Rearing Queen Bees

The Tŷ Hyll Honey Bee Project is working with the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales (NBCW), based at the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre, Tal y Cafn, to raise and mate Conwy Valley Queen Bees to supply and sustain local bee keeping.

The process starts with eggs, or one day old grubs, being carefully taken, with use of a delicate grafting tool, from cells in a selected ‘good’ colony – initially from the apiary at the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales.

These eggs or grubs are then grafted into artificial queen cups – cell shaped, downward facing cups which mimic worker bee constructed queen cells – which are attached onto the bar on a hive frame. Eight to sixteen of these cups with the grafts are placed into any colony.

The worker bees in that colony will recognise, and normally accept them as queen cells and draw them down with wax to enlarge to ‘queen size’. They will then feed the larvae for 5 days with royal jelly, the protein rich milky ‘brood food’ secreted by the worker ‘nurse’ bees, before other workers cap the cell.

Once the queen cup cells have been capped an artificial cell protector, which looks like a hair curler, is placed over each one to protect it from any other queen that might be ready to hatch in the colony, and from each other. The first new queen to hatch in any colony will kill any potential competitors as soon as they emerge. The larvae will hatch inside their cell protectors and the newly emerged queens are fed by the workers.

Back at Tŷ Hyll, apideas are made ready for the reared virgin queens. An apidea is a type of mini-hive which provides a temporary home for each queen bee with her mini colony of workers. A small feeder in each apidea is filled with fondant, or sugar, a few undrawn mini frames, and a ‘cupful’ of young worker bees which have been ‘shaken’ from an established colony or newly hived swarm.

As soon as these workers have settled, maybe in just a couple of hours, each newly hatched virgin queen, still in their ‘hair curler’, can each be introduced to her own apidea and new mini-colony. Each queen will be kept inside her protection until the workers in her apidea have accepted her smell, otherwise they would attack and sting her as an intruder.

After a couple of days the queen can be let out of her protection to mingle with her workers in the apidea. She will be eager to mate and start laying eggs to build up her colony. Her senses will be highly sharpened to detect the pheromones released from the roving Tŷ Hyll drones.

These drones will have been reared in the Tŷ Hyll apiary over the same period as the queens, by placing frames with drone cell formation (larger cells than worker bee cells) in the two main hives. The worker bees will draw these out and the queen will know by the size of the cell to lay unfertilised, drone eggs.

Anticipating that the virgin queens will have been attracted, and successfully mated with our drones – flying in drone congregation areas in the valley, the apidea will be checked after a week or so for signs of egg laying. As soon as this happens the queen will be introduced to a nucleus hive (a half size hive) with a mix of undrawn frames and frames with eggs and stores (honey and pollen) plus bees from the main hives.

The vacated apideas can then be prepared for the next batch of newly hatched virgin queens. This process can be repeated up to six times per season.

The nucleus hives with the new colonies raised from our reared and mated queens can be supplied to local beekeepers or kept to build up to full hives for our apiary. Alternatively just the laying queen can be supplied with a cupful of her workers to the local beekeepers.