Grafting Honeybee Queens

May 18, 2014 · 6 comments

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

For the last four years, Henry has been adding to and selecting from his pool of honeybee genetics all originating from feral, Pacific Northwest-adapted colonies. In order to propagate those genetics as well as maintain and increase his hive numbers, he started grafting his own queens last year. Grafting queens takes a lot of time, effort, skill, and bees, so it’s not really an activity for hobby beekeepers.  There are many other methods of creating new hives that work well on a smaller scale.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

To begin grafting, Henry starts his truck and lets it idle with the doors shut and the heat on full blast. When the interior air is preheated to about 90°, he selects a frame of brood with less-than-a-day-old larvae occupying the cells from a hive with preferred genetics. He gently sweeps off the adhering bees, and quickly moves the frame into the hot cab of his truck wrapped in a warm, moist towel if it’s particularly windy or cold. The larvae won’t make viable queens if they get chilled or dried out even for a brief time.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

In the hot truck with the doors closed and dripping with sweat, Henry uses a Chinese grafting tool to select tiny larvae from the cells.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Good lighting is essential for this task because the larvae are tiny and translucent.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

He gently but quickly scoops one up along with a bit of royal jelly that’s been left in the cell to feed the new larva.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

For grafting, he uses JZ-BZ queen cups and a cell bars available here.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Then he inserts the larvae into a queen cup and quickly covers it with a warm, damp towel.

Once each queen cup contains a young larva, he attaches two full cell bars to a special frame. He then inserts the frame into middle of the top box of the prepared queenless hive. Each cell builder colony receives two frames of queen cups for a total of 60 potential grafted queen cells.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

To configure a cell builder hive, Henry selects a colony that’s swarm prepping by building lots of queen cells. These hives will accept more queen cells and provide them with ample royal jelly, which is critical to raising good queens.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Henry goes through the hive and pulls out all the capped brood frames with adhering bees to put in the cell builder box. The cell builder hive needs an abundance of emerging bees at all times because newly hatched workers act as nurse bees. These nurse bees (less than three days old) are the only ones capable of producing a secretion called royal jelly. All larvae are fed a tiny bit of royal jelly early on, but queen cells must be packed with the stuff while the cups are being drawn out so that the queen larvae are literally floating in royal jelly. The consumption of lots of royal jelly is what physiologically differentiates queens from worker bees.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

While going through the frames, Henry is also looking for the queen in the hive, and he will destroy any queen cells he finds on the comb.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkbeekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

When he finds the queen, he puts her in a queen cage and sets her aside to be added to another hive later.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

The cell builder box with many frames of capped brood and lots of adhering bees but no queen is placed on a bottom board. Because the hive is so cramped, the bees will feel an intense biological urge to reproduce, so they will readily accept a large number of queen cells and care for them well.

Each cell builder hive is fed so that there’s an excess of food resources available at all times.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

About a week after placing the queen cells in the cell builder, Henry goes through the hive and eliminates any emergency queen cells the workers may have built on the comb. You can see a little Instagram video of this here (but please excuse a brief bit of foul language as I get stung in the face).

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Exactly 10 days after grafting, the capped queen cells are ready to be removed and placed in waiting mating nucs (small, queenless hives). The queen cells must be removed before any queens hatch or else the first virgin to emerge will destroy the other queen cells and/or fight with other hatching queens.

After pulling out a queen cell frame, he gently brushes some of the adhering bees off the queen cells.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

One at a time, he plucks the queen cells off the bar.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkbeekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkgrafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

These queen cells still have an excess of unconsumed royal jelly in the top, which means the queens have been provided with an abundant quantity of food while developing.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkgrafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Raising queens in Oregon, even with really good spring weather, is iffy. Henry has had grafts where 100% of the queen cells fully developed, but the average is more like 60%.

beekeeping with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Before removing the queen cells, he’s already prepared queenless mating nucs to receive the queen cells. He pulls off the lids to ready them for the unhatched queen.

grafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkgrafting honeybee queens with Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward SparkHe plugs the queen cell in between two frames.

The queen should hatch within a few days and then proceed on her mating flight within the next two weeks when weather allows.

Henry will check the hives that receive new queens 30 days later to ensure that they are queenright with a healthy brood pattern. For a number of reasons, some grafts will fail or the queens will fail to mate and therefore be unable to lay eggs for new worker brood. Currently, about 70% of queen cells that are placed go on to be fully functioning, mated queens. Success rates go up for queens grafted during warmer weather.

If you would like to order an Old Blue queen particularly adapted to the environs of the Pacific Northwest, email Henry at oldblueseedco@gmail.com. He has a limited quantity available for local pickup starting next week through the end of August.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

meemsnyc May 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Thats so cool! I’ve always wanted to learn to graft queens!

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Stephanie May 19, 2014 at 5:58 am

That is such an interesting process, thank you for sharing! Selecting for locally adapted honeybees is such a logical thing to do, but I’m starting to understand through your articles why everyone doesn’t do it.

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Caitlyn May 19, 2014 at 11:43 am

I’m looking forward to expanding my apiary here in Maine, and would eventually like to try my hand at grafting. Thanks so much for walking us through the process and creating such a great visual reference. I love all your posts, but especially like to see what’s going on out at the hives!

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Levi April 1, 2015 at 10:19 pm

This is so cool! I am starting beekeeping this year up in Eastern Washington, and Carnolians were considered the best variety I could get commercially for my area. I’d hope to be able to do some selective breeding like Henry does in the years to come, but for now I don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to do it. Maybe next season. Would getting one of these queens improve the vitality and perhaps survival chances for my hive? If so, how would I go about replacing my old queen without risking losing her and having my bees reject this new queen (also, all of this is assuming that you guys will be selling queens this spring – I realize this post is from last year)?

Love the blog! I am starting with 2 hives and hoping to eventually expand into an urban beekeeping business! (They use lots of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc in all the surrounding agricultural areas, so I figure that is a little risky).

P.S. – Know of any good books/resources on selective breeding of bees?

Thanks!
-Levi

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