Introduction: An Easy Way to Make a Nucleus of Honey Bees With Queen Cell Grafting
Honey bees, when out in the wild, will reproduce by making a number of swarms which will leave the mother hive with a queen and set off to find a new home, such as a hollow in a tree or even the engine bay of somebodies car!
As a bee keeper, rather than chasing our swarms around the countryside, we can create a new colony in a more controlled and efficient manner by rearing queens and creating 'nuclei' of bees rather than swarms.
I've tried a few different techniques for making nuclei and, so far, the technique explained here is the easiest and most efficient. Beekeepers should need not shy away from queen rearing as, in it's most basic form, it is actually quite easy to do. Many people seem to over complicate the process with gadgets such as 'cloaking boards', 'Snellgrove boards', 'cupkits' etc. That's my opinion anyway.
Step 1: Components and Tools
- Polystyrene nucleus box (https://www.bshoneybees.co.uk/polyhives)
- Surgical scalpel
- Wire cutters
- 18 gauge electrical wire
.... Or build your own nucleus box here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Plywood-Honey-Bee-Swarm-Bait-Catch-Hive-and-Nucleu/
The biggest advantage of using the '2 in 1' polystyrene boxes is that they conserve heat. The polystyrene itself is a very good insulator, but, importantly, the central divide enables 2 colonies to share heat as do people who live in semi detached houses. There's also a certain amount of shared 'smell' so that, if one colony in the box fails, the 2 sets of surviving bees can be easily joined without them fighting each other.
Step 2: Donor Colony
This is a fully functional colony that has everything that a normal, healthy colony has, including a mature queen, lots of brood and eggs and plenty of young 'nurse' bees. Frames containing capped brood, eggs and nurse bees BUT NOT THE QUEEN are transferred to the nucleus boxes such that each side of the box has 2 fully functional frames. That means 4 frames of brood, eggs and nurse bees in total. The other 2 frames can be 'stores'.
Step 3: Queen Rearing Colony
This is a vibrant colony with newly laid eggs that has had the queen removed. Ideally, for convenience, the eggs should all be on one frame, but it's not essential.
To create a queen rearing colony, it's necessary to find and catch the queen and transfer her to a new box with some frames of brood and nurse bees, ensuring that some frames of newly laid eggs are left behind. If the eggs were laid on day 0, the queen will normally hatch about 16 days later on day 15. If there are newly hatched eggs (day 3), the queens may start to hatch on day 12.
Step 4: 'Harvesting' Queen Cells
On somewhere between day 10 and day 12, the queen cells can be carefully cut out of the frames from the queen rearing colony with a sharp surgical scalpel. The blade must be both extremely sharp and extremely thin.
If the cells have wire in them, the wire may obstruct the cutting process and will need to be snipped with the wire cutters.
A piece of electrical wire can be used to hold the queen cell during cutting out. Obviously don't push the wire through the queen cell itself!
The process should be done on a warm day, 15 degrees C or above, and done quickly and efficiently to avoid the queen cooling down too much. The frames containing the queens should be stored in the queen rearing colony until the very last minute and should be returned back to that colony ASAP if they have more than one queen cell.
Step 5: Grafting in the New Queen
One of the frames of brood, eggs and nurse bees is removed from the nucleus box and a indentation or cut out is made in the middle of the frame with the scalpel to enable the new queen cell to be inserted. The idea is that the frame can be put back into the box without the queen being squashed between adjacent frames. The queen also needs to be able to munch her way out of the cell without being obstructed by extra wax.
If wire was used to transport the cell, it can be cut to remove excess.
Step 6: Insert the Frame With the New Queen Into the Nucleus Box
The frame with the queen is very carefully put into the nucleus box such that it is sandwiched between the 2 frames of brood, which themselves are adjacent to the central partition. The outer frames would normally be frames of stores (capped honey or raw nectar). It should be possible to look down between the frames to check that the queen cell is in a good position.
Step 7: Finished!
Now the nucleus feeder tray can be put onto the box. It has a slot for the central partition and it can be tricky to get the partition to locate properly.
Clean the feeder tray's slot of debris and check that the partition is not bent at all - straighten it out if necessary.
Put on the to lid and move the box to it's final position in the apiary, ensuring that the bees have good access to both entrances. Open the entrances just wide enough for a couple of bees to get in and out at the same time.
Add sugar syrup to the feeders and leave well alone for at least 3 weeks. The new queens will be very difficult to spot as they are much smaller than mature queens and they also tend to take flight very readily. Quite often, I've inspected a new colony and seen eggs but no queen, only to find that suddenly the queen appears out of nowhere on the very frame that I'm looking at. This was not a miracle or illusion - it's just that the queen was flying about near the box and decided to land on the frame before me.
A good sign of a viable nucleus colony is that, upon removing the feeder, there are lots of bees noticeable. When the queen returns from a successful mating flight she will often bring back a small mini swarm of accompanying bees. At this point in time (3 weeks) there's no need to check individual frames if there's obviously a high number of bees as this will just disturb the colony unnecessarily and maybe even cause the young queen to fly away. Obvious failure in one side of the box would necessitate removal of the central partition to unite the colonies, but otherwise leave them alone for another 3 weeks and continue feeding.
Step 8: Further Work
To make queen rearing even more efficient, but with a lot more work, a 'Nictot' or 'Cupkit' could be used.
It's also a bit more fiddly, but the advantage is that all the eggs harvested will all be the same age and the bees wont be tempted to use older larvae to produce queens, which may then be slightly defective.
Participated in the