Cell Builder Colonies

Thursday 17 June 2021

Welcome back for another post of the Queen Production Series! The previous blog provided an overview of how to obtain larvae for queen production. Today, we discuss the next stage of development for these larvae, which occurs in cell builder colonies. There are different options for cell builders and in this blog, we describe one way to use a starter and finisher colony to raise your queens.

Cell Builder Colonies

Queen production requires manipulation of honey bee colonies so that workers feel the impulse to raise queens. Naturally, there are three instances which trigger worker bees to raise queens.  These include bees preparing to swarm, emergency queen replacement and supersedure.  Cell builder colonies are designed to mimic the first two situations.

Cell building refers to the process of placing a grafting frame containing young larva into a colony to allow the worker bees to develop these into queen cells.  As the larva ages, workers extend the wax cells to accommodate its growth and eventually fully encapsulate, in the queen cell, the pupa which can now develop into an adult. In queen production, this takes place in two stages. The first stage occurs within a starter colony and the second within a finisher colony.

Figure 1 A grafting frame showing the bees drawing out queen cells when placed in the starter colony. (photo: University of New Hampshire Cooperative extension).

The starter colony is typically a single hive and must be queenless. By placing a grafting frame full of fresh, young larvae into a queenless colony, you provide the workers with the material needed to become queenright again and they will quickly begin to raise the larvae as queens. Queen producers often prepare their starter colony a day before introducing the grafting frame. The colony should be strong and requires a particular composition of frames.  This may need additional resources from donor colonies. The middle space should be reserved for the grafting frame. On either side of the grafts, provide a frame of pollen and a frame of older larvae to attract the nurse bees to this area. Surrounding these, place frames of capped brood and feed frames against the walls. It is also advisable to provide a frame of foundation, to help deter this very strong hive from swarming. The grafting frame remains in the starter colony for 48 hours. After this time, the cells should be packed with royal jelly and wax begun to be drawn out.

Figure 2 Queen cells taken from finisher colony, ready to be transferred to queenless colonies (splits) or mating nucs. (Photo: M. Girard in Bixby et al., 2019*)

The next stage of development occurs inside a finisher colony. The finisher is a strong, queenright colony where queens can complete their development as they would in a swarming situation. After 48 hours in the starter, carefully transfer the graft into your cell finisher colony, prepared ahead of time. The finisher must be a double chamber hive and the queen must be excluded to the bottom chamber, away from the developing queen cells. Once again, the composition of the frames within the hive boxes is particular. In the bottom hive box, include frames of feed, open brood, an empty laying frame for the queen, and the queen herself! Then, place a queen excluder on top of the bottom box. The graft frame should be placed in the top box in the middle position, once again sandwiched between older larvae and pollen frames, then surrounded by capped brood, a foundation frame, and frames of honey.

After eight days in the finisher colony, the queen cells will be capped over and the cells will be ready to harvest! Be sure to remove the cells before the virgins begin to emerge, or there will be problems for the other queens. At this point, your queen cells are ready and might be placed in a mating nuc, a queenless colony or sold! But that is a topic for another day!


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*Bixby, M., M.M. Guarna, S.E. Hoover, and S.F. Pernal. 2019. Canadian Honey Bee Queen Breeders’ Reference Guide. Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists Publication pp 55.

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