Coping with a queen shortage.

My phone is ringing off the hook with beekeepers needing queens to split their strong and thriving colonies.  I’m not really set up for mass production of surplus queens although I do sell some occasionally.  I’m mainly working at being self-sufficient in queen production, and sell only surplus queens.  In this post I’ll try to convince you, the Manitoba beekeeper, how to deal with this shortage of queens by splitting later in the season.

Beekeepers like to split early in the season to give all the queens time to build their colonies up before the main honey flow.  Queens also introduce more readily to small hives early in the season.  However, in Manitoba it is not possible to produce queens to meet this timing requirement, and so most queens are brought in from warmer climates more conducive to queen rearing.

One of the main restrictions on queen production is drone availability.  It is not prudent to start grafting queen cells until you see adult drones in your hives, since the drones are not viable mates until they are two weeks old (about the same time it takes to raise a queen cell).  This year I started grafting on April 28th, the earliest ever.

I can then reasonably expect to have queen cells available around May 9th, and Mated queens around May 23rd.  How can I be self sufficient in queens if the earliest queens I can produce are nearly at the end of the optimum window for splitting.

I actually have some queens available earlier, as some of my mating nucs are wintered with queens from last summer.  These queens can be used when the nucs are set up for the current year mating cycle.  I winter about 120 two-sided hives and expect to get about 100 nucs and about 80 surplus queens from these to replace normal winter losses.

Most of my splits are made later by allowing colonies to build up into very strong colonies, always in doubles and sometimes triples.  These colonies are so populous it is impractical to split the hives by finding the queen and allocating the bees and brood frame by frame.  Instead, around June 1st, as queens become available, I will split these hives by the brutally simple method I call the “logical split”.  I rely on the fact that the hives will be so full of brood it is not necessary to make careful allocation of brood and bees.  I merely remove and transport the 2nds and thirds to new locations (typically summer locations, since the honey-flow is near).  As I do this I number each box with its site and hive number so that I can tell which 2nd belonged to which 1st.  After 3 days I check each box for eggs, if there are eggs in one box, its corresponding numbered box will require a queen.

Beekeepers nervous about leaving bees queenless for multiple days can always insert a queen excluder between the boxes 3 days prior to the split so that the queen and her eggs will isolated within the hive.

I contend that window optimum window for splitting hives can be extended into the first two weeks of june by this techique.  Although the hives are unmanagably populous, the simplicity of the manipulation overcomes this problem.  I also find that these populous hives will more readily accept a new queen when they are 3 days queenless.

Queens from local breeders will be come available in quantity by June 1st in any year, especially in an early spring when there is high demand.  If you are concerned about availability, then you should consider setting up mating nucs of your own.  You would not need to learn to graft cells, since there are several queen breeders who also make cells available.  Setting up mating nucs and catching your own queens is much easier then developing a full cell building program so I recommend you start with that.

A simple mating nuc could easily bee a frame or two of bees and brood in a regular hive body to which you will add bees and brood once the queen has “taken”.  Don’t commit too many bee resources to the cells, since their success percentage can sometimes be low.

Good Luck!

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