After finally wrapping up all of our winter tasks, we made it down to southeast Texas around Feb. 20. This is the seventh year of leaving our hives up north while we migrate to work with a queen-rearing company, Klett Beekeeping, to help raise thousands of queens a day. We work about 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and not far from the Louisiana border. We work alongside a resident alligator, whom we have named Chompers, and often see migrating birds, which are resting after flying over the Gulf back to their northern homes. It is a wild experience full of nature, lots of hard work, and fun with our beekeeping friends.

Queen rearing 101

This requires a very specialized skill set.

First, we manipulate a hive so that the bees have the natural impulses to raise a queen bee.

To do this we do two tasks. We temporarily remove the original queen. Every hive has a queen, because without a queen the bee population will dwindle and the hive will die. This gives the bees an overwhelming urge to create new queens in order to replace the removed queen. This is called an emergency impulse or creating emergency queens.

Next, we pack the queenless hive with surplus bees. Hives that feel like they do not have the space to grow and expand will want to naturally divide themselves. They will raise “swarm cells,” and will leave with the old queen, letting the new queen be born and take over the existing hive. This is how hives naturally multiply in the wild. It is called the swarm impulse.

The importance of royal jelly

We graft larva into cell cups and place them into the queenless/packed hives. The bees accept the graft as it is their only option for raising new queens – we removed all of their other choices.

There are three types of bees in the hive: worker bee, drone and queen.

Worker bees are girl bees and comprise the majority of the hive population. They are from a fertilized egg.

Drones are boys. They do not make up a large percentage of the hive population. They are from an unfertilized egg.

There is typically just one queen bee per hive, and she is born from a fertilized egg. The queen bee and the worker bee are genetically the same, but turn into different types of bee based on the diet that they are fed as a larva. The worker bees know what to feed the larva based on the size of the cell the larva is placed into. Queens are fed a diet of purely royal jelly and worker bees are fed royal jelly for the first few days, then eat “bee bread,” a honey and pollen mixture.

We use a tool to gently pick up the recently hatched worker bee larva and lay it down in a plastic queen cup, the same size and shape as the cell that a queen larva would be found in. The larva is about the size of a comma. We have to be very graceful and gentle in this task, as the larva is very sensitive and easily damaged. By doing this, we are changing the course of the little worker bee’s life. She will now grow up to be a queen.

We place 120 recently grafted cells into the queenless hive. The worker bees begin raising them as queen bees.

Reversing

After two days, we perform a task called “reversing,” which reintroduces the old queen in the hive. We do this with a “queen excluder.” It is like a queen fence – worker bees can travel through it, but the queen cannot. This allows us to keep the grafted cells separate from the queen. If she were to be near the cells, she would destroy them, as she only wants one queen in the hive.

Now we just count down until the queen cell hatches. We remove the cells from the hive before they hatch (day 11 after placing in the hive). If one cell were to hatch before the others, the virgin queen who would emerge would kill all of the other future queens.

We raise around 2,000 queen cells a day. Customers pick up their cells and place them into the new hives that they are making.

February/March tasks

When we had a warm spell in Minnesota, Travis flew back and checked on our hives. All hives are heavy with honey and have big populations. He could not find a dead hive, so we are anticipating high survival.

We have seen an uptick in sales of our Minnesota-hardy hives as beekeepers have been checking to see if their hives survived. We bought a new (to us) truck before we left for Texas, with only 60,000 miles on it, a Dodge 5500 with a hemi gas engine. B&D Welding in Hubbard did a wonderful job creating a custom aluminum 14 ft. flatbed for us.

Travis Bolton is a 2001 Park Rapids High School graduate. Chiara’s interest in honeybees began on the Tibetan Plateau, where she lived for five years. The couple has a honey house in Menahga and hives in Sebeka, Akeley, Midway and around the Twin Cities. Bolton Bees can be reached at www.boltonbees.com or boltonbees@gmail.com.