Simplified Queen Rearing
Using the Mann Lake Queen Rearing Kit
Recommendations by Grant F.C. Gillard
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The following description started off as a request from a beekeeper who wanted to know how I use the Mann Lake/Nicot queen rearing kit. I wrote this in October of 2009. Next year I’ll include pictures as I go about raising more queens.
You can raise your own queens using a “Queen Rearing Kit” sold by Mann Lake Beekeeping Supply and Betterbee. Sometimes it is listed under the branded names of “Nicot” or “Cupularve” and costs around $80 or so.
The best time to raise queen cells is when you have ample pollen and nectar coming into the hives. The best time to breed/mate queens is when the weather has moderated such as in May and June.
There is also a theory that suggests that queens raised after June 15 (the “change of days”) will lay more eggs going into the winter than an older queen raised before this date. If this is true, then a hive headed by a young queen, laying more eggs going into the fall, will bring a greater population of younger bees into the winter. It is thought younger bees survive the winter better than older bees.
Further, younger queens brood up earlier in the spring and hives headed by younger queens are less prone to swarm. There is a growing trend toward annual requeening, and a greater trend for individuals to raise their own queens from their own locally-adapted stock. The Nicot system helps those of us who are too stubborn and obstinate to learn how to graft larvae.
With that said, I have found that when you start the process of raising queens it will invariably rain for a week. I can almost guarantee it rain torrents and you’ll experience impassably muddy fields once you start raising queens. You need rain? Start raising queens.
The only hard part of raising queens is counting the days and keeping on schedule. Use the attached spread sheet, fill in the date you want to start, then try your best to keep on schedule. Once the queen rearing train leaves the station, you’re committed to staying on the journey.
You may also want to look at your personal calendar to adjust your queen rearing activities to avoid conflicts with family and/or business obligations. Again, the hardest part is sticking to the schedule and dealing with the unpredictable weather and the intrusion of our personal commitments.
This queen rearing idea utilizes two distinct hives. First, you need to prepare a hive in your bee yard to be a queenless, broodless colony. This is your cell builder colony. This hive needs to be set up in advance. This is the hive that will raise your larvae into queen cells.
Second, you need a queen-right colony that will produce the larvae that will be transferred to the cell builder colony. The egg laying box from the queen rearing kit is placed in this hive. You catch the queen, confine her in the egg laying box, and give her a few days to lay eggs into the cell cups.
Once these eggs hatch into larvae, the cell cups are transferred from the queen-right colony to the cell builder colony. The cell cups are removed from the egg-laying box and transferred (with the larvae) to a top bar frame. Place the top bar frame into your cell builder colony. Since the cell builder colony has no brood and no queen, it will raise the larvae into queen cells.
The process is very simple. If you can count the days on the calendar, and if you can adhere to the schedule, you can raise queens. Actually, the bees raise the queens for you. Don’t take too much credit for your results.
Day 0: Go out into your bee yard or look over your notes and designate which hive you want to raise new queens from (your queen-right colony) and pick at least one, preferably four, strong colonies to become your cell builder colonies.
Day 1: Start preparing the queenless, broodless cell builder colony by taking a healthy, strong hive made up of two brood boxes. In reality, it will be a good idea to prepare several hives to be cell builder colonies. I’m going to suggest you prepare four different hives that you will manipulate to become queenless and broodless. These are your cell builder colonies.
In each of these colonies, sort through the frames in both brood boxes and place the frames of sealed brood, older brood, along with a couple of brood frames that have ample stores of nectar/honey and pollen in the bottom brood box. Keep an eye out for your queen. If you mark your queens, they’ll be easier to find.
Once you find your queen, contain her temporarily in a queen catcher.
Put the remaining frames (the frames of empty comb and those with fresh eggs, etc.,) in the upper brood box. Divide the two boxes with a queen excluder and release the queen into the upper box.
The key to establishing a cell builder colony is to isolate the frames in the lower box, keeping the queen in the upper box. The result will prevent the queen from laying any new eggs in this lower brood box, and at the same time, allowing the existing larvae in this lower box to mature beyond the point where they can be turned into queen cells.
After nine days, all the eggs in this lower box will have hatched and all the larvae pupated into sealed brood. You have created a “broodless” (meaning no “open” brood) box. My suggestion is to convert four different hives to be your cell builder colonies.
**Side Note**: You may be able to get by with one cell builder colony. But since these colonies need to be set up in advance, it is a good idea to set up four. If it turns out you don’t need them, you can simply remove the queen excluder and return them to their normal function.
Day 3: Now you need to choose the colony from which you want to raise more queens, hopefully capturing the same favorable genetic attributes and charming characteristics of the existing queen. Choose a prosperous, healthy colony that fits your ideals of honey production and gentleness. Find the queen and hold her in a queen catcher. By the way, I highly recommend marking queens so they are easy to find! I cannot stress this enough.
At this point, remove a couple of frames from the brood area so you can insert the egg laying box into the heart of the brood chamber. I suggest you remove two frames from the outside and create a vacancy in the middle of the hive body, preferably between two frames of open brood. It does not matter if this colony is one or two brood boxes high. I generally use the upper brood box because it’s easier to access.
Prepare the egg laying box by attaching the unit to a frame. I recommend attaching it to a medium frame. Drill a couple of holes in the top and bottom of the egg laying box and use simple wood or sheet metal screws to attach it to the frame. Because the bees like to add burr comb to open spaces, I trim a couple of pieces of plastic foundation to fill in the void on the sides of egg laying box.
Remove the clear panels from the front and back of the egg laying box, and insert the cell cups on the back of the box. Insert ample cell cups as the queen is kind of particular and will not lay eggs in every cup. There is no penalty for extra eggs wasted so fill the unit with plenty of cell cups (they can be reused).
Put the clear back panel on the back of the box, leaving the front side open and exposed. Insert the egg laying box into the heart of the brood nest and give it three days to “warm” up, allowing the workers to polish the cells cups and make it acceptable to the queen. You can now release the queen back into the hive. The egg laying box is not yet ready for the queen.
**Side note**: because you have to come back and recapture this queen, and hopefully you’ve marked her to make her easier to find, I will release her into a super or a brood box that has a queen excluder on the top and bottom, basically “sandwiching” the queen in a prison. This way, I know which box has the queen. I’ve spent too many hours looking for queens that decided to hide out in the bottom of the hive. Sometimes, as the bees were getting aggressive from my lengthy search, I needed more smoke. This caused the bees to become “runny,” that is, running all over the box. Once they get runny, it’s impossible to find the queen. Since I’m on a time table, finding the queen on that particular day is important. So, to make it simple, I will begin to close up the hive by placing a queen excluder under one of the hive bodies, release the queen into this box, then top it off with another queen excluder. This way I know EXACTLY where that queen can be found. When I return, I’m going to want to place this queen into the egg laying box. Again, it pays to mark your queens. They are much, much easier to find. Using a queen excluder limits the number of frames I have to remove and scan in my search for the queen.
I highly suggest that when you close up the hive (with the egg laying box in the brood nest and the queen released), that you set the front cover to the egg laying box on the top of the inner cover (under your telescoping cover) so you’ll know exactly where it is when you return.
By the way, the back panel is solid, the front panel is slotted.
Day 6: Return to your queen-right hive and remove the egg laying box. Place the clear front panel on it, re-catch the queen and place her into the front section of the unit through the escape portal and close it with the plug. Set the egg laying box back into the same place, into the heart of the brood chamber.
The queen (based on my experience) will take a couple of days to make up her mind to start laying eggs. So for two days, not much will happen. It’s like she needs to get used to her captivity before she’ll cooperate with you. By day 8, she will usually start laying eggs. Eggs take three-and-a-half days to hatch.
Day 9: Go back to your first cell builder colony. It needs to be “cut down.”
Now that it’s been nine days, the bottom box is filled with sealed brood, emerging bees, young nurse bees and no eggs or larvae. This is now “broodless.” Because the queen has been contained in the upper box, you know that the bottom box is “queenless.” You should have no eggs, and no open larvae, no exceptions. If you do, something went wrong and you need to move on to the next cell builder colony.
See? This is why you prepare more than one cell builder colony.
However, it will pay you to work through that bottom box to insure they did not build any queen cells. If queen cells are present, they will ignore your queen rearing efforts without any reservation whatsoever.
You need to prepare for this “cut down” stage by setting up a hive stand about ten feet away from his colony. We are going to “cut down” these cell builder hives so they can focus all their resources on raising queen cells. By cutting them down, we’re going to concentrate the worker bees into a crowded environment that will improve the chances of making queens. But first, we need to remove the upper box and the queen to a new location.
Set up a new hive stand about ten feet away in the same bee yard. On this new hive stand (or stands), set bottom boards for each cell builder hive you’ve prepared. Bring the same number of inner covers and outer covers.
Start by opening one of the cell builder hives, lifting off the upper brood box while retaining the queen excluder. By keeping the queen excluder in place on the bottom edge of this upper brood box, you want to insure the queen remains in the upper box. If you are able, carry this upper box to the new hive stand and place it on the vacant bottom board.
Return to the bottom box on the original hive and look through the bottom box and insure there are no “accidental” queen cells made. Make sure there are no fresh eggs (a sign of a superseded queen). Theoretically, their ability to relate to the queen through the queen excluder prevents any queen cells from being made, but stranger things have happened.
If you find queen cells, you should go ahead and squish them. You could split the hive and place each frame that contains a queen cell into a new nuc box, but you will be limiting the number of queens you could raise. It is more advantageous to squish the accidental queen cells and have this cell builder hive make ten times as many queen cells for you.
If you find eggs or larvae, then you have a second queen running around in that bottom box. It’s better to give up on this cell builder colony than try and use it to raise queen cells. This is another reason to start multiple cell builder colonies. Sometimes you have multiple queens and you don’t know it.
If everything looks good in this lower box, move over to the upper box on the new hive stand. My first objective is to find the queen (remember why I wanted her marked?) I search for the marked queen in this box and hold her in a queen catcher. Remove the queen excluder from the under side of this brood box. As you remove the queen excluder, you may find that old queen on the excluder trying to wiggle through and escape. Contain her in a queen catcher.
With the queen safely constrained in my queen catcher, I will take half of the frames from this box, and one at a time, walk over to the lower box on the original hive stand and shake the bees off the frame in front of the corresponding cell builder colony (the cell builder from which this upper box was removed). This will add younger nurse bees to the broodless, queenless hive and will make it stronger and more efficient to raise queen cells. This hive is called a “cut down” hive.
I repeat this process for all four of the hives I’ve prepared to be my broodless, queenless cell builder colonies. I then release my old queens into their respective colonies on the new hive stand and place the inner and outer cover on them.
What you end up with is highly populated cell builder hives with lots of young bees, no open brood and no queen. The frames have incoming pollen and nectar (thanks to the field bees that are returning to these hives). You now have the environment ready to raise queen cells.
Now you also have four weakened, queen-right colonies about ten feet away on the new hive stand. You have a depleted work force, an older queen, and low expectations for each respective colony. I generally let these colonies build up for the rest of the summer as a single brood box with no supers added. By fall, they have usually recovered sufficient strength for winter. Many will have superseded their queens because you’ve messed up their equilibrium in the cut-down process.
Day 12: Open the queen-right colony and remove the frame with the egg laying box. I carry this frame over to a shady spot, out of the direct sunlight. Open the back cover to the box (and be sure and leave the front cover on or your queen will escape). Because the cell cups are slightly opaque, you can hold the front of the box toward the light and see the freshly hatched larvae inside the bottom of the cups.
If the larva is really fresh, you will see a milky drop of royal jelly through the bottom of the cell cup. If there is no milky jelly, it means the egg has not hatched, or there is no egg at all. A pair of magnifying “reading” glasses really helps.
**Side Note**: Now bear in mind, it’s been six days since you placed the queen in this egg laying box. It is possible that she laid some eggs, right away on the first day. This has not been my experience, but anything is possible. You may have larvae that is now 36 to 48 hours old. They will be large, easily visible and shaped like a large “C”. I would not use these larvae as it is my preference to use the younger larvae that are 12 to 24 hours old. They will look like a little blip in a small dot of royal jelly. Again, on this day, I seldom find the older larvae. It has been my experience that my queens take a couple of days to settle down in their new confines before they lay eggs. Obviously, your results may differ.
At this point, I can expect some eggs hatched, and a majority of eggs almost ready to hatch. I remove the cell cups with fresh larvae (a needle-nose pliers works best to wiggle the cell cup loose from the egg laying box) and insert the cell cup into the yellow, cell cup holder. The cell cup holder fits into a brown, cell cup fixture. I previously nailed ten cell cup fixtures to a top bar frame. This top bar frame with ten cell cups of young larvae is where your queen cells are made. This top bar frame is going to be placed in your cell builder colony.
By the way, ten cell cup fixtures is no magic number. It was what fit when I set up the top bar frame.
Once you transfer the cell cups with young larvae from the egg laying box to the top bar frame with the cell cup holders, replace the back to the egg laying box and place the box back into the vacancy where it was. You’ll do this to allow the other eggs time to hatch so you can transfer those cell cups with newly hatched larvae to one of the other queenless, broodless cell builder colonies.
You can leave the queen in the box or release her into the hive, but you’ll want to return this egg laying box back to the warmth of the brood nest for the remaining eggs to hatch. This will give you more freshly hatched, young larvae tomorrow.
However, if you think you have all the larvae you want, then you can release the queen and set the hive back to the way it was. Release all the bees from the egg laying box and let the remaining eggs dry out.
But on the other hand, it does not hurt to raise more queen cells than you really need. Ten larvae on a top bar frame does not necessarily mean you’ll get ten queen cells. It’s okay to raise more than you think you need.
This is basically a “graftless” grafting procedure. The beauty of the process is that you can see the illuminated larvae from the backside of the cell cup rather than squinting down a dark cell in the honeycomb. You don’t touch or pick up the larvae as the whole cell cup is transferred. You don’t have to worry about trying to settle the larvae into new cell cups. The bees have done all your work for you!
On this day, I will probably get twenty larvae old enough to transfer the cell cups to the cell cup holders. If things are working right, you may have thirty. Do not transfer eggs. Eggs are cannibalized for some reason. Only transfer those cell cups with larvae. I make up two top bar frames (20 cell cups) to move to the cell builder colony.
You will need to remove two frames from the cell builder colony to make room for the new frames of cell cups and larvae. I simply bring another brood box with me. I pull out two frames (from about the #3 and #7 spots in the box) and create vacancies for the top bar frames with the cell cups. I place the two frames I’ve removed in the extra brood box I brought along. I insert the top bar frames of cell cups in those vacancies, then set the spare brood box (with just the two frames) on top of the full brood box. Move the two frames close together for warmth. There is no need to add the other eight complimentary frames to this upper box. In a few days, you’ll be pulling out the sealed queen cells to move to your mating nucs.
You could do this same procedure with three top bar frames of cell cups if you had that many cell cups of fresh larvae. In that case, pull three frames, setting them in the spare brood box, and place your top bar frames with the cell cups in the #3, #5 and #7 spots (basically interspersing the cell cups between frames of bees and pollen/nectar).
Close up the cell builder and let them raise some new queens for you.
At this point you have one cell builder colony with two, maybe three top bar frames of fresh larvae. The colony will jump on those and start turning them into queen cells.
You also have three cell builder colonies awaiting fresh larvae.
Day 13, 14, 15: On each of these days, you can return to the queen-right hive and see if more eggs have hatched in the egg laying box. Again, on each day, look for the milky dot of royal jelly. You want to transfer freshly hatched, young larvae and not an egg. If the larva is seen as a large “C” then it’s probably too old. If it looks like a little “comma” then it is just right. If it is still an egg, you’re better off waiting until it hatches.
But here’s a problem: you already gave two top bar frames of cell cups to the first cell builder colony on day 12. You might be able to add more frames of freshly hatched larvae to this same cell builder colony on day 13, but the likelihood of this colony turning these additional larvae into queen cells is diminished. It seems they want to start on the first batch of larvae (from day 12) and they’ll ignore the second batch (from day 13).
Now if you only wanted a few queens, then don’t worry about adding more larvae to each of the other cell builder colonies. You may be able to do it all with one cell builder colony. However, if you want more queens, then you’ll need several cell builder colonies.
Here is the reason to make up multiple cell builder units back on day one. If you made up multiple cell builder colonies, you can add 20 or 30 more freshly hatched larvae to the second cell builder colony on day 13. You can add 20 or 30 more larvae to the third cell builder colony on day 14, and 20 or 30 more freshly hatched larvae to the fourth cell builder colony on day 15. Do not underestimate your need for additional queens.
Each cell builder is queenless and broodless, but once you introduce a couple of top bar frames of cell cups with fresh larvae, the colony tends to ignore any additional larvae added to the colony in subsequent days. They don’t just keep making queens when you keep adding more larvae. They put all their resources into the first batch of cell cups and ignore any subsequent batches of cell cups with larvae added in the following days.
**Side Note**: conceivably, once all the queen cells are sealed, you can move them to mating nucs. Once they are all moved to the mating nucs, you still have a cell builder colony of young bees which is still broodless and queenless. You could, conceivably, catch a different queen and place her in an egg laying box with fresh cell cups and start the whole process over. With this cell builder colony already established, you’re that much further ahead in the process. You could be raising multiple generations of queens using the same queenless, broodless cell builder colony.
A big question is how many queen cells can one cell builder handle? I don’t know if that question has an answer. It’s a factor of good nutrition (nectar and pollen) for the developing larvae and adequate numbers of young bees to care for them. I’ve raised 40 queens in one cell builder colony before. It seems like a lot to ask of a colony but they seemed to do just fine.
On day 15, if you have not already done so, you can release the queen from the egg laying box, allowing her to roam free again. You can remove the egg laying box and reassemble this colony as it was before. I ignore any left over larvae and eggs left in the cell cups and simply let them dry out and die. These cell cups can be reused and the bees will take care of cleaning them up for the next queen.
With the queen held captive in the egg-laying box, this queen rearing colony may have started some supersedure cells, or they may start some in the next week. Imprisoning the queen skews her productivity, or how they perceive her productivity.
Day 17: If everything is going well, you will have your first queen cells sealed into the pupa stage. Some cells may be within a day or two of being sealed. I open the cell builder colony and count every pupae cell on the top bar frame, even those cells still under construction. Not all ten cell cups with fresh larvae will be turned into queen cells. Some cell cups will have been cleaned out and the larvae disposed of. Usually six or eight queen cells on every top bar frame is satisfactory. And then again, sometimes they’ll raise all ten. This number will tell you how many mating nucs to prepare.
Now, remember how I told you that raising queen cells is almost guaranteed to make it rain? Don’t procrastinate and wait until the last minute making up your nucs. On a couple of occasions, I found it rained so hard on the last day I had available to make up my nucs that I could not get to my other colonies to make up nucs, nor could I pull the queen cells out of my cell builder colonies. The first queens emerged and killed off the queens in the other queen cells. Basically, my whole crop of queen cells was ruined. I like to start my nucs as early as the first queen cells are sealed, then gently remove the queen cells from the cell builder colony and place them with the mating nuc.
After counting my queen cells and calculating how many mating nucs I need, I replace the top bar frame, close up the cell builder hive and start looking to my regular hives to “donate” a few frames of bees for my mating nucs. It’s now time to get your mating nucs ready.
I usually go through my other colonies and borrow two or three frames of sealed brood and young bees, set them in a five-frame nuc box with other frames of drawn comb. If you only took two or three frames of bees/brood from a nice, strong colony, replacing them with new frames of fresh foundation, I can practically guarantee you will not hinder their honey production.
It works best to set these nuc boxes up in a different yard at a location more than 2 miles away so the field bees don’t fly back. I’ve also found it helpful to close off the entrance to the mating nuc for 24 hours (usually with a wire screen so there is still ventilation). Holding them captive for 24 hours, then moving them to a new bee yard the next day does wonders for enticing them to claim the nuc box as their new home.
I find it easiest to set up the mating nucs one day, then bring the top bar frame of queen cells to the nuc the next day. When I gather up my queen cells from my cell builder colony, I open the cell builder colony and put my top bar frame in a super that contains the metal, 9-frame notched frame rests. These frame rests keep your top bar frames secure in the super. I set the super on an upside-down lid, and enclose it with another lid to keep things warm and free of drafts.
You will also note several bees clinging to the queen cells. Some cells have a dozen bees clamoring about them, other cells have none. I don’t know what this portends.
The yellow cell cup holder with the sealed queen cell is removed from the brown cell cup fixture and inserted into the mating nuc, either wedged between two frames, hung between the top bars of two frames or dangling from the hole of the inner cover.
I insert the sealed queen cells into the mating nucs and leave them alone for about a week. You can also break up your cell builder colony into mating nucs, even leaving some of the frames in a nuc box on that site with a queen cell.
In the days that follow you can return to the other cell builder colonies and pull out more sealed pupae. Somewhere between day 24 and day 28, all the queens will have emerged. A queen takes roughly 5 to 7 days to mature. They go on their mating flight and it’s another 3 to 5 days before they lay eggs. I usually figure by day 42 (six weeks into the whole process) that I can inspect my mating nucs and look for larvae and fresh eggs. If the queen emerged and was successfully mated, this will be the earliest time to inspect your colonies.
I usually let these nucs build up into singles for the rest of the summer. I’ll add frames of drawn comb to round out the necessary extra frames as I transfer the bees from the mating nuc to a ten/nine-frame single brood box. As we usually have a nectar dearth in the late summer, I have no problem bringing them feed and pollen substitute patties.
Additionally, you can go back to any of your existing colonies, kill off the old queen and add a queen cell straight from the cell builder colony and skip the mating nuc. As this is done in the middle of the summer, the likelihood of diminishing your honey crop is quite small.
Do not underestimate your need for queens. It is better to have too many. You can then judge the queens, kill off the lesser quality queens and combine that colony with another one before the end of summer. This will allow you to retain only the best queens. Or you can sell those extra queens or give them away to your buddies. You can even sell off your extra queen cells.
This short description is how I do it. Glean the good stuff and make your own adjustments. I hope this little chat we’ve had has been helpful. I have no pretentions that this is the only way to raise queens. It’s what works for me. If you have any questions, my contact information is at the top.
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