The almond bloom is winding down, if not finished, and beekeepers are retrieving their hives from orchards around California. Now the focus transitions to producing queens to meet demand for all the packages we need. Producing all those queens is a multiple step process to create a quality and consistant product.
Testing breeder hives is the first step in determining which hives to graft from. Ideal breeders are very hygienic, with a well mated queen producing calm worker bees. Not every hive is chosen as a breeder, as only the best of the best needs will pass down their genes. This testing is done by selecting brood frames from potential breeders, then pouring Liquid Nitrogen into a tub over a small area, freezing the pupae within.
Twenty four hours later the frozen brood is inspected. Hives should remove most, if not all of the dead brood, meaning they are highly hygienic. Hives with low hygienic characteristics will be slow to handle any potential diseases or pests like chalkbrood, foulbrood, or varroa mites.
Once tested, grafting can commences. Freshly hatched (24hrs old) larvae are plucked from a cell with a special tool and deposited in queen cell cups mounted to a bar.
These bars, once full, are attached three to a frame and placed into a queenless hive called a cell builder.
About 10 days after placement in cell builders, the cells are removed and placed into mating nucs. Mating nucs vary between breeders. Some beekeepers use 2-5 frame deep Langstroth nucs, while others use a small “Mini Nuc.” Fifteen days after the egg is layed, twelve from grafting, a virgin queen hatches.
Virgin queens are sexually mature after about seven days and will begin mating flights. This mating period is very time sensitive as the queens have just a few weeks before they potentially ‘go bad’ and will start laying drones. A few weeks may seem like a long time to mate, but they can’t mate in any weather. Ideal mating weather is overcast, around 69F with calm winds. In addition to weather, an abundant supply of mature drones is required. Over a period of a couple flights, mating with 10-20 drones, a queen will have enough sperm to lay the next 2-4 years.
About 23 days after grafting, the new queens will begin laying. If time is available, the commercial breeders will allow the queens to lay a cycle or two and observe brood patterns, confirming if the queen successfully mated. Next queens are caged, placed in packages, and flown to us.
Many things can happen during this period. What pushed back grafting this year was cool, wet weather during almonds hindered drone production and hive growth. In planning out the breeding season, grafting before enough purple-eyed drone larvae is seen within hives will mean not enough sexually mature drones will be available in time for mating flights. With my supplier, grafting typically start the first few days of March. This year it started two days ago, a 10 day difference. Although other breeders began grafting up to a week ago, mine waited until his hives were ready. This pushed back packages dates but almost guarantees properly mated queens.
As you can see, a lot goes into producing queen bees. Even more goes into producing thousands of properly mated queen bees. March is a highly important and stressful time for queen breeders. Without all their hard work, we would not have our packages.