Friday, January 10, 2014

Queen Rearing in the Sustainable Apiary

The other element of the equation is making the queens that go into those nucleus colonies. This was probably the hardest of the presentations to follow, it is so packed with information and numbers it could make your head spin. To say it was hard to follow is not fair, Palmer did an amazing job and would make an even better teacher, the hardest part was with me. I constantly had to rewind to write down those numbers and try to get it exactly right. In fact half the reason I am writing this is so I won’t have to think about it again!

The reasons for rearing your own queens is plenty: you can breed for qualities you are looking for in your bees; they are acclimatized to your locale; you aren’t buying queens; etc. Everyone should be making their own queens. Without going into the qualities you look for in bees, and sticking to the Michael Palmer method, let’s get to it!

Bees will naturally raise queens under three circumstances:

Emergency - OK               
Bees are suddenly queenless and will take larvae in a worker cell, turn that cell into a queen cell and feed it royal jelly. The larvae are of various age, they will not be of top quality. 

Supercedure - BETTER
The bees feel as though their queen is failing, builder queen cells, and prompt the queen to lay in them. These queens are raised by the bees with the initial intention of creating a new queen, feeding as much royal jelly as is required. It will produce a quality queen, but not many of them. This can be prompted by injuring the queen. 

Swarming - BEST
When the bees decide to swarm, they create many queen cells that the queen lays in. They are fed as much royal jelly as they need. This usually takes place in the spring during a nectar flow, so they receive the best nutrition, and have the most nurse bees to look after the developing queens.
Relying on natural methods however, are neither reliable, nor practical for the beekeeper wishing to produce a number of queens. However, any good beekeeper must imitate the bees in order to produce the best results.

Nowadays, most queen cells are produced using the Queenless Cell Starter / Queenright Cell Finisher method. There is a great deal of literature and videos available explaining this method, however I will not delve into it. Michael Palmer believes this method is not sustainable because you must tap into the resources of your honey production colonies to do so.


Palmer and Webster utilize many of Brother Adams principals; however they did not realize it at the time. The method that Michael Palmer uses is simply a deviation of Brother Adams method. It capitalizes on both the emergency queen building response, as well as the swarm cell building response; this should create the best possible cells.
Firstly a strong colony is needed, containing 9-12 frames of brood. A queen excluder is then put on the hive as well as another hive body contained sealed brood harvested from elsewhere. When the sealed brood hatches the colony’s nurse bee population will be at a maximum. The hive is now crowded creating swarming conditions, pollen/nectar are coming in –the best possible time for harvesting.


Breeder Queen Selection

Use the best of what you have available. The breeder queen is kept in a box containing vertical queen excluders. Frames can be added in to accurately control the age of the larvae. Ideally you’re larvae should be around 12 hours old. His criteria selected is quite simple: wintering, does the hive winter well, and keep a tight cluster; disease, are they prone to disease and if so how are the dealing with it?; temper, goes without saying; honey production, are they good producers?; lastly, how much sugar do they consume during the winter with a noticeable comparison to how much honey they produced (i.e. A colony that produced 100lbs, but had to be fed 20lbs of syrup could be seen inferior to a hive that produced 70lb of honey but only needed fed 10lbs).

Day 1

  •          Harvest frames of sealed brood from over wintered nucleus colonies, place on strong colony over a queen excluder.
  •          The hive is setup thus: The area below the queen excluder contains 2 deeps, and 1 medium as the brood nest, as well as a medium of honey on top of that. On top of the queen excluder is another medium box of honey, and the box of sealed brood above that.
  •          The overwintered nucleus colonies are 4 frames stacked 3 high; giving a total of 12 frames per nucleus colony. He can harvest 1-2 frames from each for populating cell builders with nurse bees. This also prevents the nucleus colonies from swarming by creating additional room for the queen to lay in.

Day 10

  •          Check the cell builder for any queen cells, all must be destroyed. Above the excluder could contain emergency cells, and below the excluder could contain swarm cells.
  •          The nurse bees have hatched out.

Day 11 – Morning (Cell Builder Prep)

  •          Remove queenless section (above excluder) from the queenright section (below excluder). Turn the queenright selection 180 degrees and move back, providing it with its over top cover, bottom board, etc. The queenless section is then placed in the original spot that the hive was located. Put the honey super of the queenless section on the bottom (it was there anyway), to insulate as well as simulate honey flow conditions.
  •          Check the hive to ensure there are no queen cells, or open brood in which the hive could create them.
  •          Using a shaker box (a deep with a queen excluder nailed to the bottom of it), to shake additional nurse bees into the queenless hive. Any queens will be caught by the excluder and can be put back in their original hive.
  •          A frame of pollen is put into the space next to where the grafts will go. Palmer traps his own pollen, freezes it, and gently presses it into a frame of empty drawn comb.
  •          Feed 1:1 sugar syrup

Day 11 – Afternoon (Grafts)

  •      The queenless section is now hopelessly queenless and will accept your grafts.
  •          Add grafts placing them directly beside your comb of pollen

Day 16 (Cells are sealed)

  •       Remove the top feeder
  •          Set the cell builder in its original configuration, in the original location, with the queen excluder.

Day 21 (Cells are done)

  •       Keep cells warm, and put one each in a mating nucleus.
  •           Check the cell building colony for any queen cells, and to make sure there is still a laying queen.

Rinse and repeat

The benefits of this system are many. Firstly, you are starting your cells in an emergency condition, and then finishing them in a swarming condition. Secondly, you are maximizing the amount of nurse bees, which maximizes the amount of royal jelly being fed to the developing queens –better quality queen. You are not robbing resources from your production colonies, you are harvesting brood from nucleus colonies that would otherwise swarm from overcrowding. This system can be used repeatedly whereas traditional systems would work once and then the hives resources to make good queens would be depleted. Using this method Palmer can produce (from 35 cell builders): 1500 Queens, and 2 tons of honey.

Day 36 – 41

  • Queens can be checked for laying, marked and caught.
  • Add new queen cell
  • On the last (third round) of queen rearing, catch only half the queens, remove dividers to turn queen castle (2 frame by 4 mating nucs) into Palmer's conventional nucleus colony (4 frame by 2 nucs) for overwintering.
  • If the queen is allowed to lay longer than the 16 days, the mating nuc can become overpopulated. This can create swarming conditions as well as make it harder to find/catch the queen.

Palmer uses a rotational system where he is producing queens every four days. He gets three rounds out of each group every season. I created a spreadsheet to illustrate this, as it was hard to visualize myself.


  1. Andrew, thanks for taking the time to condense Palmer's, "Queen Rearing in the Sustainable Apiary". You are correct his talks are jam packed with info and I am constantly stoping and rewinding. I enjoy his video' and I am going to try my hand at queen rearing this year. I am also going to try his method of overwintering nucs.
    Tom Nolan

  2. Thankyou very much for this post... I would shout you a bottle of whiskey for this :)

  3. Thanks for that cogent explanation, love Palmer's videos but it takes furious note taking to document the advice! I am especially grateful for that graphic on the timeline...we were struggling with that!

  4. Shouldn't the cell builder return to it's original configuration sooner than the 16th day ? waiting until the capping of queen cells means that the rearing occured all in an emergency state. don't we loose then the supposed benefit of the method about finishing on a swarm condition ?
    thanks for this post. Need it to make it a little bit clear on my mind.