A Beginner's Guide to Raising Queen Bees for Profit

Raising queen bees can be an incredibly rewarding, educational, and profitable endeavor. The right combination of traits can give a colony a better chance of winter survival, increased honey production and resistance to pests and diseases. In the U.S, the average loss of colonies over the winter is almost one in four (23.8%), and that's a national average. Backyard beekeeper losses tend to be higher than commercial ones, so their losses can be one in two hives.

To prevent future losses, beekeepers look for queens that will produce bees that don't just survive but thrive despite the threat of disease and the chill of winter.

By mastering the art of raising healthy, strong queen bees, beekeepers can optimize their honey surplus, making the business of beekeeping more profitable and fulfilling.

Is Raising Queens Profitable?

High-quality queen bees are in demand, and starting a queen-rearing venture can lead to a profitable business.

Healthy queen bees are essential for maintaining strong and productive hives, and those colonies remain strong in the face of pests like varroa and build a tolerance to various diseases. It requires very little equipment and space, and unlike honey, which you only harvest once or twice a year, you can breed queens throughout the beekeeping season with little equipment. It requires attention to detail, patience, and practice, but any beekeeper can learn the skills.

To start you off, you have to choose the right kind of queen. 

Selecting Breeder Queens

A good breeder queen will come from a colony exhibiting desirable traits, such as disease resistance, high honey production, and strong brood patterns. Beekeepers can either select appropriate hives in their own apiary or purchase breeder queens from reputable sources.

Examine each hive’s honey production, temperament, overwintering ability, and brood pattern. A hive with a strong, healthy brood pattern is a good choice for a breeder queen. Similarly, a colony that consistently produces high honey yields can be indicative of a quality queen.

A colony that has demonstrated resistance to common honey bee diseases, such as American foulbrood or Varroa mites, is a valuable asset. This will help ensure the development of strong and resilient offspring.

In cases where beekeepers decide to purchase breeder queens, it’s essential to research reputable suppliers. Some guidelines to follow when choosing a supplier include:

  • Looking for well-established queen breeders with a positive reputation in the industry.
  • Asking for recommendations from other experienced beekeepers.
  • Researching online reviews and testimonials from previous customers.

Equipment and Tools

How Do I Make Queen Bees? Choosing A Queen Rearing System

The first thing to think about is how to create a queenless colony. Bees do what they want to do, and your role as a beekeeper is to convince them that what you want, is what they want. Some books teach you how to go about this whole process, from creating a cell builder to getting the workers to get the queen to adulthood. Michael Bush, an author and advocate for natural beekeeping, outlines several methods, including the Doolittle method. It involves grafting larvae from worker cells into artificial queen cell cups. The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) encourage beekeepers to try the queenright method.

Whichever one you choose is up to you since they all have pros and cons. None of them are foolproof, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out the first time. Just keep trying.

Grafting Tools

The tools will vary depending on the method you choose. If you choose the Dolittle method, you’ll need an appliance, specifically a grafting tool such as the Chinese or the Seiss style grafting tool, to gently scoop out the day-old larvae and place them in plastic queen cup cells. If you use the Hopkins method, you won’t need any specialized equipment. The grafting tool can be tricky to use at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be grafting dozens of queens in seconds.

Mating Nucleus

The mating nucleus is a small hive designed to house the developing queen bee and a small number of worker bees. This allows the queen to mate with drones and start laying eggs. Mating nuclei come in various sizes and styles, such as the mini-mating nucleus and the standard 5-frame nuc. Consider your space and management requirements when choosing a mating nucleus.

Other Supplies

In addition to the primary tools mentioned, several other supplies will be helpful in queen rearing:

  • Protective wear, such as gloves and a beekeeping suit
  • Smoker and smoker fuel
  • Bee brush for gently handing bees
  • Hive tool for prying open woodenware and separating frames

Rearing Process and Techniques

Grafting Larvae

The first step in the rearing process is grafting larvae. This technique involves transferring young bee larvae from worker cells into special queen cups. This is a delicate process and can go wrong if the larvae aren’t handled carefully.

Nurturing Developing Queens

Once the larvae are grafted, they need to be nurtured and cared for as they develop into queen bees. Introduce the queen cups into a strong, populous colony known as a “cell builder.” This cell builder colony will feed and care for the developing queens, ensuring proper growth and maturation. More information on the nurturing process can be found at Agriculture Victoria.

Mating and Releasing Queens

When the queens emerge from their queen cells, they will take their mating flight shortly after. Bad weather can prevent young queens from taking their mating flights, and if they miss their mating window, they can only lay unfertilized eggs which hatch into drones. If you don’t replace her, the colony will collapse since she can’t produce workers to tend to the hive.

After successful mating, the new queens can be relocated into their respective colonies, where they’ll continue to lay eggs and support the overall health and productivity of the hive.

Packaging and Shipping Queens

When packaging and shipping queen bees, it’s essential to ensure their safety and well-being throughout the process. One common method of packaging queen bees is using queen cages. It’s important to place the queen bee, along with a few attendant worker bees to care for her, inside a cage that provides enough space and proper ventilation.

Preparing the queen bees for shipping involves attaching a small candy plug to the cage, which serves as a source of sustenance during transit. This candy plug also acts as a barrier, separating the queen from the rest of the colony while securing her within the cage. The worker bees will gradually consume the candy plug releasing her into the hive once they’ve accepted her scent.

When shipping queen bees, choosing a reliable carrier specializing in transporting live animals is crucial. Proper labeling of the package is critical, indicating its contents as “Live Queen Bees” to ensure proper handling during transit. It’s best to avoid shipping during extreme weather conditions or temperature swings, as this can affect the queen, sometimes fatally.

Marketing and Pricing

The marketing strategy involves understanding your target audience, creating a brand, and promoting your products effectively. One way to do this is by showcasing the unique qualities of your colonies and the natural methods used in raising queen bees.

When determining the pricing of your queen bees, consider factors such as cash flow to the business, market prices, and production costs. Conducting market research will help you understand the competition and set a competitive price for your queens. Remember to account for your costs, such as maintenance expenses, packaging, and marketing.

Using online platforms and social media can help you reach a larger audience and showcase the benefits of your products. Creating a website and engaging with customers through social media channels is a cost-effective way to promote your queen bees.

Moreover, collaborating with local businesses and participating in farmers’ markets can increase your visibility and expand your customer base. 

Tips for Success and Common Challenges

Firstly, invest time in learning about beekeeping before diving into raising queen bees. Start slowly with a few hives, gain practical experience, and use resources such as books, online courses, and local beekeeping clubs to build your knowledge.

Consider your location and local environment when setting up your apiary. Ensure you have enough space and suitable habitat for your bees, and that they have access to diverse forage sources throughout the year.

Choose a method of raising queen bees that best suits your skill level and experience. Some popular options include swarming, supersedure, emergency, overcrowding, grafting, and splits. Experiment and refine your techniques as your knowledge and understanding grow.

Be prepared for common challenges such as diseases, pests, and weather-related issues. Regular hive inspections and record-keeping will help you in detecting and combat problems early on.

Invest in quality beekeeping equipment and protective gear.

Develop a comprehensive bee health management plan in collaboration with experienced beekeepers or local authorities.

Lastly, pay attention to maintaining the genetic diversity and quality of your queen bees. Select breeder queens from productive, disease-resistant colonies with desirable traits like gentle behavior and good honey production.

Remember, patience and persistence are key in the world of raising queen bees for profit. Keep learning, experimenting, and refining your techniques to find what works best for your unique circumstances.

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