Raising a new queen sounds like a topic for advanced beekeepers, at least that's what I thought. But during my last beekeeper class, we learned that queen rearing and mating are actually one of the most important jobs of the beekeeper. So please bear with me as this got slightly confusing at times.
The first reason for raising a new queen is the obvious, your hive is without a queen. We talked about how to find out if your hive is with or without queen during my last beekeeper class. Another reason to breed a new queen is that your current queen is getting old. But it's not as easy as simply adding a new queen to the colony and hoping for the best. In this case, the new queen will most certainly be killed!
The best time of year to rear a new queen is at the height of hive development, from the beginning of May to mid-June. The safest way to rear a new queen is by taking larvae of the female worker bees and placing it in a hand-made queen cell. Pre-formed plastic cells can be purchased. But I of course (and the bees probably too) would prefer a hand-made version made by dipping a wooden mold into melted beeswax. To ensure a healthy queen, only transfer the smallest larvae (1 day old) from a gentle healthy hive with good honey production to the hand-made queen cup. This process is done using a special grafting tool. The queen cups are then attached to a cell bar within a frame.
If you require no more than 10 queens, you may place the cell bar directly into a 3 frame or 5 frame nuc box. The queen cups now hang upside down from the cell bar in the so-called rearing hive. To set up this rearing hive, you need about three frames of capped brood in the middle of the nuc and one or two honey frames on the outer side (these can be taken from another hive). Carefully sweep some bees from one or two frames with open brood (these are the youngest bees). Be sure not to take the queen with you. At this point, you could choose to let the hive rear their own queen. After about 9 days, the bees will have created queen cells. In contrast to swarm cells, these queen cells are built in the middle of the comb. Break all of these cells away but one. She will become the new queen. However, the disadvantage to this method, is that depending on the age of the larvae which was "re-programmed" to become a queen, an adequate queen will not be bred.
Two to five queen cells can easily be cared for by the nurse bees. Be sure to add more queen cells than necessary because not every queen cell will become a healthy queen. This cell bar must be removed from the hive before the queens hatch. Otherwise, the first queen to hatch will kill off all of the other queen cells. If the cell has been opened on the side, then you know that the first queen has killed the others. To ensure that this does not happen, queen cell protection cages may be placed over each queen cell (attached to the cell bar) once the queen cell has been capped by the nursing bees (about 5 days after grafting).
Photo by Maja Dumat - CC BY 2.0
The queen is ready to hatch usually 9 to 10 days after the grafting of the larvae. The queen cells can then be transferred to a mating nucleus, which is basically a mini hive for breeding queens. Be sure to provide about 14 days worth of food in the mating nucleus.
A young queen usually mates 10 days after hatching and must then start laying eggs. She mates outside of the hive during her mating flight where she will become fertilized from between 8 and 20 drones. This sperm (approximately 10 million) will last her life-time.
When the queen has mated and begins to lay eggs, she may be placed into the queenless hive. The bees should be given pollen patties for three days, the time the hive usually needs to accept the new queen. If you have added the queen to a nuc box, the bees will need to be moved to a big hive as soon as the first bees hatch. Remove the frames from the nuc box and add them to the big hive. Don't forget your smoker! In between each brood frame, an empty frame with a honey-coated (or sugar water) wax foundation is placed. Then place the big hive in the exact same spot as the nuc hive and remove the nuc hive.
And if this all seems too complicated, phew, you can order a queen bee and she will be delivered to your doorstep. Who knew?