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.
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.
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.
Good lighting is essential for this task because the larvae are tiny and translucent.
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.
For grafting, he uses JZ-BZ queen cups and a cell bars available here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When he finds the queen, he puts her in a queen cage and sets her aside to be added to another hive later.
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.
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).
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.
One at a time, he plucks the queen cells off the bar.
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.
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%.
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.
He 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 email@example.com. He has a limited quantity available for local pickup starting next week through the end of August.