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Many beekeepers enjoy and expand their hobby by buying more bees and maybe carrying out the occasional split. But if that is the limit of a beekeeper's ambition, he or she may be missing out one of the most fascinating and satisfying of opportunities - queen rearing.
For new beekeepers, the thought of intentionally rearing queens may seem like a step too far. But with an open mind, queen rearing can be rather straightforward and there are many benefits to doing so. Let's look at why.
If you have an urgent need to locate a queen and cannot wait for a supplier to send one, the wait may be too long. If you have the environment for queen rearing under way in a mating nuc, then you have options and can potentially obtain a queen quickly.
It is always preferable to obtain your bees locally, due to their acclimatization to the local environment. When you rear your own queens you achieve this as a matter of course.
Queens can cost a significant amount of money, depending on the supplier. $40 is reasonably common as an asking price. Obviously if you rear your own queen you save that money though, as we will see, there may be an initial outlay for equipment.
By selectively choosing queens with the appropriate traits you can create queens with attributes associated with a resistance to mites. This selectivity of bees with the desired traits is an important tool for the beekeeper who prefers to avoid applying treatments.
By the way, it is possible to purchase a package of bees that have been raised and selected with an ability to withstand mites well and this often referred to as "survivor stock".
If you thought setting up your first beehive was fun, you are in for more of the same. Rearing queens is immensely satisfying and can quickly become your primary way to obtain queens.
So what do you need to raise queens? To answer this question, it's worth considering how a colony will react to a state of queenlessness. Generally colonies handle this situation with aplomb. The following things need to be in place if a new queen is to be replaced.
The age of the larvae is essential. As we have seen, workers create a queen by continuing to feed larvae royal jelly. Therefore, if all larvae are beyond that age the colony has no way to create a queen.
One way to create a queen is to split a hive. Just place larvae, worker bees and food in a new hive and let nature take its course. The worker bees will notice the lack of queen, build queen cups and create a new queen.
But there's a problem.
When a new queen emerges her first job is to hunt down as-yet-unborn sister queens, still in their queen cups. She will then kill them, leaving just herself. So the split can produce a new queen but does so just one at a time, in terms of the survivors.
Still further, that new queen will need to mate. The mating flights of a queen are high risk and there are various reasons why she might not make it back to the hive. All this takes a month or so, from being an egg, through emergence as an adult, mating and then her laying eggs. That's a long wait, especially if the end result is a queen that doesn't return to the hive!
The split is not an efficient way to raise queens and has significant risk, but it is a potential option.
Thankfully, it's possible to raise multiple queens at once, even in the same hive. This, in fact, is the definition of queen rearing, namely the creation of multiple queens quickly and efficiently. There are many ways to go about this.
The consistent theme is that multiple queen cups will be created, but before they hatch, they are moved to "mating nucs" where the soon-to-be-queens inside can continue their development without the threat of being killed by other freshly-emerged queens.
Queen rearing also relies on one other factor. Workers normally lay their eggs horizontally. When, however, they come across a larva that is hanging vertically worker bees tend to treat them as queen cells.
These principles - isolation of queen cups and the tendency for workers to treat vertically hung larvae as queens - are the foundation of many of the approaches described below.
Here we have looked at why queen rearing is important and can be so valuable to the beekeeper. In our next lesson we look at one of the more common ways to raise queens.