A Simple Method of Simultaneously Raising Queens and Producing Nuclei

Eoghan Mac Giolla Coda

Eoghan Mac Giolla Coda is a commercial beekeeper based on Ireland’s east coast. As a fourth-generation beekeeper, he learned his craft through helping his father with the famous Galtee black bees of Co. Tipperary.

After settling in Co. Louth, he embarked on his own beekeeping enterprise using local strains of native Irish honey bee.

Eoghan currently manages over 150 colonies and rears native queens for his own use and that of local beekeepers.

(Photographs by Edmond Kirwan and Jim Agnew)

First published in
An Beachaire
(The Irish Beekeeper)

The reader may groan and sigh, “not another queen-rearing method,” and I agree that there seems to be an endless number of ways of rearing queens, including the Miller, Hopkins, Alley, Harden and Harding methods.  Although sometimes seen as a black art, queen-rearing is an important part of beekeeping, and every beekeeper should have access to queens of particular characteristics that they have raised themselves.  I think the secret to queen rearing is not to give up after the first attempt but to keep trying; eventually, it will work.  Queen-rearing also works well in a group situation, with a few beekeepers sharing their resources, expertise and time.  The various methods may appear confusing, but just try one initially, and when you have a handle on that, you can experiment with other methods.  The different methods suit different people and different scenarios and depend on such factors as the equipment available, how many queens you want, and the final fate of the raised queens.  The method described here aims to simultaneously produce both queens and nuclei and would probably suit a medium-sized beekeeping operation, a few beekeepers working together, or an association’s breeding programme.

Basis of the Method

In September 2016, at the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeding Association (BIBBA) conference on the Isle of Man, I was lucky enough to attend an excellent presentation on queen rearing by the Dutch commercial beekeeper Jeroen Vorstman.  I had been raising queens myself quite successfully for some time using the Ben Harden method and various versions of the Cloake board system.  These are both excellent systems, and only require a little amount of manipulation to set up.  I was not really looking for an alternative, but when I saw Jeroen’s presentation, I immediately realised that his method would be an ideal option for me.  Jeroen subsequently published the method in BBKA News (March 2017), which can be readily accessed online.  However, to suit my purposes, I made a few changes, and I refer to the technique as the Modified Vorstman Method.

Components of Standard Queen-rearing Methods

Generally, most techniques for rearing queens involve the following steps:

  1. Make up a cell-raising colony (sometimes using separate starter and finisher colonies).
  2. Transfer larvae from the selected breeder queen.
  3. Distribute queen cells (or queens) to mating nuclei.
  4. Distribute mated queens.

Most methods involve converting a full-sized colony into a cell raiser by either removing the queen or by physically separating the cell-raising portion of the colony from the queen.   In contrast, in the Vorstman method, the cell raiser is produced by building up a strong population of nurse bees derived from many colonies.  The resulting queen cells are then distributed to nuclei derived from splitting the cell raiser.

Construction of Cell-Raising Colony

Figure 1
Figure 1

Into a double (12-frame) nucleus box, introduce 10 frames of sealed brood and adhering bees from 5-10 strong colonies. In his method, Jeroen uses a single brood box, but I found a double nucleus box (Figure 1) extremely handy.  With a brood box, you need a floor, a crownboard, and a roof, as well as a strap to hold everything together.  With the double nucleus, everything fits together perfectly; it is very easy to move; and I don’t bother even strapping it up when I put it in my van.  The colonies that donate the frames of brood should be strong – at least 8 good frames of brood.  The frames should contain as much sealed brood as possible and should, of course, be free of disease.  The frames should also contain as little drone brood and as few drones as possible.  Two frames of brood and bees can be taken from colonies that are very strong.  It is important to note that, contrary to some people’s expectations, the bees from different colonies will not act aggressively toward each other:  Most of them are probably young bees and the disorientation caused by the manipulations seems to quell any aggressive inclinations.

Ensure that the queen is not transferred from any of the donor colonies It is a good idea to find the queen of the donor colony first before removing any brood frames.  If you like, she could even be caged temporarily while the procedure is underway

Complete the box with 2 good frames of stores Any leftover frames of ivy honey from the spring are ideal for this.  If there are no frames available, then the colony will have to be fed syrup, preferably using a top feeder.  The cell-raising colony will ultimately contain a lot of bees, so it is really important that it has enough food, especially if the weather is too poor for foraging.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Move the cell-raising colony to the apiary of the chosen breeder queen  This is what I do (Figure 2), but there is no reason why you could not transport the larvae from the breeder queen to the cell-raising colony.  If the frame containing the young larvae is wrapped in a damp towel, it can easily withstand a journey of half an hour or probably more.  In any case, the cell-raising colony should be moved at least three miles from any of the donor colonies.

Leave for 7 days Over the following week, much of the sealed brood in the cell-raising colony will hatch out, producing a large number of nurse bees.  However, there are very few unsealed larvae in the colony and almost all of these will be sealed by the end of the week, so these nurse bees have nothing to feed.  They are eager to nurse something, so the theory is that when young larvae in queen cups are introduced to them, they will copiously feed them, ensuring their development into well-nourished queens.

Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 5

Introduction of Larvae into Cell-Raising Colony

After 7 days, remove any emergency cells (shake all brood frames and examine thoroughly).

Remove both frames of stores and replace one with a good frame of pollen.

Graft larvae into cups on cell bar (Figure 3).

Place cell bar of grafts in middle of top nucleus box.

Feed double nucleus using a top feeder.

 

Grafting larvae into plastic cups is probably the most convenient way of transferring larvae from the breeder colony, although the technique does require some expertise.  Many people interested in queen rearing are put off by grafting because of its apparently fiddly nature.  However, as with most breeding processes, the key to the method is practice.  One of the key requisites is good eyesight. I use glasses that are somewhat stronger than my prescription ones and that I bought for a couple of euro in a local pharmacy. I also use a cheap Chinese grafting tool (Figure 4) and carry out the operation in the calm of my van (Figure 5).  Non-grafting methods should also work well, such as those involving the Jenter and Cupkit sets.  The method can also be used in conjunction with techniques that do not involve transferring larvae into artificial queen cups, including the punched-cell technique, the Miller method, and the procedure described by Martin O’Rourke in the March 2017 An Beachaire.

 

Division of Cell-Raising Colony and Distribution of Queen cells

Around 3-7 days after grafting, check the cell bar to see how many queen cells have been raised (Figure 6).

When the queen cells are ready, distribute the frames of brood the in cell-raising colony, plus adhering bees, among several empty nucleus boxes (Figure 7).

Place a queen cell in each box (Figure 8). Any excess queen cells can be distributed to mating nuclei, such as Apideas, which have to be filled with bees a day or two beforehand.

Give each box a frame of stores.

Complete nuclei with frames of foundation or dummy boards.

Figure 6
Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 10

Equalisation of Nuclei:  Initially, when I wanted to split the original double nucleus, I had the bright idea of using the well-known Vince Cooke method.  I arranged the mating nuclei in a circle around the double nucleus and distributed the frames and adhering bees to them.  I then removed the double nucleus and shook all remaining bees into the centre of the circle.  In theory, all of these bees, together with returning foragers should spread themselves roughly equally among the nuclei.  It was actually quite spectacular to watch the central clump of bees divide itself into different equal parts, which then gradually crawled toward their chosen nuclei (Figure 9).  However, when I returned the next day, I invariably found that the division was never as equal as I had hoped, with some nuclei often being very weak in bees and one or two being very strong.  The standard practice in this method is to equalise the nuclei by swapping strong and weak ones, but I could never get this to work.  You also only have a short window to do any equalisation, as the queen cells hatch out not long after the split.  I also did not want to waste time returning to the site every day or two to swap nuclei.  Now what I do is shake the residual bees into each nucleus as evenly as I can, leave one nucleus on the site of the original to collect foragers, close up the rest and leave somewhere cool and dark, and return late that evening or early the next morning to transport them all to the mating apiary.  Any Apideas containing queen cells should be kept in the dark for another day or two and also moved to the mating apiary (Figure 10).

After about 2 weeks, the nuclei (as well as any Apideas) should be checked to see if the queens are laying.  In some years, it can take quite a while for this to happen, so patience is important.  Where queen failure occurs, the remaining bees can be simply shook outside the entrance of another nucleus and the first  nucleus box removed.

Advantages of Modified Vorstman Method

Good quality queen cells Due to the large number of nurse bees in the cell-raising colony, the resulting queen cells appear to be very well nourished and, consequently, seem to be, visually at least, of very good quality

Transportable cell-raising colony The fact that the double nucleus can be easily moved means that the cell-raising colony can be transported to the apiary of the breeder queen rather than having to move the breeding queen or larvae to the cell raiser.

Provides young queens in nuclei in one step Queens do not have to be raised in a mating nucleus first and then transferred to a second nucleus, which is advantageous if the final aim is to produce nuclei rather than queens.

Uncomplicated timetable In essence, the method only requires 3 interventions: making up the cell-raising colony, introducing larvae from the breeder queen, and splitting the cell raiser (see Table 1).

Can be used as part of swarm management  I have found that by removing 1-2 frames of brood and bees, the method plays a major role in dampening the swarming urge of strong colonies.  Many times, colonies on the verge of beginning swarm preparations can be persuaded to give up or postpone going into swarming mode by a slight reduction in their strength.

 

Table1:  Summary of Timeline

DayAction
1Make up double nucleus as cell-raising colony
8Remove emergency queen cells and introduce grafted larvae
18Divide up cell raiser into nuclei and distribute queen cells*

Move nuclei to mating apiary in the evening (or the following morning)

30+Check queens are laying and strengthen nuclei if desired

*If mini-nuclei are needed to take excess queen cells, these should be filled with bees on day 16-17 and moved to mating apiary 3-4 days later

Effectiveness

I have used this method for rearing my queens for the last 5 years.  I make up a double nucleus once per week from about mid-May until the end of July.  I find the first attempt usually affords only about 5-7 queen cells but from then on, I usually get around 12-15 cells each time.  As my primary mission is honey production, this number is about all I can handle in a usually very labour-intensive summer.  Using this method, I produce about 30-35 nuclei, as well as around 50-60 queens raised in Apideas.  The mating success of queens in nuclei is very high, around 90-95%, whereas in the Apideas, it is somewhat lower at about 80%.  For me personally, the system fits very well with my beekeeping, and plays an important role in my swarm prevention strategy.

Problems and Other Issues

Presence of drones in nuclei  Ideally, when bringing nuclei to the mating apiary, there should be no drones present. These come from unselected colonies, so the traits that they carry may not be ideal compared to colonies that have been specifically selected to raise drones with good characteristics. When selecting frames of brood and bees from donor colonies, it is easy enough to minimise the amount of drone brood.  However, it is not so easy to avoid taking adult drones, as there will always be a few present.  As the season advances toward the height of the summer, this problem worsens as the number of drones in colonies increases.  Drones can be removed by first shaking bees into a Marburg swarm box (see www.dave-cushman.net), but this is a laborious and time-consuming process.  You could fit drone excluders to the nuclei to prevent undesired drones from leaving to mate but, in my limited experience, these appear to get clogged very quickly.  I place 3 half frames of drone brood in each of the 10-12 drone-producing colonies in my mating apiary in an effort to flood the area with drones from colonies with good characteristics.  Hopefully, this dilutes the impact of the relatively small number of unselected drones brought to the apiary in the nuclei.

Strength of Nuclei for Over-Wintering In the original method, Jeroen Vorstman generally split his cell-raising colony into 10 nuclei.  Even if done early in the season, it would be quite difficult for these nuclei to build up to the required strength for over-wintering.  To deal with this, as soon as the queens were laying in the nuclei, Jeroen added frames of sealed brood from strong colonies, allowing the nuclei to build up quite rapidly.  I wanted to use this method on a weekly basis and did not want to be constantly checking their strength, so I adopted a different strategy in which I make up less nuclei when dividing the cell-raising colony.  My basic rule of thumb is that if I split the colony in May, I divide it into 5 nuclei; in June into 4 nuclei; in July into 3 nuclei; and in August into 2 nuclei.  This ensures that each nucleus has sufficient bees and brood going into the winter.  Indeed, winter survival of these nuclei has been excellent, with the occasional loss generally being due to queen failure rather than to colony weakness.

Unexpected attraction of cell-raising colony to mated queens On one occasion in my first year using this system, I opened the cell-raising colony I had made up a week earlier to unexpectedly find eggs and young larvae.  Further searching revealed a white-marked queen, and I presumed that I had accidentally taken her from a donor colony along with a frame of brood and bees.  In my record book, I always note the numbers of the donor colonies, but when I looked through the book to identify the origin of this queen, I found that none of the donor colonies actually had a white queen.  Further analysis of my records revealed that a nearby colony that had a clipped white queen had swarmed a few days previously.  It seems that on attempting to fly, the clipped queen had fallen to the ground and then crawled about 3-4 meters to the double nucleus, which was raised only about 10 cm off the ground (Figure).  As mated queens are accepted quite readily by queenless colonies, she was obviously welcomed with open arms!  My suspicions were confirmed when on another occasion in a different apiary, a clipped queen and many of the bees in the accompanying swarm crawled to another cell-raising colony and clustered underneath its mesh floor.  To counteract this, I now always place the double nucleus on an unoccupied space on a hive stand, which raises it about 50 cm above the ground, and I have never experienced the problem since.

Potential Modifications

I have always used queen cells in my queen rearing but there is no reason why you could not distribute queens rather than queen cells by using an incubator or cell protectors.  Generally, I transfer no more than 20 larvae into the cell-raising colony.  I do the operation once a week during the summer, and I would not be able to handle any more queens.  However, I do think this method would be very good for raising many queens in one go.  You could simply put in 2 cell bars of grafts.  Alternatively, you could put on a modified crownboard drilled to allow the placement of queen cells.  In addition, after the removal of first batch of queen cells, you could introduce another cell bar of grafts before breaking up the cell raiser.

After all of the original brood has hatched but before the new queen has started laying, you could go through the nuclei and remove old brood combs and replace them with drawn comb or foundation.  During this broodless period, you could also treat the colony with Apibioxal for varroa control.

Concluding Remarks

Although this method of queen production may not suit every operation, I think it is an invaluable addition to the range of bee-breeding techniques available to the beekeeper.  It’s an excellent means of producing good quality queens and of producing nuclei headed by new queens.  As a bonus, by slowing the development of the swarming urge through slightly weakening strong colonies, it can play a strong role in swarm prevention.

Acknowledgements

As well as my obvious gratitude to Jeroen Vorstman, I would like to thank Edmond Kirwan for his help in the preliminary development of the modified technique.

Any queries on using this method can be addressed to me at