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Making Queens from Overwintered Colonies in Early Spring

Home | Bee Education | Making Queens from Overwintered Colonies in Early Spring

It’s March 6th here in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia and hives that have survived the winter will be bursting with bees soon and wanting to swarm. There are reports in southern Virginia that some hives have already started to swarm. They are about two weeks ahead of us temperature and forage wise.

Keeping the girls at home and from swarming can be a challenge this time of year. The temps are still very unpredictable, however, usually are still too cold to make nucs and splits. The nighttime temps are the real troublesome factor… temps often dipping into the 30’s F.

We often can’t get queens shipped to our area until the 1st of April so this makes March swarm management even more challenging for some beekeepers wanting to make nucs and splits. However, my best recommendation always is to make your queens from the overwintered colonies. These queens have already proven to have good genetics… they survived winter! You should be throwing a party and celebrating them! You should keep those good genetics going. Anytime you buy a new, open-mated queen you are rolling the dice and have no idea how well she will perform or for how long. We have no idea how well she got mated and what drones she mated with. The only way to tell is to kill her, count her sperm, and say “Well she was a good queen”. We only know how well artificially inseminated queens are mated and with what drones. Those queens are expensive ranging anywhere from $300-$700 for one queen. Open-mated queens are getting expensive as well ranging from $40-$50 each.

Making queens in spring is the best time for them to be able to produce queens and if something goes wrong it’s easier to fix. Making queens from walkaway nucs and splits are often easy and successful. More successful as spring progresses. There is no need to be intimidated by the thought or process. Your main concern is the parent/mother colony and keeping them from swarming. When hives swarm you lose half your bees and honey (if you can’t collect them). Swarming knocks their populations back to often nuc levels, decreases honey production, and can open the door for re-queening issues.

There is a lot of info about swarm management that I won’t go into detail here, however, the best and simplest swarm prevention technique is to remove brood and replace with empty drawn comb frames. Whatever you do with the brood is a secondary concern. Again, your main focus is keeping the parent colony from swarming. If you have weaker colonies, my first go-to is giving that brood to them (brood manipulation/hive equalization). Get all your colonies equal in strength. However, this article isn’t about that… back to making queens.

You need 5 simple ingredients to make a walkaway queen for nucs/splits in early spring:

Timing – Timing is everything in beekeeping. In March, if drones are being reared already or you see drones, swarm preparations aren’t too far behind. This is also an indication that mating will be possible. If drones are being reared, then by the time they emerge, they’ll hopefully be sexually mature by the time your queen emerges and becomes sexually mature.

Eggs – eggs are a must. You don’t want young, 4 day old larvae or older larvae. And I shouldn’t have to say this… but they must be worker eggs and not drones.

Nurse bees – these are the girls who can produce royal jelly, rear the queen, and feed/attend to her if reared. Foragers have passed this stage in their life already & have transitioned from protein processing to carbohydrate processing. Foragers can revert back to protein processing but that’s another story and we don’t want that anyway.

Food – since this nuc/split will be mostly nurse bees who can’t forage yet, they need food. Honey preferably but 1:1 sugar water will do and pollen or pollen substitutes.

Good temps – you need days 50 degrees F or higher to be able to pull brood/inspect. Preferably in the 60’s. Again nighttime temps are scary for nucs/splits. They are weak colonies who may have difficulties keeping warm. Shaking extra nurse bees from frames is needed. If you pull two frames of brood from the parent colony, shake two more frames of nurse bees into nuc/split.

It is totally possible to make a nuc/split from multiple colonies and this is recommended so you’re not setting one colony back too much. You’re moving/shaking nurse bees to make nuc/split and nurse bees get along with everyone, foragers are the nasty girls with attitude problems. Plus, when making a walkaway queen you don’t have a queen to worry about them killing.

Obviously, if you find swarm cells then those are the frames to remove for nuc/split. Part of the process has already been completed for you. But be warned, this is an area of swarm management you don’t want to be in. You will be fighting them constantly from swarming.

There’s more to nucs/splits and swarm management but these are some highlights that pertain to rearing your own queens in early spring. Again, your main concern should be keeping the parent colony from swarming. Second concern is trying to keep those great genetics going in your apiary and this can be experimental and maybe hit or miss. But that’s how you gain more experience and knowledge in beekeeping. Play around with nucs/splits and make your own queens this spring!

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