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Quality of Emergency Queens

The experts on emergency queens:

Jay Smith, from Better Queens

"It has been stated by a number of beekeepers who should know better (including myself) that the bees are in such a hurry to rear a queen that they choose larvae too old for best results. later observation has shown the fallacy of this statement and has convinced me that bees do the very best that can be done under existing circumstances.
"The inferior queens caused by using the emergency method is because the bees cannot tear down the tough cells in the old combs lined with cocoons. The result is that the bees fill the worker cells with bee milk floating the larvae out the opening of the cells, then they build a little queen cell pointing downward. The larvae cannot eat the bee milk back in the bottom of the cells with the result that they are not well fed. However, if the colony is strong in bees, are well fed and have new combs, they can rear the best of queens. And please note-- they will never make such a blunder as choosing larvae too old."--Jay Smith

Quinby seems to agree:

"I want new comb for brood, as cells can be worked over out of that, better than from old and tough. New comb must be carefully handled. If none but old comb is to be had, cut the cells down to one fourth inch in depth. The knife must be sharp to leave it smooth and not tear it."--Moses Quinby

C.C. Miller's view of emergency queens

"If it were true, as formerly believed, that queenless bees are in such haste to rear a queen that they will select a larva too old for the purpose, then it would hardly do to wait even nine days. A queen is matured in fifteen days from the time the egg is laid, and is fed throughout her larval lifetime on the same food that is given to a worker-larva during the first three days of its larval existence. So a worker-larva more than three days old, or more than six days from the laying of the egg would be too old for a good queen. If, now, the bees should select a larva more than three days old, the queen would emerge in less than nine days. I think no one has ever known this to occur. Bees do not prefer too old larvae. As a matter of fact bees do not use such poor judgment as to select larvae too old when larvae sufficiently young are present, as I have proven by direct experiment and many observations."--Fifty Years Among the Bees, C.C. Miller

A study:

David C. Gilley, David R. Tarpy, Benjamin B. Land: Effect of queen quality on interactions between workers and dueling queens in honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) colonies

Selection of high-quality queens by the workers during queen development has been demonstrated by Hatch et al. (1999), who found that during emergency queen rearing (the process by which workers rear queens from worker larvae to replace a queen that has died unexpectedly) workers preferentially destroyed queen cells built from older worker larvae. Despite selective behavior by the workers during queen rearing, considerable variation in quality exists among newly emerged adult queens (Eckert 1934; Clarke 1989; Fischer and Maul 1991). This variation in quality among queens gives workers the opportunity to benefit by selecting high quality queens that are fully developed, when the decision will be most accurate.

My Take

The concepts of getting a good queen are to get the right age larvae, to get it well fed, to get the resulting queen well bred, and to allow that queen to lay long enough for good ovariole development.

Right Age

I agree with the above experts that the bees won't raise a queen from too old of a larvae. If they start a cell from too old of a larvae, I believe they will tear it down anyway. But if you wish to stack the deck in this regard, tearing down the cell wall (per Mel Disselkoen) or using new comb (per Smith and Quinby) or cutting the bottom edge of the comb (Miller) can be done.

Well Fed

Accomplishing this basically takes two things: a lot of resources coming in (not a dearth or feeding if there is) and a high density of bees. One way to accomplish this is simply to do it during the early spring flow when a lot of resources are readily available. Another is to feed pollen and syrup or honey during the days before the queen cells are capped. In a dearth you will probably also need to feed the mating nucs to get the queens to fly out to mate. This can be done in the evening in small amounts so it is cleaned up by morning and doesn't start robbing. I usually use a small conical dixie cup squashed to fit between the frames with a couple of tablespoons of syrup in it.

Well Bred

Accomplishing this basically is simply to do it during the early spring when a lot of drones are flying.

Ovariole development

All you have to do is let her lay for at least two weeks once she starts. If this is in a mating nuc, basically wait until you have a lot of capped brood and you'll probably be about right.

How to do it wrong

To contrast this, let's look at how to make the worst queen. If you are doing emergency queens you have no real control over the larvae they pick since you aren't grafting them. If you are grafting, then picking a large larvae will result in an intercaste queen.

If you set things up so the cell builder (or the queenless half of a split) ends up with a low density of bees (a small nuc set in a new place so all the field bees leave or a hive that is weak to start with) then the queen will likely be poorly fed. Also if you do this in a dearth and don't feed she will be poorly fed.

If you do this at a time when there are few to no drones (too early, in a dearth when the bees have killed off the drones etc.) then she will be poorly bred.

If you put the cells in mating nucs and catch them as soon as they lay an egg, you will interrupt the development of their ovarioles and get a poor queen.

Michael Bush

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