queen cells should not be selected as a breeder colony;

     Disease resistance:  A colony suffering from a disease like nosema will not build up in time for the main honey flow.

So to produce the maximum crop, we need bees that build up at the proper rate in time for the main honey flow and then are willing to go into the supers, work in them and fill them with honey.  To achieve, this they need to be disease resistant and not inclined to swarm.

It’s easy to get a good crop when all conditions are perfect. We all did well during 2005 and 2006, but last year was difficult, a warm April followed by a wet June and July.  However some beekeepers did manage to secure 60lbs per hive.  Having a bee suitable for our not too hot wet summers will guarantee a good return.  All our free time shouldn’t be take up looking after our bees.  Hives that are inclined to swarm will take several extra inspections.  Two other important traits to minimise your time and effort are “docility” and “steadiness on the comb”.  Docile bees are less aggressive, so you need less gear and less smoke and move quicker through the frames.  When finished the examination, the problem of having followers around you for another 10-15 minutes also becomes nonexistent.  Steadiness on the comb makes the task of reading the combs easier and finding the queen quicker.  You can identify the bee you need to breed from if you follow these guidelines.

Any breeding programme needs both male and female of the species.  It is important that the beekeeper takes drone production seriously.  Now that varroa has wiped out all our feral colonies, it is feared that the number of drones available for mating is greatly reduced.  All beekeepers, whether they intend to rear queens or not, should allow for drone production in their colonies.  All hives will replace their queen at some stage, so it’s important to have quality drones in the area.  The more drones with the required characteristics the better the chances of improving your bees and those in the area. To achieve this, you should insert two shallow Hoffman frames into each of your drone-rearing colonies, positioning them as the third frame from each side.  This should be done in March or the previous autumn.

For the cell-raising colony, select a strong colony with at least two supers packed with bees.  On top of this, place an empty brood box a few days before you intend to start your queen rearing.  Insert three frames of drawn comb and the cell bar.  Put a dummy board at each side to fill the space.  Smear the frames with sugar syrup.  The evening before you are ready to transfer your larvae, remove the three frames and replace them with two frames of pollen and a frame of young larvae.  These can be taken from the bottom brood chamber or another hive.  Remove all bees from the frames.  The frame of larvae will attract up the nurse bees.  The frames must be arranged in the following order:  frame of pollen, frame of larvae, cell cup bar, frame of pollen and a dummy board at both ends to fill the space.  You can then feed this colony slowly.  This hive is now ready for queen-cell production.

Transferring the larvae is the part we all worry about.  The two most popular transfer methods are grafting and the Jenker kit.  Grafting is the method we all like to talk about.  It requires a steady hand and good eyesight, but nevertheless it is quite simple and should not be shied away from.  Basically, it involves lifting the tiny larva from the worker cell and placing it into a queen cup.  Larvae should be 12-36 hours old at this stage and almost impossible to see (use a magnifying glass).  Lift the larva from the back of the C shape, and place it into a queen cup.  There are several types of grafting tools, the most popular being the Chinese version made from a flexible quill with a plunger to push off the larvae.  When removing the larvae, cut down the sides of their cells.  Having new comb is an advantage, as it is easier to see the larvae and to cut down the sidewalls.  If you don’t feel comfortable grafting larvae, you can use the Jenker kit.  This consists of a square box embossed with the honeycomb cells.  On one side a cover serves as a queen excluder, and on the other side little plastic plugs in which the queen lays are inserted. The Jenter kit should be placed in the brood chamber a week or two before commencing queen rearing.  Cut out a piece of comb corresponding to the plastic box, smearing it in syrup as you insert.  When ready to commence queen rearing, confine the queen for eighteen hours in the box, where she will lay in each plastic cup.  The eggs will hatch three days later. Remove the plugs from the back of the kit and place on the cell bar, avoiding any handling of larvae.

Before you start either of the above procedures, you need everything ready.  Have your bench area clean, lights on, and scalpel, queen-cup holders, magnifying glass, flash lamp, and reading glasses all close by.  Go to the cell builder and remove the cell bar, leaving the space empty for the bees to gather there.  Next remove your selected frame of young larvae or the Jenker kit.  Brush off all the bees, do not shake, and cover with a damp cloth, taking it to the car or shed as quickly as possible.  Work swiftly but carefully. When larvae are transferred, make sure cups are pointed downward on the cell bar, cover with a cloth and return to hive.  Close up and feed the cell-raising colony.  Return the frame of larvae to breeder colony.  Twenty-four hours later, check that the larvae have been accepted.  You should have 10-15 cells, sometime more sometimes less.  If more, reduce to 15.  Cut out any cells started on the frame of larvae.  Recheck again in three days for further emergency cells.

Ten days after grafting, the queen cells are mature and can be inserted into Apidea nuclei, which are filled with a cup full of bees and given a feeder full of fondant.  Confine the Apideas for three days, spraying twice daily with water.  Release the Apideas in the mating apiary at dusk. Check two weeks later to see if the queen has mated.


  • Select your breeder colony based on previous records.
  • Be mindful of the importance of drone production.
  • Choose a cell-building colony that is strong.
  • Graft larvae.
  • Transfer queen cells.
  • Check that the queen has mated.
  • Transfer mated queens to nuclei as soon as possible.

Queen rearing is a practical subject, therefore attend workshops and ask a friend for help.  If at first you fail, try again and again.


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