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Small-scale Queenrearing

This page is not a finished product, but due to requests, I’ve posted a rough version.

The Oliver “foolproof method” of queen


Step-by-step Oliver modification  of the

“Modified Swarm Box” Starter/finisher colony

Click the link below to download my Powerpoint presentation, minus my voice.  It is a large download and may take some time.

Small scale queen breeding copyrighted

(This doc lost formatting in translation, and I haven’t had time to rework it into outline form)

There are many excellent ways to produce queen cells.  This method works very well for the beekeeper who wishes to produce 40-50 cells at a time (more if you set up several starter/finishers each day).  I like this method since you need very little extra equipment; it works every time, even when snowing; it’s virtually foolproof so long as you don’t get a queen above the excluder; and after you’re done, you can either reuse the colony to do it again, or you wind back up with the same hive configuration that you started with.

Requirements for producing excellent queens:

  • Breed from a “population,” rather than from a few exceptional (or purchased) queens
  • Start with extremely young larvae; make sure they are fed copiously until they pupate, so they will have maximum ovariole development.
  • Saturate the mating yard with drones of good stock so the queen is well mated.
  • Queenrearing combs must be free of coumaphos (Checkmite+); drone rearing combs must be free of fluvalinate (Apistan or Mavrik).
  • Breeder queen colony, well fed, with freshly-hatched larvae.

Materials needed:

  • One or more strong, healthy colonies.
  • Queen excluder(s).
  • Horizontal division board (Swarm board):   A standard inner cover with the hole covered with screen (in cold weather) or blocked with a thin piece of anything that bees can’t chew through—cut a notch (roughly 3″ wide) in the “fat” side of the rim for an entrance.
  • Sieve box (optional)—a medium super with a queen excluder screwed to the bottom (works better if lined with sheet aluminum from a printer)
  • Empty super with two drawn combs.
  • Empty nuc box to temporarily hold a frame with the queen, so you don’t lose her.
  • Comb filled with pollen on one side.
  • Cell bar with cell cups,  royal jelly for priming.  Grafting needle—I recommend a Chinese style).  Wet towels.
  • Feeder or feeder lid; light syrup.

Conditions:  it is easiest to raise good queen cells during swarming season, with a light nectar flow, and strong pollen flow going on.  The Cell Builder colonies should be in swarming condition–combine colonies if necessary.  You can start great cells even if it’s raining or snowing if the colonies are strong and well fed.

Tip:  it’s much easier to graft if you prime the cells with slightly diluted royal jelly.  This can be collected from swarm cells containing young larvae, or from queen cells three days after grafting.  I store it in plastic film cans in the deep freeze.  Priming is unnecessary if you are using a Chinese tool, which transfers jelly along with the larva).  I strongly suggest that you learn to use the Chinese grafting tool. 

If you are over 40, I recommend grafting in a very dark room, wearing a jeweler’s type head-mounted magnifier of 3x-4x power, plus an LED headlamp (battery powered).   Put the headlamp as close as you can to between your eyes, and aim the spot directly where you are looking.

http://www.magnifier.com/headband_magnifier.htm  LVM-1 Light Weight Visor Magnifier with 4 lenses

There are some great new LED headlamps available but I personally prefer an unlit jeweler’s visor similar to the Donegan OSC OptiSIGHT Binocular Magnifying Visor, with a separate headlamp. 

Day 0:  about 4-8 hours before grafting.  Setting up the cell starter (swarm box).

Start with very strong, healthy colony; heavy with pollen stores; at least eight frames of brood.  Use minimal smoke throughout the following process.

Find the queen (and mark her if you plan to reuse this colony as a cell builder again), set her aside on a frame of brood in a nuc box for safekeeping (Note 2).

Set the swarm board on a stand, entrance notch up; put an empty brood box on top (a styrofoam super with insulated lid is even better in very cold weather).  This will be the “swarm box” (or “cell starter”).

Set up the swarm box as follows: Find a frame of very young brood, and a frame full of pollen; put these in the center of the swarm box, pollen and young brood facing inward toward each other.  Put a frame of drawn comb on either side of the center frames.  At this point, the Cell Starter box contains 4 frames in this order:  drawn comb, pollen, young brood, drawn comb.

Shake all the bees off the brood frames of the colony into the swarm box (only shake brood frames, since that’s where the nurse bees will be).   There should be enough bees to completely cover all four frames, plus several frames extra (older bees will drift away).

Tip:  If the weather is too cool for flight, you must leave enough bees in the parent hive to cover the brood.

Shake young bees from another colony if needed– through an excluder if necessary to exclude any queens (Note 3).  If bees are not already full of nectar, shake sugar syrup over them.  Note:  you can have too few nurse bees in the Starter, but I don’t think you can have too many!  The colder it is, the more bees you need.  Once the Starter has settled down, there should be large festoons of bees hanging off the lid on both sides of the five frames.

Put the original colony back together as follows (assuming that you run 10 frames in a box):

On the bottom board:  the bottom brood box containing the queen, frames of older brood, and drawn combs.

Then an excluder

Then a brood box with 5 combs:  in the center, 3 combs of  brood (to act as a “heat chimney,”) and 2 drawn combs having some storage room–center these 5 frames.

Put the horizontal swarm board on top, with the entrance notch up and facing to the rear.

Set the swarm box on top of that.  Give it a quart of 1:1 sucrose syrup (less if there is a natural nectar flow on) over a feeder lid, and leave it alone for a few hours.

Helpful suggestion:  At this time, I normally find my frame of hatching eggs in the breeder queen colony from which I’m going to graft.  I place that frame in the Swarm Box, alongside one of the outer drawn combs (mark the top of the frame for easy identification).  By doing this, I won’t have to find a frame of larvae to graft later in the day (when it might be late, cloudy, raining, etc.), plus the larve to graft will be especially well fed in a few hours, and will be floating in plenty of royal jelly–which makes grafting easier.  Even better is to confine the breeder queen to a single dark comb 4 days before you plan to graft.


You will have greatest success during a honeyflow.  You want the cell finisher to be in swarming condition–you’ll likely need to cut out swarm cells every cycle.

Holding the frame with the queen in a nuc box really helps you to keep track of her!  One will occasionally find two queens in a colony, especially if colonies have been combined earlier.  That means that setting aside “the” queen does not guarantee that the rest of the bees are queenless!  To be totally “foolproof,” shake all bees in the starter and finisher boxes through an excluder.  In practice, this extra step is generally not worth the effort.  On the other hand, if you do not find the queen during this process, do not assume that she is still in the brood chamber!  You most likely inadvertently got her into the swarm box, which will result in a lousy “take.”

This can be a mess if the bees are loaded with nectar.

Later that day–wait several hours, or overnight

By this time, the swarm box has settled down, and the field bees have flown home, the young bees remaining have realized that they are queenless, have oriented to the frame of young larvae, have eaten their fill of nectar and pollen, and are producing royal jelly like mad.  They are ready to produce queen cells!

Lift the lid a little (no smoke) to confirm that the frames are covered with bees, and clusters of bees are hanging from the cover to either side of the combs.  If not, add more young bees (from either the 5 frames in the box below, or shaken from brood frames of another hive).

If everything looks good, remove the frame of larvae to graft and brush (don’t shake) the bees from it.  You can now graft three bars of 18 cells (54 total), slide them into a cell frame, and place the frame in the central position of the Swarm Box (between the pollen and young larvae).  Do not replace the frame from which you grafted—give that to a support hive.  There should be 5 combs total left in the Starter box.

Note:  cell bars should be marked on top with date or code number so you can tell when they will be ripe and from which breeder queen they were grafted.

Simplified Diagram

Note: the horizontal Swam Board has an entrance in the upper rim facing to the rear.

Day 1

Check cells for starting success.  If good (royal jelly in the cells, cell walls extended about 1/8-1/4″, set up the colony as a “Cell Finisher.”

Setting up the Cell Finisher:

Set the swarm box and horizontal swarm board aside–you’re done with it for now.

Spread the 5 frames in the upper brood box to either side (queen is still below the excluder)

Transfer the center three frames (young brood, QC’s, and pollen frame) in the same order, into the space created, then shove the two frames of sealed brood in against them on either side,  and place the remaining drawn combs to the outside to fill the box.    Important Note: Remove any emergency queen cells started on the young brood frame (this is the only frame in the entire system on which bees will start emergency cells).  Shake the rest of the bees into the hive.  At this point, you should have no frames left over, and the colony will be back to a double deep with a queen excluder, with the queen in the bottom, and the cells above—this is called a Queenright Cell Finisher.

Put the feeder lid on top of the Cell Finisher, and keep it supplied with syrup.  Note:  no need to feed if there is a good nectar flow on.  Overfeeding will result in excess comb built over the queen cells, which can be difficult to remove without breaking the cells.  A quart of 1:1 sucrose syrup per day is generally enough—you’ll learn with experience.

Day 6–all the cells will be capped over (cells at ends of cell bars take longest).  You may generally stop additional syrup feeding.

Note:  you can confirm the quality of the cells by the following criteria:  a “good take”–90% of the cells were finished, meaning conditions were good, the cells will be large, and, most important, the cells will have royal jelly remaining in the bottom after the queen larva has pupated (easy to see in plastic cell cups)–this means the larvae were fed to excess!

Once you remove the cells, you can set up the colony as a Cell Starter again!  Note:  some colonies make better Cell Starter/Finishers than others–only reuse the best!

Day  9 or 10

If you have an incubator (Note ), sealed cells may be removed to it for safekeeping.

(Only if cells are not in an incubator) This is when missed volunteer queen cells can emerge and destroy your grafted cells!  Did you check carefully?  Recheck the single brood comb in the Finisher if you have any doubts.

Make up mating nucs

Best nucs: A frame of honey, two frames of brood, frame of drawn comb, in that order.  At least three frames covered with bees.  I use only 4 frames in a 5-frame box, and then add the 5th frame in 2 weeks after checking for mate out.  Or use a division board to split a deep super into 2 nucs.

Day 11

Insert the (now ripe) queen cells into nucs—push the plastic cup gently into the wax such that the cell hangs over brood, cell cup up, cell hanging down vertically.  In cold weather, cells must be placed  in contact with brood in the center of the cluster or the bees may let them chill. Queens usually emerge on day 12, but may start today.  If nucs have to be made up today, protect cells with cell protectors.

Note: any nucs that are overcrowded with bees likely have an old queen in them, and can be used for boosting weak nucs, or removed from the yard for other purposes.

Day  25 (two weeks after inserting ripe cells–may be delayed by poor weather)

Check nucs for eggs on brood frame.  Fresh eggs in a good pattern indicates mated queen.  If you see frames of brood of all ages, that means that an old queen was in the nuc.  If the nuc is “pissy” and has emergency queen cells, your cell was not accepted.    At this time, use the frames of bees from the nucs that didn’t “take” to fill out the missing frame in the nucs (remove any emergency queen cells, and kill any virgins that you see).  Typically, I get about 80% take in good weather, so the frames from the dinks are enough to fill the “takes.”  Now leave the queens to lay for at least another week undisturbed, so that they fully develop their pheromones and ovaries.

Day 30 (19 days after making the nuc)

On Day 19 after making the nucs, you have a window of opportunity to control varroa.  On this day, and for only about one day, there will be no sealed brood in the nuc (the old brood will have all emerged, and the new queen’s brood will not yet be sealed).  That means that any mites have no place to hide, and you can kill most of them with an oxalic acid dribble or Hopguard strip.  You can extend the broodless period by waiting a few days after you make the nucs prior to inserting the queen cells.  See Simple Treatment of Nucs

The population of the nuc will not increase until three weeks after the queen begins laying, at which point the new brood will begin to emerge.  The nucs can be worked into singles any time before this.

You can pull and cage queens after she’s been laying a week, and place new cells in the nucs (either wait a day, or use cell protectors), but I generally use the nucs for starting new colonies, or introduce the whole nuc to requeen.  I rarely cage queens in my own operation.

Reusing the Cell Builder colony

Only reuse cell builders that did a good job of rearing cells the first time!  Keep it from swarming by inspecting the lower brood chamber below the excluder every 10 days.  Shake all bees off brood combs, and cut out swarm cells.

Additional notes:


Contemporary Queen Rearing  Harry Laidlaw  (the “Bible”)

Breeding the Honeybee  Brother Adam (great philosophy)

Breeding Super Bees  Steve Taber (views from a maverick researcher)


Tradeoffs–sickle cell anemia example

1.  The more traits you select for simultaneously, the more chance you have of inadvertently discarding  some very desirable genes.

2.  Suggestion:  Don’t tell the bees how to do their job; rather define the job you want done, and promote those bees that do it well.

I’ve been discussing problems in queen selection.  The first main strategy I realized was not to try to use negative selection too much.  What I mean is that  you can divide your bees’ traits into two groups:  those that are desirable, and those that are undesirable.  Then you need to determine a strategy.  Do you select for desirable traits (positive selection), or against undesirable traits (negative selection)?  Or a combination of the two?  I started my career using mostly negative selection (eliminating cross bees, disease-susceptible bees, and dark bees) and lost some very good producers.  This unforeseen result made me realize the error of my ways:  I needed to look at my beekeeping operation through a businessman’s eyes.


As a beekeeping  businessperson you need to define the “bottom line” of your operation.  What aspects of beekeeping make your business profitable and enjoyable?  Is your main income from almond pollination?  From blackberry honey production?  What are your major expenses that the bees have a hand in?  Winter feeding?  Disease medication?  The bottom line is profits minus expenses.  I now follow what I call “selecting for the bottom line.”  That is, do positive selection for those bees that make you money.  Cull those bees that don’t.


So do I want big queens, yellow queens, three-banded queens?  Do I count frames of brood, or number of tracheal mites, or forager trips per hour?  Do I measure forager longevity, Varroa mite reproduction success,  pollen collection rate, or Varroa removal behavior?  I could do any of these to satisfy my aesthetic tastes or scientific curiosity, but would that information make me money?  Who knows!  So what I follow is this suggestion:  Don’t tell the bees how to do their job; rather define the job you want done, and promote those bees that do it well.


What this means is that you  must pinpoint those few times a year when you have an actual cash inflow from your operation (pollination rent, honey harvest), and those  times when you have major expenses (feeding, medication).  Call these specific times “selection events.”  At each selection event, choose and mark the best five or ten percent of your colonies.  By “best” I mean those that are making you the most (or losing you the least) money  at that instant.  I give each chosen colony a yellow pushpin at the entrance.  At any one selection event, previously marked colonies may or may not be marked again.  No matter.  At the end of one year’s selection, you choose your breeder queens from those colonies with the most yellow pins, which indicates that they were selected on more than one event.  Those colonies made you money!


The point of this is that I don’t care how those breeders got the job done.  I don’t care if the queens are yellow or black, or even if they look scrawny (some of my best breeders have looked pitiful).  I don’t care how many tracheal mites they have, or if they are good pollen collectors, or how they go about controlling the Varroa mite.  If they get the job done by hook or by crook, more power to them;  I’ll promote them to provide the next generation of production queens.





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