My brother David pulled his flat-bed outfit into my queen mating yard near the Palatlakaha River.
"How's it going, Ron?" he asked. In front of me lay a four-frame mating nuc - totally disemboweled. Frames scattered in the grass, lid against a tree. When David drove into the citrus grove, my head was deep inside the nuc box. My black Stetson, the one I'd bought in Montana on my way south from Saskatchewan, touched the walls of the hive.
"How's it going? It's not going. I've been trying to cage this queen. I think she's invisible."
My brother, a gifted bee breeder who sometimes cages a thousand queens a day, reached out and touched the brim of my wide hat. "This queen?" he asked. He snapped the young lady off my head.
I was never a prolific queen breeder. I could raise good queens, just not very many. Raising my own queens fit nicely into my over-all management of a thousand Saskatchewan hives. In those days, several Canadian beekeepers owned small farms in the southern states. They produced queens and packages in April to replace winter losses. I never killed any of my Saskatchewan hives in the fall; I expected nature to do enough killing for me. I just wanted to produce a few good replacement bees to keep the count up - and maybe expand a little each year. It was relatively easy for me to rear queens in the south. Pollen was abundant from February through April and the sun shone brightly day after day after day.
I admire the prairie beekeeper who has been able to raise his own queens during the past twenty years. In Canada, the weather is fickle and spring is always later than you'd like. Raising queens in Alberta is a lot like growing your own rice or peaches. With tremendous effort and cost, against enormous odds, you may produce a superior product. But why would you? You can get what you need from Hawaii or the south Pacific. You can buy offshore queens in April or May when they do you the most good, building splits that can quickly grow in strength and produce a big crop.
So, why would a Canadian choose to raise queens? Lots of reasons.
Let's step back a few paces and ask why we might keep bees at all. There are easier and more profitable things to do with our time. Most of us keep bees because we can't stop. We really can't live without our community of fuzzy, winged friends. It appeals to the child in us - My goodness, look at this! And the scientist - How did they do that? And the gambler - Will I make a big crop? And perhaps the hedonist - Can I eat the whole comb without getting sick?
If you are a dedicated beekeeper, you have to try raising queens. The art, craft, and process of queen breeding appeal to all the same instincts that make you a beekeeper in the first place. You want to be amazed by the wonder of watching wormy grubs - which your little wooden stick lifted from a cell - turn into exquisite long-legged beauties which you crown queen of your personal pageant.
OK, so these are the real reasons you want to try to raise queens. Then there are the reasons you tell your banker and your spouse. It'll save you money. This is a bit of a white lie, but if you believe your labour has no value and the extra trips to the bee yard don't count, well, maybe you save money. You may also convince yourself, your spouse, and your banker that the queens you make yourself are better than anything you could buy at Wal-Mart. Here you may be right.
How does one raise a superior queen bee?
Firstly, don't fight Mother Nature. Wait until the season has arrived. Just when you expect brilliant weather in late May, it will snow. You can't do the impossible, regardless of your level of talent. Pay attention to your bees. If good strong hives have adult drones wandering around (not drone brood - but adult drones!) you may think about grafting cells. But no sooner, else who will your queens select for husbands? Remember the timing - little boys have to mature, learn to fly. Graft - emerge - mate for the queen is about a three-week process. The reality is, you may get queens on the Niagara Peninsula or B.C. coast in late April, but not on the tundra we call the prairies.
Secondly, don't fight Mother Nature. Bees want to have a queen. Work with nature on this. There are basically three kinds of queens, depending on how they were reared: emergency queens; supercedure queens; swarm queens. The emergency queen was produced by bees under the severe stress caused by the untimely demise of their monarch. This happens every time you squish a queen between two frames. A new queen is reared in a big hurry - from underfed, over-age larvae, regardless of colony health or strength. You don't want your colony headed by an emergency queen. Supercedure queens come about when the old lady is slowing down, the bees have time to be more selective in finding a replacement. But the best queens, of course, metamorphose from gluttonous grubs salubriously sated. Bees infected with swarm fever. You might start cells in queenless starter boxes, but finish them in hives that have been scouting real estate in the neighbouring forest.
Thirdly, don't fight Mother Nature. Hungry bees raise meager queens. You need to feed, feed, feed. Lots of pollen. Lots of syrup. Money spent on feed for bees always comes back as dollars in the bank.
Lastly, don't fight Mother Nature. She knows the type of bee that works best in your neighbourhood. It's not necessarily the same bee that does well in another part of the country. Or on another continent. There are some big advantages to mixing up the gene pool and creating F-1 Hybrids, but there are also huge benefits when you pick your healthiest, strongest, best wintered hives year after year as your breeding stock.
These are the basics. The fine-tuning is up to you. But one last piece of advice. Track down a good queen breeder and spend a few days helping in the beeyard. There are many gifted producers in B.C., Ontario, and across all parts of Canada. You will learn more in one afternoon from a skilled queen master than you will learn in a year fumbling around on your own.
Before you know it, you'll have so many spare queens some of them might end up running around on the brim of your Stetson.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
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