All beekeepers should really be able to raise their own Queens. I've done it over the years with varying degrees of haphazardness, usually by either placing a frame of eggs and larvae into a supposedly Queenless hive and letting the colony raise their own Queen or by putting a ripe Queen cell into a colony from elsewhere.
However raising Queens is very different to actually breeding Queens where you take the time to improve your stock by selectively cultivating new Queens from your best bees and that's what I have been trying to do over the past couple of years. Most of my colonies are generally quite well behaved and reasonably productive, but as in all apiaries I have a couple of star performers that always seem to do better than the others in terms of producing honey.
The trouble is that these same colonies can be a bit aggressive which seems to be quite a common trait and given that I have started to react quite badly to bee stings, I really want to minimise this happening.
I'm lucky in that even my most aggressive colony is not really that bad and they don't follow me around the apiary pinging off my veil looking for a way in, as I've experienced elsewhere. Still, I'm very jealous of the incredibly gentle bees I've seen in many parts of central and eastern Europe that are so calm there is certainly no need for a full bee-suit and barely any reason to wear a veil when handling them.So, I want to try and breed the calmest bees that I can and am not that bothered about the colonies being particularly productive. The problem is that breeding bees is not that easy as each Queen breeds on the wing with up to 15-20 drones (male bees) and therefore each worker in a hive has 50% of her genes from the Queen and 50% from anyone of 15-20 fathers. This means that the workers in any colony are genetically very diverse but the downside is that breeding for a particular characteristic such as docility is not that easy.
I've got a couple of candidate colonies that are very calm, but before I started the process, I reviewed the records on each colony (you do keep records don't you?) to confirm which ones are probably going to be the best to breed from. In the end the one we have chosen was this one on the right located in the Fleet Beekeepers training apiary. All the colonies here are extremely docile, but this one in particular has been a stellar performer in terms of its productivity (three full supers and still growing!) so this will be our starting point.
The whole Queen breeding process can be split into four phases.
- Harvest fresh eggs from the selected Queen breeding colony
- Transfer these into one or more Queenless hives that will nurture and raise the chosen eggs into new Queen cells.
- Move the Queen cells into small mating hives and/or nucs to allow each Queen to hatch, fly, mate and return to start laying her own fertilised eggs.
- Transfer new Queens successfully into their recipient colonies.
Once started, the whole process has to be done to a strict timetable in order to ensure the production of strong, vigorous Queens and the method I'm choosing is called the Hopkins method and is designed to work with the bees and mirror their natural processes. It is also a relatively simple process for amateur beekeepers who only need a few Queens for their own use.