Queens: Chance or Choice? Talk by Richard Ball Rtd NBI

In one of our winter talks Richard Ball, retired NBI, delivered an informative lecture  sharing his thoughts and experience regarding the importance of effective queen rearing for all beekeepers. 

Richard began by urging us all to improve our stocks, for which good husbandry is the key. If we beekeepers each year selected our best colony and reared drones in it, and if we chose our worst colony and killed the queen, we would soon see an improvement. But we normally cannot control mating. Whatever we do affects our neighbours, and vice versa. The average beekeeper in England has only five colonies and does not want to bother with complicated techniques. But big beekeepers want young, strong queens early in the season:

The EU provides 6,000 imported queens every year, with another 6,000 coming from other countries. Richard is against importing queens and so is the BBKA. Insurance covers only American foul brood, small hive beetle and tropilaelaps; and some races of bees have several peaks of activity in a year (because of drought in summer) so are unsuitable in the UK. Pesticides have caused damage. Pyrethroids, Amitraz and Coumaphos are all used in varroa control, and in the US queens are not viable for more than six months. Is this a result of the chemicals, or varroa?

Richard himself has found queens now are failing earlier and having to be replaced. Apistan reduces drone sperm count – but in untreated bees the count drops even further. We do have more drone-laying queens, possibly exacerbated this year by wet weather.

Why not raise our own queens? We can all keep accurate records of temperament, honey yield, strength of colonies, disinclination to swarm, and resistance to cold weather and disease. Then “drone” and “queen” colonies can be selected. In selecting for queens, choose strong, well-yielding, non-swarming and varroa-tolerant stock. For drones, look for temperament. Get drone foundation drawn out in a strong colony and place it in the colony of choice, having brought varroa to a minimum.

In a well-managed colony, varroa becomes a problem only at the very end of summer, when the winter bees are born. If left uncontrolled, viruses will kill the bees in the spring. Another problem is nosema, now present in 40% of colonies. It interacts disastrously with both varroa and neonicotinoids.

So the key is to minimise varroa in winter, use bait combs in summer, beware of mite invasion from neighbours, take the honey off in August, and use an approved varroacide. Richard monitors mites every day at this time of year and treats colonies that have a drop of six or more a day.

In queen-rearing, we use two colonies, the breeder and the rearer. The rearer must be a strong colony (if it’s a swarmer, kill the queen) with lots of young brood. As for the breeder, you need to pick a very young larva (one-and-a-half-days old or young-er). Drones take 37 days to mate, from the egg, while queens take only 20 days. Bear that in mind when matching queens to drones. When grafting, a special pen comes in useful (and good eyesight), but you can just take off a nucleus, to persuade the bees to grow queen cells. Take an artificial swarm to split a colony – Pagden is the simplest way.

Richard described other methods of queen-rearing, saying the Miller method is good if you want just a few queen cells. But he reiterated the basic principles: rear drones from the best colonies; re-queen non-achieving colonies.

Article kindly written by Caroline Dilke

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