Improving bees by raising your own queens

Improving bees by raising your own queens – a practical course

The course consists of one day self-study using bespoke video tutorials and then a practical day in the apiary with Roger Patterson.

The improvement of bees is an important part of beekeeping. The suitability of bees to the environment and their temper are issues that concern the caring beekeeper, but are not often taught.

The course will cover many of the topics and techniques that will suit the “ordinary” beekeeper, with a large practical element that is easy to understand. It is intended to be fun, not intense technical information.

Who is it aimed at?

This course is aimed at beekeepers who: -

  • Have several colonies.
  • Are involved in a bee improvement group or are considering starting one.
  • BKA teachers, demonstrators and apiary managers.

It will suit those who want to raise good quality queens in batches of 6 or more by using "artificial" methods in controlled conditions. The techniques demonstrated and information gained should prepare attendees for producing many more queens on a regular basis if required. The use of natural queen cells will also be discussed.

Attendees should know the "basics" of beekeeping, i.e., the life cycles, swarming procedure of a colony, disease recognition, etc, and be able to see eggs and young larvae. This is not a course for raw beginners, although it may suit inexperienced beekeepers who know the "basics", can handle bees reasonably well and are capable of learning quickly. It will be helpful to view relevant BIBBA videos.

Note: If you suffer reactions to being stung by honey bees you are advised not to attend this course. Circumstances vary, where some locations may not be in an area that enjoys a speedy ambulance service. It is also unlikely there will be tutors or attendees who are able to deal with an emergency.

Why should we improve our bees?

Many long-term beekeepers agree that honey bees are not as tough or as suitable for our climatic conditions as they once were. This could be for several reasons, including the continued importation of bees and queens, "mollycoddling" (supplements, medication, heavy feeding, etc) that masks weakness, not requeening colonies susceptible to disease, and not replacing queens in colonies that are poor doers.

When we look to "improve" our bees, perhaps we should consider the characteristics that have served honey bees so well since their re-colonisation of Britain following the last ice age, as well as considering the needs of the bees. The aim is to encourage local adaptation.

To help make our beekeeping more pleasurable we can select for characteristics that we prefer, such as gentleness. This is a much more rewarding and sustainable approach than simply buying replacement queens that may be imported, with origins in conditions that are very different from ours and having the added risks associated with importation.

What will be covered?

There will be both practical and theoretical elements, with time spent at several colonies of bees. The course will be flexible and will be modified to suit attendees.

Amongst the topics we intend covering are:-

  • Colony handling techniques.
  • Making up and managing queen mating colonies and nuclei.
  • Discussing and demonstrating Q/C building methods.
  • Clipping and marking queens and drones.
  • Q/C raising colonies.
  • Assessing colonies and deciding which to raise queens from and which to replace.
  • Selection criteria.
  • Recording.
  • Working with other beekeepers.
  • Setting up and running a bee improvement facility.
  • Equipment required - buying, making, improvising or modifying.
  • Drone production.
  • Q/C distribution.
  • Queen introduction.
  • Mating control.
  • Some of the myths of bee improvement and queen rearing.

Experience shows that each course is different, being tailored to suit the location and the needs of attendees, but including much of the above.

What equipment is needed?

There will be time spent at the bees, so bring clean protective clothing. It is asked that heavy gloves (leather or similar) are not worn, firstly to avoid the possibility of spreading foul brood and secondly to be able to handle and "feel" the bees without being clumsy. If gloves are worn, they should be new and lightweight, because queens and bees may be handled.

Apiaries at some locations may be in rural areas with rough or damp ground, so please wear stout footwear.

Aids such as magnifying glasses or Fresnel lenses are helpful to see eggs and young larvae. As a guide you need to be able to read newsprint clearly at 12-18" in front of you.

We strongly suggest a notebook and/or laptop to make notes. A camera for practical sessions is always useful and its use will be encouraged.

All other equipment will be supplied.

What can I expect?

A well-run course with a limited number of attendees, so the tutors aren't over-stretched allowing them to give individual attention if needed.

Experienced tutors who will be teaching from their own experience, not simply recycling from books or the web. Please accept the tutors may not have experience of all methods - few people have, however, there will be several options discussed and demonstrated, so you can make your own mind up which you prefer.

This course will be fun, interactive and full of encouragement to explore the joys of raising your own queens that have the characteristics you want. The knowledge gained will help give you the satisfaction of producing your own queens and the confidence to assess and improve them.

Attendance and the information gained is not intended to be a quick fix to improve your bees and that is it, with nothing more to do. Bee improvement is an ongoing part of beekeeping in the same way that honey production or swarm control is. You must expect a few of your new queens to be no better than those they replace, especially early on, but hopefully a reasonable proportion will be.

We believe that beekeeping should be fun, not a chore. We don't give attendees loads of information that is based on narrow thinking and is difficult to absorb, but tried and tested methods that are simple to understand.

The order in which the course is presented may be adjusted to suit the weather (or the forecast!). If we expect our bees to make the best of our unpredictable climate, then so should we!

These courses are held in several locations. Local conditions, apiaries, bees, equipment, personnel and facilities may vary considerably. Please accept and respect that hosts may not keep bees in the same way that you do.

Course etiquette

To present these courses, we rely on bees and facilities being provided by the hosts and are grateful for their kindness. It is therefore reasonable they are treated with the utmost respect.

All colonies are to be handled with care and by using the appropriate quantity of smoke to control them.

No smokers or hive tools are to be used, other than those supplied.

To identify stocks to raise queens from or to replace (we don't expect to kill queens!) we may place them in order of preference. This is for instructional purposes only and not to be seen as criticism of the bees kept by our hosts.

Some apiaries may be quite isolated. For security reasons we ask the location is not disclosed to anybody.

For working at the bees, bee suits and gloves are not essential, but head protection is.

What is or isn’t included?

A one day practical and online video. Pre – COVID, this was a 2 day course, but the videos now replace the first day.

Please see individual events for details.

Accommodation is not included, but there should be several options locally depending on your needs and budget. If you need help, then please ask.

Anything else?

We try to hold these courses in areas where there are opportunities for accompanied persons or the chance for an extended stay.

Although not part of the course, it is hoped that attendees will meet up for a meal on the evening before the practical day, so they can chat with others who have the same interest.

Although there is a lot of ground covered it is delivered in a relaxed atmosphere, so there is plenty of time for discussion, absorbing the information and developing the skills.

The Tutors

These will be experienced beekeepers. Please see individual events for details.

The Venue

Please see individual events for details. These will be variable, some being isolated.

The course fee

Please see individual events for details. They will vary depending on local arrangements and facilities.

These courses are very popular, therefore early booking is advised. Bookings are taken on a first come first served basis. When full, a waiting list will be created. No refunds will be made but you can send a replacement delegate if we are notified in advance.

10am to 5pm with a break for lunch;
lunch is only provided at the Lampeter and Barnsley events, bring your own to Bethesda and Billingshurst

Fri 1 or Mon 4 July
Nr Billingshurst, West Sussex.

At the teaching apiary of Wisborough Green BKA.
No lunch or refreshments provided.


Sat 16 or Sun 17 July.
Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Host is a semi-commercial beekeeper.
Lunch and refreshments provided.