Tag Archives: queen rearing

Everynuc poly nuc

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Thorne’s have introduced two new poly nuc hives recently – one called the Polynuc (~£27) and the other the Everynuc (~£47). Both are available in British National dimensions. I’ve not seen the Polynuc but consider the walls, at 22mm, to be a little on the thin side for overwintering colonies (perhaps about the same as the Paynes poly nucs). However, I have recently taken delivery of half a dozen Everynuc poly nucs with the intention of expanding my stock, by splitting production colonies (after the honey harvest) and using mid/late season-reared queens to take them through the winter. Here are my first impressions.

Everynuc floor

Everynuc floor

The Everynuc is an interesting design. It’s available in a range of different sizes; Langstroth, National, Smith, Commercial, 14×12, Dadant etc. All have a rectangular, preformed (i.e. no assembly required) brood box with 40mm thick walls and neat metal runners at each end for frames. I suspect this box is the same size for all frame sizes. To accommodate smaller frames e.g.  National in the Langstroth-sized box, they supply a slot-in feeder that takes 2.2 pints. The deeper frames e.g. 14×12 and Commercials also include a 40mm or 60mm eke that presumably goes between the brood box and the removable floor. The latter is sloping, with open mesh and has a removable tray for Varroa monitoring. There is a clear plastic crownboard and a thick roof. The exterior of the box is commendably smooth, so much easier to paint than the Modern Beekeeping/Paradise Honey boxes).

Bee space

Bee space

Thorne’s claim the Everynuc is top bee space. Well, it is and it isn’t. In the National size, the top edge of the feeder sits 2-3 mm above the frame runner, meaning that the top bar slopes. To rectify this I’ve cut a couple of millimetres off the bottom of the feeder lugs, effectively lowering the feeder sufficiently to restore top bee space. While we’re on the subject of bee space, it’s definitely wrong at the end of the box without the feeder where I measure the gap at 1.5cm. This is poor and may reflect some sort of compromise to accommodate the different length lugs on National and other types of frames. For the moment I’ve not done anything about this, but if brace comb becomes an issue I intend to skin the inside end panel with some 8mm ply to restore the correct bee space.

Not 6 frames

Er, no …

The Everynuc is designed for 5 frames and a dummy board. With brand new frames you can just about cram 6 frames in, but as soon as the Hoffman spacers get a bit of propolis on them it’ll definitely be a 5 frame box. With good thick walls and a solid roof this is a good size to overwinter.

FIve frame poly nuc

FIve frame poly nuc …

Everynuc feeder

Everynuc feeder …

In addition to lowering the feeder I’m looking at ways to add a metal or plastic runner to the inside edge of the feeder, fitted just proud of the cut ply, to make frame manipulations easier. I’ve also added a thin piece of stripwood across the top of the feeder to stop the frames sliding backwards and forwards when the boxes are being moved. There is a small wooden spacer on the bottom edge of the feeder, but this additional cross brace should add a bit more security and prevent bees getting crushed. On the subject of moving colonies, I routinely make up 2-3 frame nucs for queen mating and then transport them from one apiary to another. Rather than letting the frames slide about side to side I’ve cut small blocks of dense foam to wedge them tightly in place for travel. An additional block of foam will be required for the entrance, which is wide and, with the short ‘landing board’, an awkward shape to block with mesh held in place with drawing pins (my favoured solution to transporting nucs).

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

First impressions of these nucs are reasonably positive. The beespace might be a problem, the frame feeder really shouldn’t need lowering and the entrance is likely to require some sort of reducing block to prevent robbing. However, the poly is dense and well moulded, with no real nooks and crannies to harbour pathogens. Cleaning should be straightforward. The boxes will stack if it is necessary to unite colonies.

Finally, I wonder how many beekeepers noticed the name of the manufacturer of the clear plastic crown board …

Bayer Everynuc crownboard

Bayer …

Queen rearing and the June gap

Cloud

Here we go again

The oil seed reap (OSR) and hawthorn have finished here and there’s very little forage available for colonies. To make matters worse the weather has been changeable, restricting the time available for colonies to forage. Small colonies, such as casts that have been attracted to bait hives, have lacked sufficient numbers of foragers to store any nectar and have needed feeding. Small, weak, nucleus colonies have starved unless supplemented with syrup. In contrast, large swarms have fared much better – it’s almost as if there’s some sort of size threshold below which the colony isn’t able to cope with adverse conditions.

This poor weather has caused significant problems for queen rearing.

  1. Virgin queens are taking ages to get mated, far longer than happens in settled weather. Many of the days have had warm, clear mornings, but with thunderclouds building up around lunchtime leading to a deluge in the afternoon – the peak time for queen mating. Many mating hives have gone queenless over the last fortnight.
  2. Without a significant flow, getting cells started – at least in the queenright queen rearing system I use (the Ben Harden method) – means the colony must be fed syrup for the few days between adding the grafted larvae to the cell raising colony and the 9th day (after egg laying) when the cells are sealed.

There’s not much that can be done about improving the chances of getting queens mated, other than ensuring a supply of freshly emerged virgin queens ready to take advantage of any suitable breaks in the weather. After more than three weeks in a 2-3 frame nucleus I’m usually pessimistic about the chances of getting the queen successfully mated.

In contrast, with relatively little effort you can feed syrup to the cell raising colony, thereby ensuring the larvae are given the best chance of success. If the cell raising colony has supers on I temporarily remove them to another hive to prevent the bees simply storing syrup in with nectar.

Queenright queen rearing colony

Remove the supers …

In practice the easiest way to achieve this is to set up the queenright cell raiser the day before grafting (as described in detail previously) with a clearer board on top of the upper brood box, beneath the supers. When you come to add the grafted larvae, first remove the supers which are now cleared of bees and put them aside, gently slide the cell bar frame between the frame of unsealed larvae and pollen, add 150-200ml or 1:1 w/v (thin) syrup to either a fat dummy feeder or frame feeder in the upper brood box, then put the crownboard and roof back. Add the removed supers to other strong colonies in the apiary.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Unless the weather dramatically improves I then check the colony daily, adding a further 150-200ml of thin syrup to the feeder. This just takes a few minutes and results in minimum disruption … a quick waft of smoke at the entrance, the same amount through a slight gap beneath the raised corner of the crownboard and then gently remove the crownboard. The day after grafting I check the larvae to see how many have been accepted. There’s no need to check the cells on the next 3 days (despite the picture shown here), simply add a bit more syrup to the feeder. On the fifth day after grafting the cells should be sealed and there is no longer any need to continue feeding. In addition to preventing tainting the honey supers with syrup, removing the supers also concentrates bees into the brood boxes.

Ben Harden queen rearing – cell raising

[See previous posts on introduction, setup and grafting for queenright queen rearing]

With any queen rearing it is critical to be aware of the timetable. Eggs are laid, hatch on day three, grafted on day 4, queen cells are sealed on day 9 and the virgin queens emerge on day 16. There’s not much variation around these timings; if you graft a larva that is too old it will still be sealed into the cell on day 9 (after the egg was laid), but will have had less opportunity to feed well and so may generate a sub-standard (‘scrub’) queen. If you thought the larva was 18-24 hours old, but it was actually 48-60 hours old, it will emerge up to a day and a half before you expect it to.

Oops … too late

Oops … too late

This is “not a good thing” as the newly emerged virgin will run amok through the colony destroying all the other queen cells which will then be partly or completely torn down. Alternatively, if all of the larvae are a little older than you thought they’ll all emerge and have a melee in the upper brood box of your colony setup for Ben Harden queen rearing. If you’re really unlucky an undersized virgin will squeeze through the queen excluder and slaughter your mated, laying, queen in the bottom box. All of this can be avoided by understanding the timing of events involved in queen development and keeping good records.

Queen rearing diary

Tom’s Tables …

BIBBA provide a copy of Tom Robinson’s table, essentially a queen rearing diary in Excel format. It’s designed for using Jenter or Cupkit systems, rather than grafting, but the underlying development timetable – the dates when the cells are sealed and when the queen emerges – are of course identical. I’ve modified a copy to suit my own queen rearing programme, using grafting and mini-nucs. By simply entering the grafting date, the remainder of the timetable is automagically completed, so there should be no reason to miss one of the critical dates. In the same way that good records are required to select stock to graft from, you should keep a record of both the queen rearing activity and the performance of the resulting queens.

Getting the timing right

How can you avoid early-emerging queens? Pretty easily in practice, as long as you do the following:

  1. Graft young larvae only – following the guidance in the earlier post on grafting.
  2. Check the larvae within 24 hours to ensure they have been accepted.
  3. Check on the day the cells should be sealed.
  4. Check them finally 24-48 hours before expected emergence. By this time the sealed cell may show signs of being crowned – a sort of thin darkened ring around the tip of the cell which is a good indication that emergence is going to happen shortly.
  5. Cage the cells in a hair roller to trap any virgin queens that emerge earlier than expected (you can do this anytime after they’re sealed).
  6. Use the cells before the queen emerges.
  7. Keep good records and remember that queen development is unaffected by the vagaries of the weather or your social diary … graft young larvae and use the resulting queen cells 10 days later.

Looking after grafted larvae

Success!

Success!

With a little practice a success rate of at least 80% should be achievable when grafting. As described previously, you can easy tell whether the grafting has worked by examining the cell cups about 24 hours later. You’re looking for a 3-4mm relatively smooth, slightly curved wax rim added to the cell. It’s very thin and fragile at this stage. Accepted grafts will also be covered with workers building the cells and feeding the larvae – you may not be able to see the spigot or cell cup at all. Gently move these bees aside if necessary (don’t shake or brush them off) with your finger. It’s actually possible to determine whether the larvae are accepted as little as a couple of hours after grafting but I usually prefer not to disturb the colony again (and often graft late afternoon, so it’s usually getting too late in the day).

Ben Harden cell raiser

Ben Harden cell raiser …

Assuming the cell raising colony is wells stocked with bees I rearrange the boxes at this first inspection so that the Ben Harden brood box is on the top of the stack. The main reason to do this is to save your back. Only do it if there are ample bees in the colony; you do not want the cells to get chilled by placing them over a couple of near-empty supers. In a strong colony, I’ve had three or four supers separating the queenright bottom brood box and the cell raising brood box. In the picture (right) the hive nearest the camera is a Ben Harden cell raising colony. There are three near-full supers between the lower and upper (BH setup) brood box. In addition, since the OSR is nearly over and the stores are capped, I’ve moved one full super  over a clearer board above the upper brood box, emptying it ready for extraction.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

The next few days are critical. The larvae need to be well fed and the cells need to be drawn out fully. If there’s no flow the cells may be ignored. To prevent this feed a small amount of thin syrup (1:1 w/v) in a frame feeder in the upper box. This is where a fat dummy with an integrated feeder is useful. Arrange this so that the feeder is next to one of the two pollen frames and add about 100-150ml of syrup daily until the cells are sealed. You barely need to disturb the colony to do this … a waft of smoke, lift or slide aside the crown board, add the syrup and close up again. There’s no need to check the cells, the frame of unsealed brood or the bottom box (we’ll come back to these two shortly).

If there is a good flow it is not necessary to feed the colony. Since this is essentially a standard production colony (with an additional upper brood box) the bees should continue to store nectar in the supers.

Are they sealed?

Brace comb and sealed cells

Brace comb and sealed cells

Five days after grafting the cells should be sealed or about to be sealed. The cells will by now be reasonably well sculpted, with a characteristic pitted appearance. The exception is the cell tip which will be pale smooth wax. When checking the cells don’t shake or jolt the cell bar frame and don’t keep the cells out of the colony longer than necessary. Once sealed the colony no longer needs feeding. In a good flow the bees are likely to build brace comb in spaces on the cell bar frame and to fill this with nectar.

Colony inspections

Ben Harden rogue queen cells

Knock ’em off …

Queens emerge on day 16 (counting from the day the eggs were laid), about twelve days after grafting. This is sufficient time for the colony to swarm, so you must continue with your standard weekly inspections. Simply lift off the upper brood box, gently put it down on an adjacent hive roof, or the upturned roof of the queen rearing colony. Remove the supers if present. Remove the queen excluder, check the bottom box for queen cells in the normal way, then reassemble. Do not forget to put the queen excluder back (or the newly sealed cells will all be torn down). You must also check the frame of unsealed brood in the upper box as they may be making queen cells on it. If so knock them all off. You only need to do this once as there should be no young larvae left once your grafted larvae are in sealed cells.

v1 … too narrow, too shallow

Two frame nuc box

If there are queen cells in the bottom box (but they haven’t swarmed) I make up a small nuc with the queen, a small amount of brood and a frame of stores in a two frame nucleus box. I then knock all of the queen cells back. If they generate more they’ll be well behind your own grafted larvae. That being the case, use one of the sealed grafted cells to requeen the colony. If the bottom box swarm it’s not a major problem as long as there are enough bees left to keep the grafted cells warm and well fed. If you want to use other swarm control measures remember that the cell raiser has done its job now … you can remove the sealed cells and place them in a suitable incubator until you use them for requeening (just before or after emergence).

Caging the cells

Cupkit

Nicot Cupkit

The advantage of the Nicot Cupkit system is that push-fit “hair roller” cages are available to protect the cells and to prevent an early emerging queen from destroying the rest of your hard work. These can be added soon after the cell is sealed, but I usually leave them a few extra days during which time the workers provide all the care the cells need. During this period they will usually sculpt the cell extensively. The only problem is if they build lots of brace comb between cells before you get a chance to fit the cage. If they do, a little gentle surgery with a sharp knife should be sufficient to trim them down to fit into the cage. Don’t force things. You don’t want to squeeze or crush the developing queen. 

Using the cells

You should use the cells about 10 days after grafting, which gives you sufficient leeway should a queen emerge a little early. They can be added to mini-nucs, 2-5 frame nuc colonies or full colonies … all of which will be covered in the future.

YBKA Spring Conference

York College

York College

I’m delighted to be talking  – twice (!) – at the Yorkshire Beekeepers Association Spring Conference in York on Saturday. With Stephen Martin (bee recognition and the Asian hornet), Jay Evans (beenomics – is that a real word?), Ben Jones (nutrition) and Liz Collison (neonicotinoids) also on the programme it promises to be an enjoyable day.

Update – it was a very enjoyable meeting and I’d like to thank the YBKA, Roger Chappel and Michael Badger for their excellent hospitality. My talk on queenright queen rearing using the Ben Harden system was well attended and generated some interesting questions. Abelo had a small trade stand selling all sorts of ‘essentials’ including some competitively priced radial extractors.

More poly nucs

Paynes 8 frame poly nuc

No space for a divider 8-(

The poly nuc marketed by Paynes can be usefully converted into an eight frame box by getting rid of the internal (infernal) feeder as previously discussed. I’d hoped to divide these into two, adding a second entrance, to use for queen mating. Two or three frame nucs take more bees but need less maintenance than mini-nucs. However, the eight frame box is fractionally too narrow to split down the middle to create two four frame nucs, even using a thin sheet of Correx. The central entrance – at least in the original versions of these boxes – is also poorly designed and would have needed modification.

The final product

The final product

Until 2014 there were no generally available National poly nucs other than the Paynes offering (this is in the UK; Thorne’s have recently introduced one). I therefore purchased some Langstroth poly nucs from ModernBeekeeping in the sales. These are very high quality poly nucs. They are the Paradise Honey Bee Box’s, made out of very dense poly, with a separate removable open mesh floor. They also have a good thick roof – far superior to the Paynes box. They have the additional advantage of being designed to be divided, with lugs in the end panels, a shallow slot in the floor and twin entrances at opposite ends. The only drawback to these boxes is the sculptured exterior which makes painting them tiresome. I used 2-3 coats of thinned masonry paint.

Internal fittings

Internal fittings

I wanted to retain the option to use these as standard 6-7 frame nucs in the future, so designed a removable divider that (non-destructively) created two x three frame nucs. Being Langstroth’s, they’re significantly bigger than a National box. However, with a little ingenuity, this extra space can be used to create an internal feeding compartment for fondant or sugar. In the first boxes I converted I blocked the top of the feed compartment with a removable scrap of perspex and drilled through the end panel. I’m going to try some this year without the perspex … simply allowing the bees to clamber over the end panel to access the fondant.

Perspex cover

Perspex cover

I used these boxes for queen mating late in the season in 2013. I divided a colony – with the addition of a few frames of stores – to create five three frame nucleus colonies, four of which were queenless and housed in these three frame poly nucs. The queen from the donor hive went into a dummied down standard nuc with a frame of stores and brood. I moved the poly nucs to a separate apiary, added a sealed queen cell and got them all successfully mated. These small colonies were appreciably stronger than a mini-nuc and were better able to defend themselves against wasps (Kieler mini-nucs in the same apiary were robbed out by wasps). The bees did well in these boxes, soon built up and were moved on to larger colonies. Since it’s possible to overwinter colonies in Kielers, I see no reason why a strong three frame nuc – or rather two of them – wouldn’t be OK in anything but the harshest winter in one of these modified hives.

Construction

Glued and screwed

Glued and screwed

Construction is relatively simple, requiring little more than a sheet of 6mm ply, some offcuts from the scraps box, some softwood, a couple of G clamps, wood glue, screws and – inevitably – Elastoplast. I used the central divider as a sort of spine, to which I attached 15mm ply end panels, spaced the correct distance apart to fit a National frame. The easiest way to do this is to add some 8mm – beespace – softwood to the sidebars of a brood frame and then just mark where to attach the end panels to the divider. The four end panels need to be glued and screwed in place, using a set square to ensure they are perpendicular to the divider, and clamped until secure. It is easiest to make all the modifications (below) to these end panels before fitting them in place. The top edge of the divider is widened by the addition of two thin strips of softwood (3mm x 15mm) which extend to create the lugs that separate the original frame rests of the box.

Access to feeder

Access to feeder

The ‘entrance’ end panel must be clear of the floor, the other one must reach all the way to the floor. The entrance end panel also needs 6mm softwood spacers on the back to protect the small poly lugs that hold the central divider in place. The other one can have a hole drilled through it and covered with a scrap of queen excluder (though see additional comments above as to whether this is necessary – work in progress). Both end panels will need frame rests on the upper edge – those horrible plastic ones provided with Thorne’s second quality supers are just fine. The original boxes are top bee space and this is the way I’ve arranged mine.

Correx entrance block

Correx entrance block

Running two colonies side by side is straightforward, but you need to ensure that each side is bee tight and that you can work with one colony without disturbing the other too much. I use a thick plastic crown board, fitted to the central divider with drawing pins. The bees can’t propolise this stuff down too easily, I can see enough through it to see colony expansion and it’s easy to peel back and hold down with you hive tool when you need access. Once it gets too mucky it can easily and cheaply be replaced. Don’t purchase the entrance reducers from ModernBeekeeping (as they’re a daft price) … use Correx offcuts instead, with different colours to help the bees orientate back to the colony.

 

Grafting

‘Grafting’ is the transfer of selected larvae from a donor colony into artificial cups from which new queens will be raised. It is probably the aspect of queen rearing that beginners find most daunting in prospect – perhaps not surprisingly as it involves manually moving a less-than day-old larvae (about the size of a comma in 12 pt. Times New Roman font) to a new location. However, it’s a lot easier to do than to describe, is easy to practice and you can tell if you’ve been successful within 24 hours.

In my opinion the preparation and maintenance of the cell raising colony and the use of mini mating nucs both require more skill than actually grafting the larvae for queen rearing.

Things that are needed for successful grafting

  • a source of suitable larvae
  • good lighting and good eyesight (help is available with both)
  • a grafting tool of some sort
  • a cell bar frame with cell cups to transfer larvae into
  • a warm, damp cloth and somewhere to sit

Source of suitable larvae

There are essentially two criteria that are important here – the age and the genetic quality of the selected larvae. The first of these is straightforward – you need to use larvae that are as young as possible, perhaps 12-18 hours after hatching from the egg. How do you determine the age of the larva? The easiest way is to choose the smallest larvae possible from a frame containing brood in all stages. Because the queen generally lays in rings you’ll usually find the smallest larvae right next to the oldest eggs on the frame. Fresh eggs stand up from the bottom of the cell, older eggs lie horizontally. Look around the cells containing the horizontal eggs. Suitable larvae are the same size as an egg, or perhaps even fractionally smaller. These larvae are so small they haven’t yet adopted the fully curved ‘c’ shape.

Keep good records

Keep good records

One of the reasons to rear your own queens is to have bees with the characteristics you want. This is the genetic quality of the starting material. This means you need to keep records of the behaviour of your colonies, scoring them for desirable or undesirable traits. This can get very complicated, but doesn’t need to be. In addition to general aspects of colony health (chalkbrood, viral diseases, Varroa levels) I keep records of temper, following and running on the frame as my primary interest is working with bees that are docile and easy to handle. Temper and running are scored on a simple 5 point scale and I use colonies with consistently the best scores for grafting. Following is scored as a simple yes/no … and any that score yes are re-queened.

Good lighting and good eyesight

Specs

Specs

Suitable larvae are small and you need to be able to see them clearly. You need both hands free, so do not rely on a magnifying glass. Buy a cheap set of strong reading glasses. Don’t be self-conscious about this … style doesn’t matter (anyway, you probably wouldn’t be a beekeeper if you worry too much about appearance) but strength does. Check the strength you need by looking for commas on a page in a standard paperback book, probably at a closer distance than you would read a book. I don’t need reading glasses for reading, but have +2.5 dioptre glasses for grafting.

Good lighting is critical. Don’t rely on the sun for this … you’ll inevitably be grafting on dull overcast days at some point. Get a battery powered LED head torch as used by campers. Ideally get one with at least 4 white LEDs and 2 red LEDs. The white ones are usually divided into two highly directional ones, and two providing general illumination. Use them all on together. You’ll need the red LEDs later …

Grafting tools

Use size 00 or 000

Use size 00 or 000

There are all sorts of tools available for grafting, ranging from the cheap and cheerful – and nearly ubiquitous – Chinese grafting tool to very expensive cranked, left or right hand-specific specialist items with exotic wood handles. Try a range of different types (at least the affordable ones) to see which you get on with best. However, I recommend you first try a 00 sable artists brush. Of all the grafting tools I’ve used, this is by far the easiest in my view. Protect the bristles using the sleeve stripped from a short piece of electric flex when it’s not in use.

Cell bar frame

Nicot Cupkit system

Nicot Cupkit system

You can make artificial wax cups from melted beeswax and a rounded dowel former. Far easier though are the plastic cups available from beekeeping suppliers like JzBz. Better still are those provided as part of the Nicot Cupkit system, consisting of a dark brown spigot, a cream coloured socket, translucent brown cups and a ‘hair roller’ cage. These are available separately from suppliers like ModernBeekeeping and are inexpensive.

The cell bar frame consists of a standard brood frame with one or two cross-bars to which the cups for grafting are attached. You need to be able to easily access the base of the cups. Therefore either hold the cross bar in place with a single gimp pin at either end (so it rotates), or make the cross bars slot in and out of the side bars.

For the Ben Harden queenright method of queen rearing I usually graft 10-20 larvae in rows of five or ten. Firstly this type of cell raiser isn’t as strong as the sort of three box queenless monstrosities some people use, secondly I can only conveniently get about a dozen or so queens mated at any one time.

Cell bar frame

Cell bar frame

Attach the spigot firmly to the cross-bar with gimp pins. Push-fit the socket onto the spigot and push the cell cup into the socket. If you have two cross-bars and intend to use the hair roller cages to protect the sealed cells make sure there is enough ‘headspace’ to fit them easily – remember the bars will be covered with bees when you do this. Probably the best way to achieve this is to have the cross-bars rotate along their axis.

Are you sitting comfortably … ?

Take a seat

Take a seat

The goal of grafting is to move good larvae from the cell in which the egg was laid into a new artificial cell, without damaging or chilling the larva. To do this you need to work quickly, carefully and efficiently. Find somewhere to sit near the donor hive that it is in light shade. Take a stool or folding chair to sit on and a piece of thin wood to lay in your lap on which the cell bar frame and the frame with larvae can be placed. Take off your veil. Make sure the things you need are close to hand – a hive tool or scalpel, your grafting tool of choice, glasses and head torch. Lay a damp cloth across the board to keep both the frame with larvae and the grafted larvae in a humid environment. I usually leave the cloth hanging over each end of the board, and fold these ends over to protect the frames.

Grafting in practice

Retrieve the acclimatised cell bar frame from the cell raising colony. Don’t bother putting anything in its place – you’ll be returning it within 30 minutes or so (but do close the hive up). Go through the donor hive until you find a frame with eggs and young larvae on it. I try and avoid shaking the frame hard, so give it a gentle shake to remove the flying bees, then brush off the adhering nurse bees (again, don’t push the frames together, but do close the colony). Take the frame to the location where you’re going to be grafting. Arrange your glasses and head torch, the wooden ‘table’, damp cloth and cell bar frame. Relax! Find a patch of suitable larvae …

  1. Arrange the frame with the top bar towards you – that way the cells also slope towards you making it easier to see into the base.
  2. Cut down the cells using a scalpel or your hive tool – the aim here should be to improve access to the larvae in the base of the cell. I usually simply lever apart a row of cells.
  3. Working calmly and efficiently pick individual larvae from the donor frame and transfer them to the cell bar frame.
  4. The precise way you manipulate the larva differs depending upon the particular type of grafting tool in use. If you’re using a paintbrush dampen and straighten the bristles (in your mouth), slide it underneath the larva, lift it out, lower it to the base of the new cell cup and release the larva by gently rotating the brush.
  5. When you’re not searching for suitable larvae from the donor frame keep it covered with the damp cloth. Likewise, keep the grafted larvae covered other than when you’re transferring them. This way you minimise the chance of them drying out.
  6. If you have trouble transferring a larva, if you end up rolling it around the cell cup, if it sticks to the side wall or if there’s any doubt at all about it then flick it away, lick the brush again and choose another.
80% take

80% take

It probably takes 30-45 seconds per larva when they’re easy to find. You can minimise this time by cutting down the wall of a row of cells and then working your way along the row, grafting each in turn. Don’t worry if it takes longer. The more practice you get the more efficient you will become at finding and transferring larvae. An acceptance rate of 80-90% should be expected with a little practice.

Gently return the cell bar frame with the grafted larvae to the cell raising colony. Use minimal smoke … you want the larvae to be accepted straight away and fed with copious amount of jelly. Remember that the cell cups containing the grafted larvae must be vertical.

Don’t forget to return the frame of unused larvae and eggs to the donor colony.

Did they work?

24 hours later

24 hours later

You can (and indeed should) check whether the grafted larvae have been accepted 24 hours after introducing them to the cell raising colony. Open the colony with the minimum use of smoke, gently raise the cell bar frame and look for a 3-4mm wax ‘collar’ around the edge of the plastic cell cup. If you look into the cell there will be a good bed of Royal Jelly with the larva floating on top. Grafts that have not been accepted might have a thin trace of wax around the cup edge, but nothing like 3-4mm.

If the overall acceptance level is low consider grafting again straight away. There is no need to reacclimatise the frame, simply pull out the cell cups and replace them with fresh ones. You even know which frames have day old larvae in them … they’re the ones which had horizontal eggs yesterday.

Ben Harden queen rearing – setup

The Ben Harden queenright method for queen rearing (introduced previously) has relatively few requirements for specialist equipment. Most beekeepers will already own the necessary bits and pieces, and will be able to build, borrow or steal the things they lack as appropriate.

Fat dummy

Fat dummy

The colony is prepared by adding a second brood box to a standard production colony, separated by a queen excluder. The upper box contains just four frames – two containing ample levels of pollen, one containing unsealed brood and one containing your precious grafted larvae. The remaining space in the upper box is occupied by two oversize ‘fat dummies‘ that concentrate the bees onto the frame containing the grafts.

Equipment needed

Assuming you’re starting with a standard colony consisting of a floor, brood box, crownboard and roof the additional equipment needed are as follows:

  1. brood box
  2. queen excluder
  3. two ‘fat dummies
  4. three additional frames, preferably of drawn comb
  5. cell bar frame and tools for grafting (see separate post on grafting)
  6. thin (1:1 w/v) syrup if there’s no nectar flow

The cell raising colony – the one you’re going to setup the Ben Harden system in – needs to be strong, healthy and not about to swarm. The genetics of the colony don’t matter – they’re not going to contribute anything other than hard work to raising your grafted larvae.

Inspect the colony

Cell bar frame

Cell bar frame

Before using the cell bar frame for grafting paint it liberally with thin syrup and leave it to acclimatise in the cell raising colony for 24 hours. This isn’t critical; you can graft directly into cells that haven’t got the scent of the hive from having workers clean all the syrup off for a day or so. I’ve not noticed any real difference in the proportion of grafts that are successful. However, I think an additional advantage of setting things up a day in advance is it means the colony isn’t too disrupted by an inspection and frame rearrangement on the day the grafts are added.

Therefore, on the day before grafting, inspect the colony to make sure they’re queenright – you don’t need to see the queen, just make sure there are recently laid eggs present. Check for queen cells to be sure they’re not making preparations to swarm. The cell raising process takes a little over a fortnight, so make sure they have enough space to expand into during this time. To encourage the nurse bees up into the upper box you need a frame of unsealed brood – this can come from another hive if needed (just shake the adhering bees from it) or from the bottom box.

You also need to provide ample amounts of pollen and so need two additional frames well stocked with pollen. Again, these can come from the bottom box or from another colony. If pollen-filled frames are in short supply but you have a source of pollen available (for example, collected and frozen from a previous year) you can sprinkle it liberally across the face of two drawn frames and use these. Any frames removed from the bottom box should be replaced with drawn comb – you don’t want to distract the bees with having to draw out foundation.

Reassembling the colony

Ben Harden setup

Ben Harden setup

With the bottom box filled with a full complement of frames add the queen excluder and the empty top box. Put the two ‘fat dummies’ on either side, filling the gap in the middle with a pollen frame, the syrup-coated cell bar frame, the unsealed brood and the second pollen frame. Make sure the pollen frames have the faces most heavily loaded with pollen towards the cell bar frame.

If the colony has supers on it these can be added directly on top of the upper brood box. One of the advantages of the Ben Harden method is that it has minimal impact on nectar gathering … in fact, the only real drawback of having a stack of supers on top is all the heavy lifting you have to do to access the grafted larvae.

So, from the top, the colony setup is like this:

  1. Roof
  2. Crown board
  3. Supers (only if they were on the original colony or there is a strong flow)
  4. Upper brood box containing two fat dummies, two frames of pollen, the cell bar frame and a frame of unsealed brood
  5. Queen excluder
  6. Lower brood box containing the queen
  7. Floor

That’s it … hope for good weather the following day when you’ll be grafting.

Ben Harden queen rearing – intro

Locally bred queen

Locally bred queen

The ‘Ben Harden’ method is an approach used to raise queen cells in a queenright colony. It offers a number of advantages that make it particularly suitable for relatively small-scale beekeepers, for beekeepers who want only a limited number of queens (10’s rather than 100’s, though the latter is possible if well organised) or for beekeepers who are taking their first steps in queen rearing. Consequently, it is also suitable for using within an association during queen rearing courses.

The advantages include:

  • it requires only a limited amount of additional equipment, including a spare brood box and two overwidth “fat dummies
  • it uses honey production colonies in a way that has little or no impact on foraging, and hence nectar collection
  • it uses a queenright colony which does not need to be “boiling with bees” and which is both easier and more pleasant to handle
  • it requires only limited manipulations of the colony

The general principles of this approach are straightforward and are reasonably well described by the late Dave Cushman modified from an article by Ben Harden in Bee Improvement (the BIBBA magazine). Further information is available in A simple method of raising queen cells written by Ben Harden (#59 in the Beekeeping in a Nutshell series available from Northern Bee Books).

This is the first in a short series of posts covering the basics of queen rearing using the Ben Harden queenright method. Each post covers one of the key stages in the method, which are:

  1. Preparation of the equipment and setup of the colony for queen rearing (part 2; Ben Harden queen rearing – setup)
  2. Grafting larvae (part 3; Grafting) and production of queen cells (part 4)
  3. Getting virgin queens mated (part 5)

It is possible to use this method to raise queens if you start with a single colony, using it as a source of larvae, the cell raising colony and the colony used to harvest nurse bees for populating the mini-nucs from which the virgin queens will be mated. This is not really recommended … at the very least you need a range of colonies to judge and choose the best as the donor for the larvae.

It is a also very good method to use in associations running queen rearing courses. Individuals taking part prepare a colony for cell raising, grafting is done communally using good stock and cells are distributed 24 hours after grafting.

Checking grafted larvae

Checking grafted larvae

Kieler frame feeders

Kieler poly feeder

Kieler poly feeder

The polystyrene frame feeder supplied with Kieler mini mating nucs occupies one third of the box (see image right from Modern Beekeeping). Although it can be used to feed syrup or fondant it only fits the bottom box and is too deep to be used in the upper body. To overwinter queens and small colonies in these boxes they usually need to be double depth. This causes two problems – the feeder is often below the cluster and refilling it, or even checking to see if it needs topping up, requires separating the upper and lower body. Even during the queen rearing season the supplied feeder is not ideal – by occupying a third of the box it takes valuable space bees and brood could occupy. To overcome these problems I build simple frame feeders to take fondant. Using scrap wood and some offcut queen excluder they occupy half the space of the supplied polystyrene feeder. With 21 mm softwood for the frame these can take ~200g of fondant. They can be used in either the lower or upper body of the mini nuc. I place them at the opposite end of the box to the entrance, immediately below the plastic sheet used as a cover board. Checking them only requires lifting the corner of the plastic and replacing them takes just a few seconds – in mid-winter this can usually be achieved without disturbing the colony at all. Finally, unlike the supplied poly feeder, I’ve never had brace comb built within one of these frame feeders and so the queen doesn’t enter them.

Kieler frame feeders

Kieler frame feeders

Overwintering queens in mini-nucs is usually possible in the UK and will be covered in a future post.

Fat dummies

The ‘Ben Harden’ queenright queen rearing method uses a double brood box in which much of the space in the top box (above the queen excluder) is filled with oversize dummy frames. These have the effect of forcing bees in the top box to be concentrated on the frames containing young larvae and, critically, the grafted larvae in the cell bar frame.

Correx and tape

Correx and tape

Normally the frame containing the grafts is accompanied by a frame of unsealed brood and two frames containing ample levels of pollen. The fat dummies that flank these occupy the remainder of the box and therefore each need to be the thickness of three and a half frames (i.e. 133 mm). They can be built from pretty much anything convenient – thin plywood around a softwood frame or Correx held together with duct tape work equally well.

To make them slightly more useful they can be filled with expanded polystyrene chips. They can then be used to ‘dummy down’ a weak colony in a standard brood box for the winter, effectively converting it to a four-frame nuc (assuming two are used) without having too much dead space for the bees to keep warm. If there is no flow grafted larvae will usually be ignored. To avoid this it is necessary to simulate a flow by feeding with thin syrup. It is therefore useful to build at least one fat dummy with an integrated frame feeder. Dave Cushman describes construction of fat dummies with a very narrow feeder, negating a requirement for a wooden float. Mine are wider, about 20mm, because that was the size wood I had at the time … I’ve not had problems with them being a bee graveyard.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …