Another picture from last summer, although this one was taken indoors:
Beekeepers habitually replace the queen in their hives every or every other year, as colonies with young queens are often more productive and less likely to swarm. To do this, you obviously need to raise and mate new queens under controlled circumstances. Me and my father don’t own any breeding stock, nor do we have a mating station (usually an island where you can easily control the bee population and make sure only drones from breeding stocks are available to mate with your young queens) or whatever is needed for artificial insemination (where you simply take the sperm of drones from good stock and insert it into your queen). So last year as we first embarked on the exciting new task of raising queens for our own use, we did it with larvae very helpfully donated from a local professional beekeeper with lovely breeding stock, whom we normally buy our queens from.
It seems all people who keep pets as a serious, involved hobby end up doing some form of breeding, sooner or later. And strangely enough, it’s just as amazing with bees as it is with kittens or budgies. Here’s how we do it: We choose very young larvae from a queen of good stock and move them carefully with the help of a small paintbrush from their cells to special plastic cups. Then we put the cups in a box of bees that have been isolated from their queen for a while and hence in the mood to raise new queens. After they have started feeding the larvae and build waxen walls on the cups, we can put them back into their hive, which will then take care of the larvae. When they are old enough to be capped, we take them out of the hive, put a small cage around each capped cell, and put them in an incubator.
Finally the queens hatch, usually within the space of 24 hours. [ETA: I meant that all the cells hatch simultaneously, not that it takes 24 hours for a capped cell to hatch. The pupa stadium is rather longer than that.] Newborn queens, like all young bees, are adorable to look at; slightly clumsy in the beginning but quickly picking up speed as they investigate their surroundings, with thick, fuzzy fur covering their head and thorax. The queen above has just been marked with a small plastic tag, which is a bit more advanced than the regular method of simply painting the back of the thorax. A colour code is used to know what year a queen is born (last year was yellow, this season it will be red). As you can see, the queen in the picture was not at all interested in being photographed - although queens that young are unlikely to try to fly away, they’re very, very fast.
Once the queens have hatched, they can either be introduced to a new hive (after removing the old queen), which will then have no fertile queen for a while, or they can be put in a “miniature” hive with just enough bees to get by, until they have mated and have started laying eggs. Mating can be dangerous and may result in the queen never coming home, which is why you don’t want to introduce an unmated queen to a fully working hive unless you have no other choice. Our queens are allowed to mate with whatever drones prowl the area, but a queen with a pure-bred mother can mate with wild bees and still produce very good-natured and gentle offspring. The next generation of bees however, if you allow them to swarm or try to breed new queens from the freely mated queen’s larvae, will not be as nice to work with.