Monday, 29 April 2013

Rearing Queen Bees

We are rearing queen bees in the woods of Tŷ Hyll (the Ugly House) to sustain local bee-keeping in the Conwy valley.  To explain the process we need to set the scene as to what goes on in the hive and who does what. If you know all this already just skip to the final section.

There is one queen bee in each hive or colony of honey bees and all she does is lay eggs, maybe 2,000 a day for her 2 to 3 years of productive life. Fertilised eggs will become workers (females) or queens; unfertilised will be drones. Within a typical hive in summer there are about 2,000 drones, whose sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen, and up to 60,000 workers, who do everything else in organised social harmony.

Image courtesy of NASA
The life of the worker bee
When a worker emerges into the darkness of the hive she will instinctively clean out her cell ready for another egg to be laid or for food to be stored. Learning by touch from older workers, she will help clean the hive, preparing cells for new eggs (brood) or for nectar and pollen (stores).

At 3 days she is a brood nurse, using stores to feed newly hatched larvae, and taking her turn to feed queen larvae with royal jelly, which she is now old enough to secrete. She will also attend the queen, guiding her to stores to feed and to newly cleaned cells for her egg laying.

At 6 days she is ready to receive and store food and water brought in by older bees, producing enzymes to process nectar into honey, and fanning with her wings to reduce the water content.

By 12 days she can secrete wax to repair or make new comb cells, to cap brood cells when larvae are ready to pupate or store cells when full of pollen or nectar.

By three weeks she is mature enough to explore the world outside the hive, initially guarding the entrance to warn off intruders. She takes short trips to familiarise herself with the surroundings, before finally becoming a fully fledged forager, venturing further and further afield.

After about 6 weeks the female bee has literally worked herself to death, possibly having flown 500 miles in her foraging lifetime. She will die sooner if she is forced to use her sting in defence.
Margaret and Pete with the first hive

Rearing Queen Bees
Eggs, from a colony at the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales, are grafted into artificial queen cups which look like queen cells constructed by worker bees. Up to sixteen of these on a special frame are put into a hive where the workers will feed the hatched larvae with royal jelly before capping the cells. Artificial protectors are then placed over each cell as protection from the colony queen and from each other.

Each newly hatched virgin queen is brought to Tŷ Hyll and placed in a mini-hive (apidea) with a handful of workers, mini-frames and a supply of food. The queen remains within her protection for a couple of days until the workers have accepted her smell, otherwise they would attack her as an intruder. Once we release the virgin queen from her protection she is eager to mate and start laying eggs to build up her colony.

Meanwhile we have been creating a plentiful supply of drones by placing frames within our hives which have the larger size cells into which the queen knows to lay (unfertilised) drone eggs.  Once hatched and mature these drones roam around the woods until a virgin queen detects their pheromones and flies up to mate with as many as possible on this one and only occasion. Their work complete, the drones die and we transfer the mated, laying queen to a nucleus hive, holding frames with stores of food plus workers from the main hives, ready to be supplied to local beekeepers. Alternatively, the laying queen can be supplied on her own for hives without a queen.

The vacated apidea are then prepared for the next batch of newly hatched virgin queens and the whole process may be repeated six times per season, creating up to ninety queens, each of which is capable of producing over a million eggs!

For more information about the work visit

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