Methods of rearing queens in use at Lytchett Bay Apiaries

There are several methods for rearing queens, whatever method is used, the principles are the same; bees manage the care and nourishment of the queen larvae, building queen cell during which period the larva grows, metamorphoses into a pupa and a virgin queen emerges, however for good quality queens it is best not to allow bees to produce more than 20 queens in one hive at a time.

The Dequeening Method (Raising queens in queenless colony)

With this method, bees are induced to raise queens after depriving the colony of its queen. The queen cells are raised in the same colony from start to finish.

It is much better to do this during the nectar flow. If the nectar flow is low or there is no nectar flow, the colony must be fed with syrup to encourage bees to secrete wax to build the queen cells, and to ensure they have enough food to be able to produce sufficient Royal jelly to feed the queen larvae.

The process begins with the selection of the best and strongest hive that has the genetic line that is to be propagated. Then we remove the queen, two frames of soon to emerge sealed brood, a comb of honey and a comb of pollen with the adhering bees, and install them in a temporary nucleus hive (nuc), replacing them with empty comb. More bees may be shaken in if necessary – there must be enough bees to keep the brood warm. The entrance of the nuc is closed to ensure that sufficient bees stay with the nucleus. The nucleus is moved at least 3m away from the parent hive, and the entrance is reopened after two days.

The bees in the queenless hive will soon become aware that their queen is gone (in as little as 15 – 20 minutes) and in due time will start building queen cells using the unsealed brood and eggs.

Capped Queen cell
A capped Queen cell on the comb

A check is made after 4 days, and cells touching one another are thinned out. The cells must be removed a day or two before the queens are due to emerge; this is usually in the 9th or the 10th day after dequeening. The small or uncapped cells are discarding, since small cells produce small queens with fewer ovarioles. The good cells are carefully cut out from the comb with a sharp knife and transferred to colonies in which the queens are to be emerged.

The nucleus can be returned to the parent colony after the queen cells are finished or harvested, and be reunited by the newspaper method. Alternatively, the nuc can be over-wintered so that you have a queen ready in case one is needed early in the season, or to replace colonies lost over the winter.

A queen cell in a cell protector ready to place into a queenless hive.

Raising Queens in Double Brood Hive – Cloake board method

The Cloake Board Method must be credited to its originator, New Zealander Harry Cloake.

The beauty of the Cloake Board Method of queen rearing is that it addresses the needs of the bees as well as the beekeeper. To rear high quality queen cells, the natural stimulus of the bees is encouraged. For the beekeeper, it is efficient in the use of bees, labour and equipment.

The Cloake Board Method takes advantage of both a queenless and queen-right system. Queen cells started in a queenless state tend to have a higher rate of acceptance, and those reared in a queen-right state tend to produce higher quality cells. Hence, the popularity of the starter and finisher methods used. Another key component of rearing premium queen cells is a minimal amount of disturbance. Moving developing larvae between starters and finishers interrupts the critical and intensive larval feeding stage. The Cloake method eliminates the need for this practice.

Cloake Board

The Cloake Board Method uses one specialized piece of equipment. This is a division board that consists of an outer wooden frame, which fits between hive bodies and provides a second upper entrance. The inner edges of the frame are grooved to permit a slide to be easily slipped in and out. A queen excluder, either attached to or placed below the Cloake board, restricts the laying queen to the bottom brood chamber.

A queenless state is created with the slide placed in the division board, simulating a swarm box in the top. Removal of the slide, with the excluder in place, returns the colony to a queen-right state, simulating a finisher. Going between these two states requires little effort and minimizes disturbance during the larval feeding stage.

Cloake Board

The need to move the graft from a starter colony to a finisher colony is eliminated, yet the benefits of these two systems are maintained. To provide the crowded hive conditions desired in the upper cell building chamber, the hive entrances are manipulated. In preparation for the graft, the colony is turned 180 degrees (or pivoted to prevent lifting) so the main, bottom entrance now faces the opposite direction.

The Cloake board method

Exiting from the now reversed bottom entrance, returning bees reorient to use the new top entrance created by the division board. This boosts the bee population in the top chamber. A high population ratio of young nurse bees, 5 to 15 days old, is required to produce high quality queens. The nurses use the nutrition absorbed from pollen to secrete royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands.

The jelly is fed to young larvae, including workers, drones and queens. After about three days the jelly is mixed with bee bread—a mixture of whole pollen, honey, and enzymes—and fed to the workers and drones until they spin their cocoons. The queens receive a steady diet of royal jelly throughout their larval development. As the bees age these glands atrophy.

In the top box, leave an empty center space to place the frame of grafted queen cells. Nurse bees will cluster here. Feed the colony syrup and pollen, and allow the bees to settle. Place a frame of foundation next to the space for the cell bar. This will stimulate wax production and provide storage of excess syrup to minimize the webbing of cells.

The next day, graft the queen cells and place these in the empty center space. A day later, after the queen cells have been accepted, the slide is removed. This converts the cell builder into a queenright finisher, without disturbing the feeding of the developing cells. Regardless of weather conditions, this is easy and convenient to do.

The number of queen cells grafted should be based upon the strength of the cell builder and time of year. During the swarm season, conditions are optimal and a large number of high quality queen cells can be reared. Generally, 45 to 60 cells per graft is reasonable, however I only graft 20 cells per cycle to ensure good quality queen cells are produced.

Queen cells in the incubator, in their protective cages

A new graft of queen cells can be started every 4 or 5 days, however this requires a large amount of resources, in both bees and equipment – nucleus/mating hives etc.

Queen cells are capped 7 – 8 days after the egg was laid. No longer in need of feeding, these can be removed and held in an incubator to ‘ripen’. When the cells have been capped, they should be covered with cages to protect them.

Eleven days after the graft, the cells are ready to emerge and are placed in mating nuclei or individual colonies.

This system was designed to rear a large number of queen cells efficiently in a short period of time, without weakening colonies for honey production.

Cloake routinely reared 4,000 queen cells in six weeks. He then removed the divider boards and moved these strong colonies onto a honey flow.

Jenter/Nicot cup kit systems

 With these systems, the queen lays eggs directly in the artificial cell cup, negating the need to graft larvae. The ease of use of these systems make them very popular. Because of this, there are many copies available for sale, from cheap Chinese copies, to the more expensive brand named kits.

The Nicot Cupularve system

To use, first of all, cut a rectangle of wax from the upper centre of a brood frame with the same dimensions of the cupkit being used (or fix in the centre of a new, undrawn frame). Take off the queen excluder and the supporting plate (front and back covers) and fix the cupkit to the top bar of the frame in the hole you made, using the fixing holes provided.

Nicot System
Nicot system attached to a brood frame

Place the Brown Cell Cups at the back of the comb box – usually ~110 or so cups, and replace the front and rear covers. Place the frame into the centre of the brood nest for 24 hours before use, this will allow the bees to ‘polish’ the cell cups ready for the queen to lay in them, and for the kit to pick up the smell of the hive, making it more acceptable for laying in.

Cell cups in place on the rear of the cupkit frame (rear cover removed).

After 24 hours, place the queen in the front section, under the removable cover which acts as a Queen Excluder. This means the Queen is only able to lay into the cell cups, whilst still being attended to by worker bees.

If conditions are good, the queen will lay eggs in the cups within 24 hours. It is important not to leave the queen in the cage for too long, or she may go ‘off lay’ as there are not enough cells for her to continue laying in – this may lead to the queen being superseded, as the workers think she is not performing properly.

The small, newly hatched larvae can be seen through the transparent back and cups, each in a pin-prick of royal jelly. On the 3rd or 4th day, when the larvae hatch, the cells can be carefully removed and plugged into the cell bar cups.

A cell bar with roller cages fitted

Once the Queen Cells are drawn and sealed, the roller cages are fitted around them to cage the emerging virgin queens. These cages can then be used for travelling and introduction.

Drawn Queen cells on the cell bar.

2 thoughts on “Methods of rearing queens

  1. I presume that most of your time is taken up by breeding queens, if not all of it! The Cloake board system takes some thinking about.

    1. There is a lot of preparation work in queen rearing, and ongoing jobs, such as topping up the mating hives with bees, but once you get into your stride it ticks along. The Cloake board method is a lot easier in practice than it sounds/looks.

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