Cell Building: A Personal View

Cell Building: A Personal View

Writtenby David Yanke the early 1990’s

There are almost as many different ways to build cells as there are Queen Rearers. The differences may be subtle or substantial, but each different system is only a variation on a theme because the biological basics of cell building are carved in stone and must be adhered to.

These basics are: 1) Both workers and Queens develop from fertilised eggs which hatch 3 days after they are laid; 2) The developmental path a newly hatched larvae takes depends on the feeding regime that larvae receives during the first 72 hours of its larval life, or put more simply, that up until a larvae is 3 days old it can still be reared to become a morphological Queen, however there is evidence that the divergence of Queen and worker characteristics begins soon after a larvae hatches; 3) The larvae are fed royal jelly which consists of secretions of the hypopharyngeal and the salivary glands of nurse bees, and the composition of the royal jelly varies depending on the age of the larvae and its’ developmental pathway; 4) The Queen cell is provisioned by nurse bees for only 4 days before it is sealed.

After considering the basics, it seems logical that to produce Queens of excellent physiological quality we have to ensure that the royal larvae are well fed from the moment they hatch, and that they are fed the right food at the right time. It seems simple enough, but developing a cell building system which will consistently and continuously produce high quality queens is anything but.

I will try my best to describe the system of cell building I use, and explain why I do what I do. Good cell building depends on several things being done properly, and the first is ensuring that you have good breeding stock to work with. The breeder must be carefully selected. Without a good breeder, it is much more difficult no matter what your cell building system to produce any uniformity in your cell quality. As far as the nurse bees are concerned all young larvae are not created equal. I quite often see examples of this when I am doing the cell building for the genetic improvement group. I do 2 large grafts with 12 different breeders used in each graft. Cell quality varies remarkably and apart from the normal expected variations there are sometimes dramatic differences which are breeder specific. Another example came up last year when I bought in some Queens to meet my Canadian numbers. The beekeeper used one breeder I supplied him with and another less carefully selected breeder. The differences were sadly dramatic. The good breeder gave lovely, uniformly big, yellow Queens while the other threw daughters which were all over the place, but usually much smaller and dark tipped.

Next, your breeders must be managed so that they provide you with more then enough well fed larvae of the proper age for grafting. I do this by confining the breeders I am using and giving them a washed out frame 96 hours before I will be grafting from them. I graft every second day, and use 2 breeders at any one time. This means that I use each breeder every 4 days (96 hours). After I am finished each graft I quickly wash out the frame with a garden hose, and return it to the space it came out of in the confined compartment in the breeder unit. In the past I have confined the breeder to an excluded 3 frame compartment in the centre of the single box breeder unit. The washed out frame went into the centre of the three frames. The other two frames are moved periodically outside the excluded compartment when layed out and replaced with a frame of emerging brood as a way of maintaining sufficient brood area in the unit to keep it at its’ target strength. Now, I just exclude the Breeder to one half of a 3/4 depth unit. A cut to size section of steel excluder with a wooden top bar is used as a divide. One side has 3 frames and a feeder, and the other side has 5 frames- the washed out frame is placed 1 frame in from the excluder. Doing it this way has done away with the need to so actively manage the strength of the unit. It seems to maintain itself more or less, and the degree of confinement is still sufficient to ensure heaps of quality graftable larvae. I believe it is important to put some effort into the breeding units. As I pointed out back in the basics, there is evidence that caste divergence may begin soon after hatching. If you don’t have more then enough well-fed, proper aged larvae to graft from, and have to spend extra time hunting around for larvae that are almost the right age- then the cells that result from that graft will never be all they could have been.

I graft at night which might seem odd, but with so many other things to be done during daylight hours it seemed logical to do the grafting which is indoor work at night. I keep the 2 breeding units indoors (I used to keep them outside under a bright halogen light), and the confined starter units are inside as well so the fact that it is dark outside when I graft is only incidental. I graft into wax coated plastic ‘Bozi’ cups. I have done trials with Ceracell’s Buzco cups. Straight out of the box they perform as well as the wax coated Bozi cups, and in fact they had a slightly higher average pupal weight then the Bozi’s. I still don’t use them because: 1) they are ‘stubbier’ then the Bozi cups which makes them harder for my stubby fingers to get off the bars; 2) They can not handle boiling, so if you want to reuse them you have to clean them up using chemical cleaners. I clean the cups up in a boiling cauldron of half water and half wax with the cups in a deep frying chips basket. The cups are immersed and swished around, and then drained using some banging and fancy wrist action, and then spilled out onto an excluder. The cups are ‘conditioned’ by slipping them into a finisher for about 6 hours before I graft. I graft using a brush which I wash in alcohol and rinse in water before each graft. The temperature of the grafting room is not important, and the room certainly does not need to be heated. It is important though to make sure that the grafted larvae are not damaged by drying out. As soon as I complete a bar of cells I place it under a very damp towel while I graft the second bar. The 2 bars are then slotted into the frame and I walk into the next room and drop the frame into the starter unit. The bees are quiet in the darkish room and no smoke is needed when you lift the lid on these units to drop the graft in. I continue on with graft until all 12 bars have been grafted. I then wash out the frame I have been grafting from and return it to the breeding unit. Queens seem to love to jump onto washed out frames, so if you are doing one-off grafts select a good brood frame which is well layed out with open brood (eggs and young larvae) then wash it out with a garden hose (I know it seems wasteful but it is the price you have to pay to get all the graftable larvae you need) and give it to the breeder 96 hours before the graft. Make sure the breeding unit is strong and well fed remembering that cell building begins when the egg hatches.

Cell building terminology has divided the 4 days nurse bees have to provision larvae destined to become Queens into 2 periods- the first 24 hours or so is referred to as ‘starting’ and the rest ‘finishing’. I believe the following is a truism- if cells are poorly started then no matter how good the finishers are they will never amount to much. So it is safe to say that the starting period is by far the most critical period. Your starters must do the job or the job will not be done. There are 2 basic types of starters: Queenless Free Flying, and Queenless Confined Starters (Swarmboxes). Another truism is that Confined Starters are the best starters (not the easiest but the best if excellent physiological Queen quality is the main selection criteria). I use a type of modified swarm box which is kept in an air conditioned room which maintains a temperature of 20 degrees centigrade, and that means that it doesn’t matter whether it is Spring, Summer or Fall , the conditions are always the same for the swarm boxes- and I think that is important. The swarm boxes are shaken last thing before I knock off for supper. The graft goes into them at least 2 hours later. The norm is to move the cells into the finishers after 24 hours. But I figure that after going through all the effort to produce this perfect starting environment why only let them do the job for 24 hours. I have extended the starting period to almost 48 hours. That leaves the finishers to only finish off the feeding, seal the cells and incubate them until they are moved to the incubator.

Now for the difficult bit- explaining how I manage my cell builders. It would be a lot easier if you could just look over my shoulder for a few minutes as I worked the cell builders. I manage my finishers the same way I manage my starters (swarm box donors). The cell builders are managed in 4 groups- 4 groups of Starters and 4 groups of Finishers. There are twice as many finishers as there are starters because a unit starts approximately twice as many cells as a unit finishes. Determining how many cells to ask you cell builders to have to contend with is the tricky bit. You have to aim for the highest possible physiological quality commercial practicalities will let you achieve). Because I graft every second day, it means I work and use each group of cell builders once every 8 days. I work the cell builders, be they starters or finishers, 24 hours before they get cells to start or finish. I use only 3/4 depth equipment in my outfit. My cell builders are a 4 box unit. The bottom box sits on S/S mesh bottom boards with restricted entrances. This bottom box is filled with wired empty frames (no foundation). It is a place for the old field bees to hang out. The cell builders are kept very strong, and this bottom box helps prevent bees having to hang outside during hot, humid weather. It also means that there is a better age balance of bees in the second box. This second box is the box where the Queen is excluded to. The third box above the excluder has youngish brood and the fourth box has older and emerging brood. So there are 2 boxes above the excluder and 2 boxes below (1 being a box of empty frames, except for the wires). The excluder is wooden rimed with a small entrance on the top side to allow drones to escape and fresh pollen to come directly into the third box. I manage the cell builders using a box rotation with the boxes being rotated once every 8 days. When I approach a cell builder to work it the situation is- the seconds box with the Queen has brood ranging from eggs to larvae almost 5 days old. The third box (just above the excluder) has brood ranging in age from 5 days old larvae to pupae only 6 days from hatching. The top box (fourth box) has older and emerging brood. This top box will become the new home for the Queen after some rearranging to make it an ideal brood nest for her, and it is placed in the second position. The box that was in the second position is moved immediately above the excluder. The box that was in the third position becomes the top box. So when I walk away from the cell builder, the Queen is in heaven walking over frames of older and emerging brood with lots of open feed. Queens seem to prefer laying into cells from which bees have just emerged, and this is really evident in Autumn, when as the Queens are starting to shut down you can only get them to lay over emerging brood. The situation in the cell builder now sees all the young brood above the excluder which means that after the dust has settled for 24 hours and it is time for that unit to go to work as a cell builder then all the nurse bees should be above the excluder as well. The top box has only older sealed brood which is important when the unit is used as a swarm box donor and those frames in the top box becomes part of the modified swarm box (more on that later).

Because I chose to use only 3/4 depth equipment, I was forced to go with a 3 box cell builder, not including the bottom box of empty frames. With full depth equipment, a 2 box unit is probably enough. With 3 boxes to manage, box rotation became a logical choice of management technique. It is more labour intensive, and means finding the Queen each time you work the cell builder. I mark all the Queens in the cell builders. I think box rotation for me is worth the effort, because it has allowed me a system using 3/4 depth equipment which maintains very strong cell building units by maximising brood area. With the box rotation, you have feed rotation also going on. When that top box is moved into the the second position below the excluder, a lot of open feed goes down with it, which the bees duly haul back up again. This along with the ongoing feeding regime is very stimulative.

The modified swarm box system I use to start the cells is also to a degree a consequence of my decision to use 3/4 depth equipment. 3/4 depth equipment when used in the brood nest tends to flatten the brood nest. Bees prefer the brood nest to be in 3 dimensions more the shape of a hot air balloon. Wanting to give the bees what they want I came up with a jumbo cell bar frame which reaches down through two 3/4’s. This jumbo cell bar frame takes 3 bars, but I only put cell cups on the top 2 bars with the bottom bar being a blank. Each swarm box is made up with spaces left to take 2 of these frames. The modified swarm box is made up of a base unit which is a 3/4 box built with a 150mm deep screened area added and fixed under it. It is actually only screened on the sides of the 150mm deep area- the ends and bottom are solid for structural reasons. I shake the modified swarm box by placing the base unit on a stand beside the swarm box donor colony which was worked the day before and now has; all the nurse bees above excluder, only sealed brood in the top box, and is bursting with bees. I remove the lid and find a feeder and 9 frames in the top box. I remove an outside frame of pollen which I had put there yesterday when I worked it and place it in the centre of the base unit. Leaving a slot on either side of this central pollen frame I move 4 more outer frames from the top box over to the base unit- 2 on each side. So what I have is 5 frames in the base unit, made up of a centred pollen frame with a slot on each side of it and 2 frames on the outside of each of these slots. I then place the top box onto the base unit so it becomes a 2 box unit. The top box has a feeder and 4 frames left in it. I put in another feeder, and place 1 feeder against each wall. I split up the remaining 4 frames with 2 next to each feeder. I go down into the 3 box which has all the open brood in it and remove an outside pollen which had also been placed there the day before. I put this pollen frame into the centre of the top box. The swarm box is now 2 boxes high with 5 frames in the bottom box, and 2 feeders and 5 frames in the top, and with 2 spaces on each side of the central pollen frame that go down right through both boxes. I then shake the bees off the remaining 9 frames of the third box into the swarm box. I replace the lid on the donor colony which is now only 3 boxes high and move the swarm box into an air conditioned room1. I fill the feeders (4 litres) and place 2 smallish patties of pollen substitute on the top bars on each side of the slots, and put a lid on it. The swarm box sits for at least 2 hours before the graft is given to it. 2 jumbo depth frames each with 2 bars of grafted cells are dropped into the spaces left on each side of the pollen frame. The swarm boxes then sit doing their thing for the next 46 hours when the cells are moved to the finishers, and the swarm boxes are given back to their donor colonies reversing the procedure I used to make them up.

Cell finishing while not as important as cell starting still requires due care and attention. Cell building like a chain is only as strong as its’ weakest link. The finishers as long as they do an adequate job have little bearing on the physiological quality of the future Queens because I believe that has already been mostly predetermined in the starting period, but they are mostly responsible for the final appearance of the cells. Cell appearance is not always a good indicator of what inside. You can get some mighty Queens emerging from some very average looking cells, and some very average Queens out of mighty fine looking cells. While it is the contents not the packaging that is important, it is very satisfying for the Queen rearer to produce beautiful big cells. To do this, you need your finishers working well, and you need not to work them too hard. Cell finishers are almost always Queenright units with the cells finished above an excluder. Cell finishing does not require total Queenlessness, just the pheromone baffling affect of the Queen excluder. My finishers, as I said earlier, are managed exactly the same as the starters, except that a central slot is left down through both the boxes above the excluder to take a single jumbo frame of 2 bars of started cells (about 24 cells). The feeding regime I use with finishers can vary depending on the flow or lack of it, but in the situation where there is no flow or just a trickle I feed the finishers 24 hours before the started cells go in, feed again when the cells are given, and again 24 hours later. A patty of pollen substitute on the top bars is always present. I manage the finishers so that they are given 2 bars of cells to finish every 8 days. That means that they are asked to actively feed and build cells for approximately 2 days and then incubate those cells for another 5 days. More commonly finishers are managed so that smaller numbers of cells are given progressively, which means you would give the finisher 1 bar to finish and when those cells are sealed then another bar would be given. If a 3 day rotation was used then as the third bar was given the first would be removed and placed in the incubator. I believe in the presence of brood pheromones, and believe that the bees will not finish cells as well in the presence of older sealed cells.

My cells leave the cell builders on the afternoon of their ninth day from grafting, and are held in the incubator until they are put out on the morning of the eleventh day from grafting. I believe it is best to wait until just before emergence to put the cells out because the-about-to-emerge Queens are much more robust and less fragile then they are on day ten. I guess this probably brings us to a logical end point before we get into nuc management and another whole story. Besides I have probably rambled on far too long already.