Queens – an example of collaboration between beekeepers, by Roger Patterson

For myself and my local association, Wisborough Green BKA (WGBKA) in West Sussex, where I am Apiary Manager, I usually produce at least 100 queens per year. This is mainly to replace poorer queens in honey producing colonies, provide queens to head nucs for new beekeepers and for members who need queens for a variety of reasons. We try to encourage members to rear their own queens, but sometimes their bees need requeening with better stock. As many beekeepers only have a couple of colonies, they may not have bees that are good to propagate from. A BKA teaching apiary can be a genetic resource to distribute good local stock from.

During 2020, with apiary meetings cancelled due to lockdown, I took the opportunity to be more critical and ruthless with queens than I normally am. I raised well over 150 queens, either in my own or WGBKA colonies, which I effectively run together. The WGBKA apiary is about 5 miles from my home, so I try to reduce travel where I can. For about 20 years I have tried to improve the bees in my immediate area, but like many others who do the same, I occasionally experience some of our queens mating with drones that I think come from colonies operated by larger beekeepers, who use imported or second generation queens. I aim for dark queens, workers and drones, but I often find the workers of young queens are very mixed colours. This means that if queens are raised from these colonies they vary in colour and their colonies vary behaviourally too. In some cases temper can be a problem, with some of them being quite spiky. This isn’t good in a teaching apiary, so they are quickly culled, along with any yellow ones. I cull yellow queens because in my experience they are usually more prolific than my darker bees, so need more than the single brood box that I use. I have removed many colonies from the wild and if they have been there for any length of time, I don’t find them headed by yellow queens. That’s nature telling me something.

Queens that aren’t what I want usually get the “boot treatment” at the earliest opportunity. I have found that being tolerant of them isn’t a good idea. If it is towards the end of the season, I may keep them to head a colony going into winter, but if they make it, they are usually the first to be replaced in the spring, the colonies often being used for the earlier rounds of queen rearing.

In September 2019, BIBBA Chair Karl Colyer was the victim of a road incident that left him unable to prepare his bees for winter. This and flooding meant he had heavy winter losses, from which he spent the spring and summer of 2020 recovering from. So he could concentrate on producing bees, I told him that I would have reject queens that he was welcome to. They would be quite variable in colour. They might be overwintered, recently mated or virgin, but none from known aggressive colonies. Although not what I want, they would still be quite good and better than some of the colonies I see. He accepted and we discussed how we were going to do it.

We don’t normally recommend moving bees or queens into an area with different conditions, otherwise they may not do well, but Karl reckoned that conditions in his part of Cheshire were similar to mine in West Sussex. The distance as the crow flies is around 175 miles, which although it doesn’t seem far, a similar distance but slightly to the east of Karl in the Peak District, or to the West in North Wales, might need very different bees, with mine probably not doing well at all. We felt that it was a good exercise to give experience in several aspects, including queens arriving on an ad hoc basis that hadn’t been ordered, two beekeepers working together, packing and transporting queens, the different introduction methods needed whether queens were fertile or virgin and the reliability of the postal service that may be affected by COVID-19.

I didn’t know how many queens I would have available, so I sent what I could, when I could. I tried to give Karl a few days notice, with a rough idea of the number of queens and whether fertile or virgin. This was done by email, together with a little information about each queen that included which colony she came from or was raised from. Some queens were allowed to emerge into cages, the darker ones I kept, the lighter ones went to Karl. I realised that Karl would need to prepare recipient colonies or nucs, with those receiving virgin queens needing to be queenless several days longer. I knew little of how Karl operated, apart from a brief description and a few photographs, but he seemed to cope very well.

I live in a rural area. My village sub-Post Office has closed down, the nearest had closed for part of the summer because the only staff who were trained for the postal counter were self-isolating. I used several other local village post offices, but I had to time it right, so the queens went on that day. I learnt the times of afternoon collections and aimed at arriving an hour beforehand to avoid queens staying in the shop until the next day. Even though I posted first class, I allowed for 2 days in the post to allow for virus related delays in travel, so posting was usually on Wednesday or Thursday. In my area the summer was very warm, so I had to put caged queens in the shade, as queens suffer in the heat and the fondant can become quite runny.

Queens were sent in plastic puzzle cages with 4 workers, the food compartments filled with commercial fondant. The cages were placed loosely into previously used padded bags and stapled. It was interesting to see the faces on the shop assistants when I told them the packages contained queen bees! In total I posted about 40 queens in 6 batches. I know that queen bees have been posted in travel cages for a long time, mainly from commercial suppliers, but it was still interesting to find few problems when done by amateurs in less than ideal conditions.

I will describe a little about how the queens were raised and where. My home apiary had 22 colonies in the spring, increasing to 25 at the end of the summer, being a mixture of honey producing colonies and nucs. To raise queen cells at home, I used queenless colonies and my version of the Morris Board that was on a colony all summer. This has two half size brood boxes, each of which can produce queen cells, otherwise one side can be closed down. At its most efficient I can produce a bar of queen cells every 5 days. At WGBKA, 20 full colonies and 12 nucs survived the winter. During the summer the full colonies stayed the same, but nucs increased to 32, all for queen mating. I use natural queen cells when available, but for artificial cells I have bars of 10 larvae, either punched or grafted, all raised in queenless colonies to reduce travel.

This was not intended to distribute good genetic material, but to help another beekeeper who had an unfortunate incident that resulted in heavy winter losses. From that point of view, it was probably better to test a system with queens that had little value. If successful, those colonies can be requeened next year with better locally produced queens. If the queens were introduced to small nucs, there would be very few drones produced. If requeened early in the spring, then there will also be few drones, especially if the colonies are kept small. The whole exercise should not greatly affect Karl’s local population by producing possibly undesirable drones.