Practically every time the discussion gets around to queens, an argument erupts. There is little agreement about whether or not beekeepers should let the bees raise their own queens. The insects, after all, have reared replacement queens for millennia with obvious success. Why should beekeepers put out hard won cash for queens they can get at no charge? Many beekeepers complain that queens purchased from commercial outfits are quickly superseded or are not suitable.
Queen rearing is not easy. The hard work, monetary investment, and patience required are astounding. Much of the queen producing season also takes place during marginal weather conditions, increasing the risk that many individuals will be lost in the process.
After some reflection, it boils down to quality. Does the beekeeper simply want a queen or a good queen? A quality queen is produced under rigorously-controlled conditions, maximizing the end product’s value. Obviously, some entrepreneurs do a better job than others.
Judging the quality of queens is difficult for there are no published standards. Different countries around the world have their own systems. However, it is believed that in general the larger the developing larva the better the resultant queen and the more likely she will be quickly mated by an adequate number of drones. Thus, rearing the best nourished queen larvae, provisioned by a maximum number of young jelly secreting bees, is the goal of every producer. In the pursuit of quality, many cells with marginal individuals are often discarded during the production process.
Besides managing the bees and thus, the incipient queen’s nourishment, selecting mother queens is extremely important because all honey bees are not alike. The more deliberate the process the more probable the offspring will meet an individual beekeeper’s need. This important task has traditionally been left to the producer with minimal beekeeper input, resulting in non-existent breeding programs.
The fact that the vast majority of commercially reared queens is open mated also injects genetic unknowns into the process. Finally, breeders frequently purchase queens from each other in order to ensure filling orders in a timely manner, reducing further selection criteria. Fortunately, specific breeding programs are becoming more common.
Because there are so many variables inherent in queen production, beekeepers rearing their own queens can be problematic, although some would counsel that “letting the bees do it” is preferable, However, if selection is nothing more than random and/or the condition of colonies used to produce queens and perhaps more importantly, drones, is marginal, the possibility of ending up with a quality product is reduced. For all things about queen rearing, quality and breeding see contributor Dave Cushman’s web site and that of Glenn Apiaries.