Mating Hives

There has been a tremendous surge of interest in Queen Rearing and in questions related to mating these queens, both to me privately and on The Bee Works Forum. A great many of the questions deal with mating hives for the virgin queens being produced, creating serious problems for those involved due to the lack of information available.
This article will deal with our methods of setting up Mini Mating Hives and an explanation of some of the problems we discovered over the years.

Mating yard showing mini hives
Mating Yard

Mini Mating
Hives are ideal for the sole purpose of mating queens. They’re small, light, only need a handful of bees, are easily portable and when charged with bees can be self-sufficient for the whole queen mating season.

Mini Mating Hives are as the name describes, small mini hives, with small frames in the order of 6 inches square, often just 4 frames and an internal feeder of some sort. We made our own to the D.E. standard, but of late styrene, hives have become available. These units can be sealed to prevent flight, have an internal feeder and the frames are of the ‘top bar’ hive design. A simple bar with a slit into which a strip of foundation can be set with hot wax.
Adding bees to these units can be a trifle difficult as there is an immediate return of bees to the donor hive, shaking bees from open brood is ideal. These bees having never left the parent hive stay where you put them, unlike field bees that will try to return home back to their parent hive after their first flight. We found, after a great many false starts and failures, the ideal method is to shake bees into an empty box, spraying them down lightly with a 1-1 sugar syrup, to which we add Vanilla flavouring. This helps to prevent fighting, allows the bees to intermingle easily and produces a cohesive mini hive.

Prepare the units, making sure the entrance is screened to prevent flight, ventilation is a must, have the cells to hand. We use a styrene carrying unit with a number of holes into which we place the cells with their respective cell protectors. Our method of adding bees revolves around a flat bottom boat bailer. We first fill the feeder, add a ripe cell complete with cell protector, then using the bailer we scoop a good number of bees and drop them into the mini hive, waiting until the bees move off the top bars to prevent crushing, add the roof.

We now set these units aside in a cool dark place, in deep shadow will suffice, a basement is even better. We move our cells on the 14th day from egg laying which then requires another 48 hours to emergence. As a matter, of course, we add a further 24 hours to make certain the virgin has emerged and at which time she will produce small amounts of pheromones. Now the bees can be allowed to fly freely, in the area where drones can be found.

mating hive frame
Mini Frame

On releasing
When we remove the screen we always add a handful of grass in front of the entrance to confuse the bees and prevent the loss of any flight bees. From this
point, the results are a gamble. The virgin should go out on mating flights after the 3rd day, assuming she has a successful flight, and meets approx 15-17 drones, and escapes any birds, then egg laying should commence in a further 3-4 days. The signal for a successful mating would be eggs, but it’s also possible that she does not fly to mate in which case she will invariably turn into a drone laying queen. In my experience when a virgin fails to mate and becomes a drone laying queen, then her body is noticeably smaller, possibly due to the lack of sperm storage.

At one stage of our Queen Rearing discovery, we used to remove the emerged cell as soon as possible, resulting in a large amount of ‘laying workers’ if the queen failed to return from her mating flight. Now we leave the open emerged cells in the hive until we are ready to check for eggs. It is my opinion that the release of Royal jelly into the food chain, as the workers will clean up the Royal jelly left by the queen, helps to prevent ‘laying worker’ formation in hives where the queen is lost to mating flights. We have noted that some hives will die out waiting for a virgin to return, as others, where we removed the open cells quickly will turn ‘laying worker’ much quicker.

Our general practice
is to harvest the new laying queen and immediately replace her with another ripe cell. Using this practice it is possible to raise a constant supply of queens all summer long. Gaps in replacing queens will result in ’emergency’ queens being produced, which should be avoided at all costs.

An old wives tale states that “incoming queens will destroy any cells being produced”, this is incorrect. Only incoming virgins will do that job. Mated queens will get down to the job of egg laying so any cells already in production will be allowed to progress, ultimately the virgin emerges and kills off the queen recently introduced. So in all cases of transferring queens ensure that cells have not been started in the recipient hive.

All new queens should be evaluated quickly. Our general practice is to transfer to a full hive and allow a full 14 days to check the pattern of her egg laying which should be a full slab with few if any raised drone cells. Newly mated and transferred queens will not lay drones, so any raised caps show an improperly mated and suspect queen.

3 drawn mini hive frames
Mini hive frames

At the end of the season it is a fairly simple measure to store the units for the next year. We first remove all queens and any subsequent brood is checked for stray cell production which we prevent or remove all started cells. It is imperative that all brood be allowed to emerge, live brood placed into storage will die and create a foul smell.

Then the Mini Hives are moved closer to our full sized hives and the bees are shaken out, they will be taken in by the full hives. If the mini hives are stored without removing the honey stores, then open honey will ferment and run out the entrance in storage. The simplest method is to allow the full hives to ‘rob out’ the mini hives. I have always frowned on starting robbing, as it can get out of hand and destroy small nucs. In this case it does not appear to happen, I believe it is because the mini hives are so much smaller and a different shape.

If you are following these instructions there is no reason why you cannot raise good quality queens all summer long. Just watch for a nectar dearth as it will create a problem with the final quality.