Follow these tips to raise healthy, productive queen bees.
The Backyard Beekeeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden (Quarry Press, 2018), by Kim Flottum gives expert advice to beekeepers of all skill levels, including those just beginning to participate in this increasingly popular hobby. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "Rules of Modern Beekeeping."
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1) Queens must be raised in luxury.
2) Queens must be well mated before being sold or used.
3) Queens must be productive.
There's an old saying: We too often get the queen we can, rather than the queen we want. Getting the queen you want means finding a queen producer who provides queens of the quality you want, at the time and the price you want. Ideally, you will one day raise your own queens, suitable to your exact location, management style, and timetable. When those skills are acquired, this rule will no longer be needed. Still, a beekeeper should know enough about the process to ask good questions. So here are some of the basics of raising good queens, and what can go wrong in the process.
Here, there is one thing any beekeeper can do to increase the probability that the queen purchased was raised in luxury: Watch the weather wherever the new queen is being produced. It's pretty easy to find out, almost in real time, what the weather is anywhere on the planet from your smartphone or computer, and it is a tool you would be foolish not to use. Here's why.
A luxury childhood begins with a healthy breeder queen and colony. These are the bees that produce the larvae that include your colony's eventual queen. Inclement weather during very early spring can limit food. Cold can chill brood, thus reducing the potential worker population in the colonies that raise your queen. A period of very warm weather earlier than normal can produce a flush of Varroa mites ahead of a treatment schedule, causing all manner of direct problems by injuring the bees that care for the breeder or the breeder herself, and it can definitely increase the virus load in the whole operation.
If the breeder queen's colony is successful in keeping their queen healthy, she will produce eggs and larvae that will be moved to a different colony, one populated with an artificially large number of very young nurse bees with very active food glands. They are able to feed these soon-to-be queens with huge amounts of royal jelly, the food of queens. But they also decide whether a particular larva is fit to be a queen. They feed those deemed fit by their own set of rules, and they don't feed poor-quality, injured, or unacceptable larvae. This colony, usually called a starter, can have weather or other problems, too. A cold snap can be devastating by chilling this expensive brood, poor-quality food because of drought or freezing can harm the nurse bees, and too many Varroa and viruses can bring their own set of issues. These are the same problems other colonies could have, but control here is especially critical. After 24 or 48 hours in the starter, the now-accepted queen cell holding your queen is moved to yet another colony, called a finisher. These colonies continue feeding your queen and finish making the beeswax cell she will pupate in. Of course, feeding is critical here. Poor stores or sick nurse bees can give your queen a bad start before she ever emerges to mate. So, when it comes to your queen being raised in luxury, the weather can play a significant role. It pays to pay attention.
But even when the weather is perfect, other problems can interfere with your queen's luxury requirements — sick or hungry nurse bees for instance. Sickness can nearly always be pinned on Varroa, past or present, and it is difficult to know if the queen producer is doing an adequate job of Varroa control. A related issue is chemical residue in the colonies your future queen is living in, whether it's the breeder queen colony, the starter, the finisher, or the mating nuc. All could have residue problems.
So the questions you should be asking are pretty simple: Are the queen's mother, and all the nurse bees in her mother's colony, healthy? How often are healthy, young nurse bees added to the starters and finishers? Are the combs in all these colonies replaced annually, yes, annually to reduce your queen's exposure to those toxins? If you've been watching the weather, you have an idea of food availability. What does the producer feed when the weather turns? Breeder queens should have the best of all worlds so she is producing the best of all offspring. Many queen producers finish the queen cells in a temperature- and humidity-controlled incubator, which, certainly, should be well controlled. Is it?
If all of these conditions are met — clean, safe, well fed, and under control — the queen you will eventually receive is off to a good start. But the game's not over yet.
One or two days before she emerges, the queen's cell is moved from the finisher colony to a mating nuc, which is usually a much smaller colony, often only a two or three half-size frame nucleus colony. She takes a few days to get ready to fly, and the nurse bees take care of her. Then she has a short window of time to make those several flights. If the weather turns sour and flying isn't possible, or it's only possible for a day or two, your queen will not have the opportunity to meet and greet as many drones as is optimal. So even though she is mated, she is barely mated, and will run out of sperm much sooner than a well-mated queen. How many drones should she mate with? Twenty to twenty-five is good, maybe even thirty. But five or ten is a disaster. Watch the weather for the two weeks before your queen is to be delivered to make sure there is some sunshine and good flying weather. A poorly mated or unmated queen will be replaced by the colony, usually very soon after introduction, and you will lose valuable build-up time. It would be anthropomorphic to say that a well-mated queen seems more confident than a poorly mated queen, but it's a good way to imagine what's going on.
Poor mating can also result when the drones your queen mates with perform less than spectacularly. Two problems can cause this: damage by Varroa or the chemicals used to control Varroa and damage due to poor nutrition. The most important question to ask is, how many drone colonies does the queen producer support to produce enough drones for all those queens to mate with? Drone colonies have drone comb added especially to produce extra drones. If each queen needs twenty-five drones, and the producer is selling thousands of queens a week, drone demand will be heavy. Do they have enough?
Nutrition, of course, is a constant issue as well. The same weather that keeps queens from getting good food and getting mated will keep drones from flying. Drones that stay home don't mate. If the weather was bad, what did the producer do?
So, if your queen was able to take mating flights at will and was able to find many healthy drones in the drone congregation areas and mate with fifteen to twenty, maybe more, from a variety of genetic backgrounds, she is well mated.
She should remain in the mating nuc for a period of time so the producer can evaluate her. This could be only long enough to see that she is laying eggs, long enough to see that she is laying a solid pattern, or long enough to see that her offspring actually emerge. But the longer she stays there, the more the producer has invested, and the more she will cost. What is the price of two expensive but poorly mated queens, compared with one expensive, excellent queen? Ask your producer.
This rule is probably the most subjective of all of the twenty-five rules. What is productive, anyway? Well, here, it means that she makes you enough money, honey, bees, pollination contracts, pollen or propolis, or wax. Your management style, business goals, and location all shape the way you measure how your bees perform. Your best metric is comparing your queen's productivity with another queen's productivity. If another colony is producing much more honey than yours, why? Location, number of bees in the box, health, interference from the beekeeper? When you know what you want, you have to find the queen that produces the bees that get you there. It's that simple, and that complicated.
One metric to use will answer some of these questions. How many eggs is she laying every day? At the height of the season, it is estimated that she should be laying about 1,800 to 2,000 eggs a day. It's not impossible to calculate. Here's the quick way: After she has been introduced and has been laying for at least two weeks and you are satisfied with her pattern and see a healthy retinue of nurse bees around her, in the morning, count all the cells of sealed brood in her colony. That's not as hard as it might sound. For starters, take a photo of every frame with sealed brood and later count each cell on your computer. Trust me, you will get very good at estimating cells per side after the third time you do this. Or, you can measure the area of sealed brood on every frame using a ruler to get the area in square inches. Though it varies, count on twenty-five brood cells per square inch (6.45 sq. cm). Then, come back and do it again in exactly twelve days, in the morning. That second number will give you the total number of eggs she laid during the twelve days since you last counted — some were capped yesterday, some eleven days ago. Now, divide that total by twelve and you have an average eggs-laid-per-day figure. Do it again in twelve days to see if it changes up or down. Soon you will have a good idea of area at a glance. Figure a deep frame has about 4,500 cells on a side and a medium has about 2,700 cells per side. But don't guess. Count the number of cells vertically and horizontally, multiply, and then you'll know. Estimate the percentage covered in sealed brood and calculate from there. Does she measure up? Is she getting better or slowing down? And should she be increasing her rate or decreasing because of the time of year? Keep that in mind, too.
Your main goal, then, is to identify what you want. When you know, you'll also know if your queens are productive. If they aren't, replace them.
Buy this book from our store: The Backyard Beekeeper
Excerpted from The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. Used with permission from Quarry Press, © 2018.
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