A honeybee queen is the mother of the bees in the colony and regulates her colony by a complex array of chemicals, called pheromones. This very short introduction to the issues involved in raising queens will provide a context for understanding the description of our queens in We have queens for you.
Queen success is influenced by genetics, quality of raising, mating, general health, and environmental factors. Beekeepers have varying views about the most important characteristics of queens and their colonies. There are a bewildering number of characteristics to consider. Relative importance of traits depends on the circumstances.
For example: If it is important to have colonies that produce a great deal of honey then queens for breeding will be selected from the most productive colonies. But in populous Montgomery County, Maryland, it is very important to have gentle colonies without defensive behavior. In the middle of North Dakota, it doesn’t matter what a colony’s disposition is, so a highly productive colony that is defensive is fine, but the same colony would be unacceptable in Montgomery County. Here, a queen must be both gentle and productive to be selected for breeding.
At the Maryland State Beekeepers Association on February 15, 2014, Gary Reuter, who was one of the teachers when I took Marla Spivak’s queen rearing course in Minnesota, listed 17 qualities of queens as examples of the attributes that could be selected for attention. Here they are: gentle, disease resistant, mite resistant, productive, overwinters, low swarming, color, comb building, propolis, pollen gathering, mating ability, gestation time, number of ovarioles, sperm storage, egg laying, pheremone production. To which I would add spring buildup, royal jelly production.
Honeybee breeding is hard because of how they mate. A week-old virgin queen on her mating flight mates with a dozen or more males (drones) in flight.
Many aspects of honeybee behavior are genetically determined. Within the species Apis mellifera are 26 subspecies, historically determined by geographic isolation–for example, Italian bees, Russian bees, Anatolian bees, German/English bees. Other subspecies have resulted from breeding programs–e.g. Starfast, Buckfast. These colonies tend to have certain characteristics, for example a tendency to swarm, cold hardiness, gentleness, gathering of more or less propolis, or ability to make quantities of royal jelly. Think of dog breeds–all one species, but various strengths and temperaments.
Marla Spivak, in her Final Words in her course book Successful Queen Rearing, quotes Dr. Farrar, who stressed, “Poorly reared queens of productive stock generally will be inferior to well-reared squeens from less productive stock.” (Whew! Triple negative!) We are devoted to well-raised queens from productive stock.
To be well-raised, a queen larva must have the proper nutrition from the very beginning of its life, the proper conditions as a pupa, and the proper care when she first emerges from her cell.
The workers construct cells from the wax they secrete. The queen cell is larger than a worker cell, is vertical rather than horizontal, and peanut shaped. The queen raiser encourages them to raise queens by intense management of a starter and finisher colony, and grafts eggs into “queen cups” for them to raise.
Any female egg can become a queen. Three days after the queen lays an egg its outer membrane dissolves, revealing a tiny larva. At that stage the queen raiser, using a grafting tool, lifts the tiny lava from its cell and places it in a special wax or plastic cup in which the workers will care for the larva and build a queen cell for it to grow in.
The queen raiser must guarantee that the developing queen larva is fed properly. If the larva is fed a certain combination of secretions from the nurse bees, it will develop as a worker bee with underdeveloped ovaries, a barbed stinger, and various physical organs adapted to a workers tasks in the colony. But if the tiny larva is fed a different combination and quantity of secretions, royal jelly, she will become a queen, with developed ovaries, a straight stinger, and organs which secrete the pheromones which regulate the colony’s behavior. So it is critical that there be enough young “nurse bees” at the proper stage of development to feed the growing queen.
After 5 days the larva spins a cocoon inside its cell and pupates. During this period the temperature and humidity must remain within certain bounds.
Some queen cells develop better than others, the normal variation of living things. Undersized or deformed cells should be culled by the queen raiser. The selected cells are next put into mating colonies, small colonies called mating nucs (nuc=nucleus colony). One cell goes into each colony.
Then in the mating nuc, 6 or 7 days after it has been sealed in its cell, 14 to 16 days after the egg was laid, the adult queen emerges. At that point the virgin queen must be nourished and cared for by the workers for several days to develop the strength to go forth on her mating flight or flights.
A queen must be either well mated to appropriate drones or artificially inseminated with the semen of drones of known genetic background.
The queen goes on one or more mating flights and stores the semen in a small organ the size and shape of a beebee, called her spermatheca. If she is well mated, she will mate with enough drones so she will not run out of sperm for years. Poor mating, or even lack of proper mating at all, can be caused by bad weather. If it is raining, she cannot go out, and if it rains or is cold during her approximately 10 days of physical readiness, she may miss the window entirely and never mate successfully.
It is important that there be enough drones in the area so that she be well-mated. Genetic variety is extremely important to the health of a colony, and this diversity among drones is assured by open mating in an area where there are lots of managed colonies. This is not difficult in Montgomery and Howard County, Maryland, because there are many distributed bee colonies. The queen can fly as far as 7 miles to mate, and the drones can fly as far as 3 miles to gatherings of drones called congregation areas where mating takes place. This works out to a possible area of over 300 square miles centered on any given mating colony.
When it is desirable to control the male half of the genetic contribution, artificial insemination (also called instrumental insemination) can be practiced. This time consuming and precise procedure results in a queen which is expensive and not as prolific as an open-mated queen, so such a queen is used as the mother queen for open mated daughter queens,
Queen health is an important factor. Certain chemicals and diseases can reduce the ability of the queen to lay viable eggs.
The success of a queen is also dependent on the environment of the colony. Is there enough food? Is the temperature conducive to colony health? Are there predatory animals? Are there pests and pathogens inside the hive? Are there chemicals present, such as pesticides?
There are many tests to evaluate queen success. By measuring the square inches of brood, we can tell how prolific she is. A test using liquid nitrogen can determine if the colony has certain hygienic characteristics. Productivity is measured by honey production. Temperament can easily be rated when the beekeeper works near or in the hive. Overwintering hardiness is an important characteristic in the Mid-Atlantic. There are quite a few possible characteristics to evaluate, but the most important to me are: Spring buildup, disease and pest resistance, gentleness, productivity, and winter hardiness.
For information about our queens, see We Have Queens for You.
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