Chapter 10 Queen-rearing

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Queen cells
Maintaining the cycle


This chapter introduces the beekeeper to simple techniques for inducing bees to rear queen bees, in order to replace failing queens and expand his operations. It can easily lead him into commercial queen-raising -something which does not exist at the moment in tropical Africa, owing to the tedious nature of the operation and the tendency of the tropical bee to abscond when disturbed.

Commercial queen-raising involves working with several colonies and disturbing the bees almost every day, but African bees resent such harassment and therefore tend to abandon the hive. Therefore, the beekeeper who wants to develop a successful commercial queen-raising business must proceed tactfully and gently, minimizing colony disturbance by working during the cooler hours of the day or when most of the insects have left the hive for foraging, smoking them gently and avoiding any activity that will involve crushing bees or otherwise disturbing the colony.

In Chapter 2, it was seen that a queen can be reared from any female larva younger than three days old, but the worker bees will never rear a queen when they do not need one. The old queen will be maintained as long as she continues to function and maintains the accepted standard of egg-laying. But the workers will rear queens if the queen fails or disappoints them, if she dies (queenlessness), or if the colony is preparing to swarm.


Queen cells

Supersedure queen cells

Failure of the queen bee to distribute pheromones and lay the necessary number of eggs may lead worker bees to supersede (replace) her. For this, they build one, two or three queen cells, called supersedure, or replacement, cells, at intervals of a few days. The queen lays an egg in each queen cell. After the first queen emerges, the remaining queen cells are destoyed. The young queen may live in peace with the old one, even for several months, until the old queen dies.

Emergency queen cells

When the queen dies or is killed, the workers reconstruct several worker cells into queen cells, normally on comb areas containing brood, around larvae younger than three days. The larvae are fed with royal jelly throughout the whole larval period.

Swarming queen cells

Under the swarming impulse, several queen cells are constructed at the sides of the comb (in a top-bar hive) or at the base of the comb (in a frame hive). The queen lays eggs in such cells at intervals during a period of several days.

Queen selection

Nature's method of disposing of an old, impotent or ineffective queen and the bees' swarming impulse can be used at any time to rear several queens for the hive. A beekeeper who needs one or many queen bees can stir the worker bees' impulse to rear queens by artificially creating the situations mentioned above. To do this some preparation is needed. The beekeeper should first choose a breeder queen of high quality, that is, one with the desired traits. A beekeeper who needs to work with friendly, docile colonies will obviously choose to breed from such a hive, while one who needs "killer bees" to defend his property will breed from aggressive colonies. In all cases, a selection of the desired breeding stock is very important because however competent the rearing technique, the resulting queens will be inferior if the stock is poor.

Using emergency queen cells

If a laying queen is removed from her nest or killed, her absence will be felt, and the workers will be goaded into constructing emergency queen cells. After one week, these cells will be capped. Two days later, the capped queen cells can be removed with a knife and transplanted to queenless colonies.

On the other hand, very few beekeepers have the courage to kill their good queens in this way. An alternative is to build a hive smaller than the normal beehive and form a nucleus comprising worker bees, pupae, young larvae and eggs, plus one or two honeycombs and a comb with some pollen. The bees in such a queenless colony will build emergency queen cells and rear queens. The procedure is as follows:

1. Construct a number of small beehives, called nucleus hives, large enough to contain not more than five or six top-bars or frames. The hives must accommodate the same top-bars, frames and combs as the beeyard, so that combs can easily be transferred between hives.

2. Insert a quantity of bees into one nucleus hive along with one brood comb with old pupae, one or two brood combs containing some young larvae and possibly eggs, and one or two combs containing honey and pollen. Place the brood combs in the centre and the honey and pollen combs side by side. (Note that brood combs must always be kept warm by placing them in the warmest section of the hive.)

3. If the hive is installed near the parent hive, the older bees in the nucleus hive will rejoin their former colony. This may not create a problem, but if most of the bees leave the nucleus hive, the exercise may not be successful. To ensure success, install the nucleus at least three kilometres away from the old nest.

4. On the sixth day, visit the hive and count the number of well-developed capped queen cells on the comb containing young larvae and eggs.

5. Prepare as many nuclei as there are capped queen cells, using bees and capped pupae, and ignoring young larvae and eggs. Insert honeycombs or food for the bees. These nucleus boxes are called mating hives or nuc boxes.

6. On the tenth day (day 13 from egg-laying) use a knife to remove all capped queen cells. Handle them with great care because the wings of the queen are now forming. If they are carelessly handled, the wings may be deformed and the queen will not be able to make her mating flight.

7. Transplant one queen cell into each nuc box by attaching it gently to the waxy section of one of the combs in the warmest section of the hive, making sure that the tip hangs freely downwards. The cell must be free from any obstacle. This will enable the young queen to emerge freely with little or no assistance from the workers.

8. Two weeks after transplanting, visit the hive to ensure that the queen has emerged. Inspect the empty combs to ensure that she has started laying. If so, then she is ready to be used in a breeding programme.

9. When the queen cells have been removed, the workers' urge to rear a new queen will still be present, but by this time there will be no young larvae below the age of three days in the queenless hive. It is therefore necessary to restock the hive with young larvae and eggs. The workers will then rear queens, and at the appropriate time these can be removed for development in boxes. In this way a succession of excellent queen cells can be raised, provided there is a reliable supply of food and of eggs, larvae, pupae, and workers of all ages.


Maintaining the cycle

From the foregoing description, it should be clear that there is a need to maintain a continuous cycle which, if ignored, can cause the exercise to fail. The cycle requires -

- a good laying queen in a strong colony, who only needs (and should be supplied with) an empty worker comb in which to lay eggs;
- young worker brood, containing eggs and larvae less than three days old;
- worker and drone pupae nearly hatched, to strengthen the position of the bees in the queenless hive;
- worker bees not over 10 days old that can produce royal jelly to feed young brood and young queens;
- a number of older (field) bees to carry pollen, nectar, water and all the physiological requirements of the hive;
- drones to mate with the young queen.

The operator must ensure that there is the right stock of bees, combs, etc., in each beehive or nucleus hive at all times. Once a stage is neglected, the operation's continuity will be jeopardized.

The cycle requires three apiaries for comb rotation:

- a queen-right strong colony or colonies from which young larvae are always taken,
- a number of queenless colonies in which young larvae are turned into queens, and
- a number of nucleus mating boxes in which young queens are developed and mated.

Obtaining fresh eggs and larvae

A good, vigorous queen will always search for empty cells in which to lay eggs, preferring clean new cells. The beekeeper may therefore insert an empty comb into the warmest mid-section of the brood chamber, where the temperature is about 35C. On the fourth day, the comb can be removed, inspected and sent to the appropriate location. Empty combs can always be collected from the empty sides of the hive. Where no such combs are available, incomplete comb can be positioned in the midsection of the brood chamber; the bees will continue to build it quickly so that the queen can lay eggs into it.

Utilizing swarming queen cells

Swarming queen cells can also be utilized by breaking them from the comb and inserting them into nucleus hives as described above. It should be recognized, however, that bees propagated by this method have a strong tendency to swarm.

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