John Harding Queen Rearing

Due to the current situation beekeepers are in, queen rearing is now more important and critical than ever, for producing good quality native queens to deal with our changing environment and climate. We can and must influence what strains and sub-strains of honeybee we have left, but as a starting point we must concentrate on what we have here at home. I feel every beekeeper should raise their own queens, it is only then you can call yourself a beekeeper rather than a keeper of bees.
John Harding SystemEverybody has their own system of beekeeping and queen rearing that suits them, often without much thought for what’s best for the honeybee, or the possibility of causing unnecessary stress to the colony.

The main purpose of any system I produce is its versatility and to have an additional use so you always double its value in purpose, and it’s not lying around for the best part of the year unused.

If given the choice honeybees prefer vertical narrow empty spaces with unlimited depth, and just enough space to build 5 or6 combs side by side, but going up to 6 feet in depth with all debris falling well out of the way.

The Harding Queen Rearing System using Two Queens.

This system has evolved through trial and error from over 30 years experience of queen rearing and watching what the bees do. It is many ideas turned into one, and I have tried to follow as near as possible what bees do in the wild.

I have also developed and put in use a mini nuc system and a debris floor that have all worked very successfully without using chemicals in my hives.

I have always made my own equipment based on National specification, so I had an abundance of 5 frame national nucleus hives, and these were to be the basis of this project and be multi functional.

For this system it is better to make a purpose built stand that will make manipulation far easier, is stable and at a height that is agreeable to you.

50 mm Joining Tube

The base is set up on the stand and made up of three 5 frame nucleus bodies end-to-end that are connected by two 150mm lengths of 50mm (or larger) diameter plastic tubes. The tubes go through holes bored in the adjoining ends of the boxes which will allow the bees to roam from one nucleus to the next, giving access to all three nuclei. I used clear plastic pipe, it was just nice to watch the bees and note what was happening. Queen excluder is fixed on the insides of the two outer boxes to keep the queens from entering the central box. Each base nucleus box has a small central entrance to the front.

The two outer nuclei are called towers and each has a colony in it headed by its own queen. Additional boxes are placed on top as high as you want, as there must be plenty of laying and storage space. There are no queen excluders in the towers, allowing natural movement of the broodnest just the same as happens in a natural nest. The central nucleus is permanently queenless and is where the queen cells are raised.

Coverboard and jar

All my nucleus hives have a 68mm hole drilled through the roof, which is the same size as the standard screw top honey jar. If you use any other size then adjust accordingly. This is ideal for a quick feed with a few holes punched in the lid, making them easy to fill, easy to apply and are usually emptied overnight. Have spare jars ready making replacement easier. When not used for feeding, the jar plus lid or just the lid can be used to block the hole. The roof doubles as a crown board, making it similar to what are called migratory top covers.

How does the system work?

Frames of unsealed brood are placed in the central base nucleus together with food and pollen. Nurse bees are attracted from the towers by the brood and they work on the introduced queen cells. This area is still very much part of the hive, but has now created a supersedure condition. The regular addition of frames of unsealed larvae maintains the population of nurse bees.

Setting up the system.

Depending on your resources of bees it can be started immediately, if not then it may take you a little time to build up the new colonies in the two towers. You require two queens whether you split a colony or use two nuclei.

If you split a colony then the brood must be distributed equally between the two towers. If the queen is placed in one side a new queen will need to be introduced to the other side. It is always better if you can use two queens that are reasonably on par with each other.

I leave my bees to over winter within this unit so build up is monitored. Extra space is given when needed and I feed as necessary. If one side is weak then I equalise the brood between the two towers, or take sealed brood from another hive.

I try to have this unit at a peak by May 1st depending on the weather; the most important part of this system is congestion. The strength of each tower will determine whether you take unsealed brood for the central nucleus from the towers or other colonies. Make sure you shake all bees off the frames of unsealed brood before placing them in the central base nucleus. This will ensure no queens are placed in this area accidentally. For the central base nucleus you will need two frames of food on the outsides, preferably one with open pollen and one with stores, with two or three frames of largely unsealed brood in the centre. Close up and feed in the evening.

The unsealed frames of brood in the central base nucleus will now be attracting young nurse bees from both towers where they will stay to feed and keep the brood warm. It will only be a matter of hours before they have a supply of nectar and pollen from their own front entrance. They will never run out of nurse bees, being drawn all the time through the tubes from both towers.

Replace the frames of brood as and when they become sealed, destroying any emergency cells. Maintain unsealed brood within the central base nucleus as much as possible, which keeps nurse bees in this area and is a way of training them to build queen cells.

How do we produce queen cells?

All forms of introducing larvae will work. I have used both “frame” and “lid” method, with good success. Depending on night temperature either system can be used. You can also use proprietary systems or make your own if you wish.

There are many methods but I prefer plastic cups that I can graft larvae into. These will need preparing by the bees for best results. Fill the cell raising frame or lid with empty cups and place in or on the central base. That evening feed a jar of syrup, this is important for the continued supply to the nurse bees so they produce an abundance of royal jelly. You will know if there is a flow on as they will not take the syrup, so don’t worry if the syrup doesn’t go.

The bees will prepare the cups by cleaning, polishing and putting a thin film of wax around the edge of each cup. By allowing them to do this, it makes the cups more easily accepted when you start your grafting.

Forty eight hours after putting the empty cell cups in the central box go to the donor colony you want to raise queens from and find a good frame with plenty of day old larvae and you are now ready to graft. I use the Chinese grafting tool, which is cheap and perfect for the job.

Cell cup with royal jelly and larva

Nurse bees need training to build queen cells so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get 100% with your first effort. If you do get 100% then well done, if not then check 48 hours later. If there are any failures, then group together all the accepted cells, take away the empty cells and re-graft. The more the nurse bees do the better they get. It is possible that the rejected larvae may have been damaged in grafting so practice does make perfect for you and the bees. Check again 48 hours later, taking serious note as to date, how many and where the original cells are. Don’t use memory, write it down or take a photograph and date it.

It is sometimes better that your queen cells are staggered by date, it makes it easier when making up queen mating nuclei over several days rather than all in one day. I make up these on the 10th day after grafting, so you see that writing it down or taking a photograph is a must and does make life so much easier. Four days later I can then introduce my queen cell, Cell cup with hosepipe protector and for protection I cut up 1inch length of hose pipe and make a small slit on one end. Place this gently over the queen cell slit first and this will be more than adequate to protect your investment. On that evening I feed with a jar of syrup, replacing when necessary. Feeding does stimulate the virgin queens to go and get mated. Watch the weather and 2/3 weeks later a laying queen should be observed. Still to this day it is never a better feeling than seeing your rewards in this way.

Frame method

These are often made up by beekeepers themselves and can hold different types of grafted cups or punched cells. There will need to be a space created in the central base unit to make room for it. Temperature is critical for any Queen rearing so it is better to use the frame method when temperatures drop below 18° C at night.

The Lid Method

I am never quite sure what to call this, but “Lid” will do.

I have made up a clear stiff plastic cover 1/8 inch thick with a suitable wood surround to fit and cover the top area of the central base nucleus. The wood surround needs to give enough height for a full size queen cell. Too much and they will create burr comb and not enough they will join the cells to the top of the frame, therefore damaging the cells when inspected.

The clear plastic cover is marked out and drilled to accept as many queen cell holders as you wish, the better the weather and flow the more queen cells the bees can produce. I have used strips of wood to separate each row, however it is not important and works equally well with and without these. Within this lid, depending on the size of cell building nucleus you use, it is possible to get 5 rows of 11 cells in each row with suitable distance between each cell.

Lid viewed from the topLid viewed from the underside

Early in the year or in poor weather the outer rows are sometimes neglected. Don’t worry as it all depends on how many cells you require, if you want to isolate the two outer rows it could easily be blanked off conserving work for the bees. The lid method works far better when temperatures at night are over 18° C.

The best insulation you can have is bees; do not worry about extra man made insulation within the roof. It will just get in the way of the 68mm feed hole for the honey jar, or cause unnecessary condensation.

The beauty of using this lid method is there is no disturbance to the bees. It is just a case of taking off the roof and checking each cell individually whether you are supplying grafted queen cell holders or just checking their progress.

The plastic lid on the latest version has extra holes; I put these around the top outside edge of the lid, to help with ventilation and dispersal of moist air plus access to the feeder.

The Towers

Normal inspections are all that is required as the queen cells are produced in the central box. Once all the work has been done in producing queen cells attention can be put towards the towers.

Both towers will be working in harmony with each other generating the same odour therefore creating no problems.

If your selected donor queen is in one of the towers this is not a problem as the frame taken for grafting can be obtained and replaced very easily.

There are no queen excluders in the towers allowing the queens to lay where they want to, just like in the wild. This places no stress on the queens. Further nucleus boxes can be added when needed. Frames of sealed brood and stores can be removed to help build up other colonies. You could make up nuclei for your new queen cells and replace with frames of foundation or drawn comb. The system is very versatile.

If emergency queen cells are found on combs of unsealed brood, which I have not experienced in all the years I have used this system, then destroy them, or if they are from your selected queen you could use them if they are good. I tend not to waste their energy in creating a queen cell.

At the end of your queen rearing for the season the nuclei that have been used for the system can either be split to accommodate any cells that you may have left, or the whole system can be left to overwinter ready for the following season.

Why Use 5 frame nucs?

  • It is closer to their natural environment, especially when tiered.
  • Easy manipulation due to lightness in weight

Why not use full size brood boxes?

  • Simple – they are just too big, plus I would rather use brood boxes for honey production
  • It takes too long to build up for when I’m ready to start early in the season.
  • The centre brood box would have to be decreased in size using dummy boards and insulated
  • Difficult to manipulate and would get too heavy

Why use two 150mm lengths of 50mm pipe?

  • It allows plenty of air movement around all nuclei
  • The distance between the centre base nucleus and the two towers is enough to be detached from the main body of the nest so the bees assume the queen is failing, creating a supersedure effect therefore they are happy to raise queen cells.
  • Worker bees can infiltrate all parts of the hive
  • The two queens are separated and far enough apart
  • The odour/scent is the same throughout the colony
  • If the pipe is too small it could possibly become blocked with propolis, therefore the two towers would have separate identities
  • Drones would be content in either part and not get trapped or distressed

The Benefits of the system

  • Queen cells are built more naturally as if the colony was superseding
  • Good quality queen cells are produced
  • An abundance of royal jelly in the right area
  • It builds up quickly
  • It creates congestion
  • Can be used for small or large beekeeping operations
  • Queen cells can be staggered by date for a more manageable method
  • Any method of cell raising can be used
  • It’s easy to get to the centre nucleus where the cells are
  • Disturbance to the two main bodies is limited to normal inspections
  • The nuclei can be split, and given a queen cell when queen rearing is finished
  • It is a small enough system to possibly have in your own garden
  • It is never queenless so never angry, unless you are doing something wrong
  • Frames with bees can be interchanged between towers
  • Queen rearing can be continuous throughout the season

The article that this came from was published in Bee Improvement Magazine. To make it suitable for the BIBBA website it has been edited and in places rewritten by Roger Patterson with the approval of John Harding. The original article (BIM31) contained items that can be found elsewhere.

Editor’s comments

I first saw a similar system in use with full sized brood chambers, which I now know to be a copy of the version first featured. I liked the principle, but did nothing as I thought it seemed wasteful. The use of smaller boxes seems much more satisfactory to me.

When the article by John Harding himself was published I liked the simplicity of it and soon afterwards I had an opportunity to visit him.

I immediately liked it and could see great potential especially in situations where a fairly large number of queens are required throughout the season, such as a beekeeper with several colonies, groups of beekeepers or a beekeeping association. At the time of writing I intend making a similar system, and it is so versatile you could modify it however you like. I will go for separate Open Mesh Floors (OMF) and each box being effectively half of a national brood box size i.e. 5½ frames with castellated spacers and a dummy board taking up the half space. This will give me room to remove the outside frames without rolling bees. The boxes will be numbered L1, L2 etc and R1, R2 etc, so they go back in the same place if need be. I will make from recycled timber and allow for four boxes on each side with several spares to put above my existing nucleus boxes as I like the idea of a higher box for wintering bees.

In the early spring I will move two equal colonies in full sized hives into the position the towers will take. I will then be in a position to raise queen cells at an early stage.

I think the Hopkins method of cell raising will work well, but I will have to make a special crown board to accommodate the frame.

In addition to the above the benefits I see in this system are:-

  • It can easily be made from scrap material at minimal cost by anyone with basic woodworking skills and simple tools.
  • It can be used throughout the summer by continually adding larvae
  • The whole system once set up costs nothing to run
  • The colonies in the towers will probably need no winter feeding
  • The colonies in the towers will have a natural nest situation with the entrance at the bottom and food above the brood
  • There will be a natural cycle of empty combs from the central box being replaced with combs of unsealed larvae. The empty combs will be laid in by the queens and will provide frames of unsealed larvae again.
  • Combs can be interchanged with those from other colonies in the apiary
  • The towers can be built up quickly by the addition of combs of sealed brood
  • Boxes of foundation can be placed on top of the towers and can easily be used as supers. The extracted frames can be used for brood
  • Honey production colonies are not disturbed as in some queen rearing methods
  • The system is so versatile and users will find many more ways of using it.
  • This could be a good system for Beekeeping Associations to provide queen cells on a continuous basis for breeding programmes.

by John Harding re-written by Roger Patterson

The images have been produced from original photos by John Harding