Queen Production Viability to generate Honeybee nucleus colonies for overwintering success in the Midwest

Progress report for FNC23-1399

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Wayne Honey Farm
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Mitchel Wayne
Wayne Honey Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

I as a beekeeper of 10 years, am able to keep colonies in the northern United States year round. For the past nine years I have been grafting and raising queens with great success. I know how to build host colonies for the queen cells along with building and managing nucs, created throughout our summer, and successfully manage those nucs into the following year.
Currently I am running around 40 hives for honey production and 50 nucs for wintering. I will be providing the honey bees needed for experiment along with a large portion of equipment that I currently own.


With the ever increasing cost of bees, what is the best method for hobby or small-scale beekeepers to succeed and not succumb to the ever rising costs of winter losses in northern beekeeping? Costs combined with the timing of honey flow and queen rearing in northern climates often drives beekeepers to spend even more to complete a spring split of overwintered colonies by ordering queens reared in southern states or wait for local mated queens to become available and drastically split their colony to ensure that the queen has enough resources to overwinter. In my research, I will test if virgin queens perform as well as queen cells for earlier splitting of colonies. I will also further improve my process for introducing virgin queens. Queen cells, in small quantities, are hard to ship and are very time sensitive due to the age of the cells required for shipping viability and risk of cells hatching. Virgins are also sensitive to time but are able to be shipped and installed with less risk and handling is more similar to that of mated queens. Small-scale beekeepers need data and guidance to understand how to use minimal resources to prevent, replace, increase, or boosting weak colonies.

Project Objectives:

Some helpful beekeeping terminology referenced in this report:

Build up additional nucleus colonies (nucs)- A nuc is a small colony of 4 to 5 frames consisting of the queen and bees. I plan to build mine up to 8 (4x4) or 12 (4x4x4) frames total.

Open brood- Eggs and pupa and adhering bees which will cover 2/3-3/4 frame.

Frame of capped brood-  is 1 deep frame with with about 2/3-3/4 of it with capped brood and  adhering bees. Capped brood which is when the larva is capped and turns into a pupa.

Resource frame- is a frame honey and pollen on the frame.

Marking the Queen-  beekeepers mark the queen with a paint marker on the thorax which is to identify the year the queen was mated

In my research I will be using the nuc configuration of 4x4 or 4x4x4 to winter in. Past small trials revealed that when you start nuc colonies too early the colonies will want to swarm in the 4x4 but if I move them to 4x4x4 it reduces the pressure and they overwinter well. I am planning to create three groups of nuc colonies, approximately 2 weeks apart, containing two subject groups of 20 nucs created using virgin queens and 20 nucs created using queen cells. The reason for 3 groups is if we have a weather event or mother nature issues I will still get some data. Hatches of birds or even dragon flies can cause issues with queen mating.  With a 75% success rate I am hoping that the groups will end up with 30 viable colonies.  I will be looking at the queen viability rate and building of those colonies throughout the summer, through winter and the subsequent summer. The virgin queens will be marked and the cells will not be marked at the time of nuc creation but following mating the queens from the queen cells will be marked. I will be able to tell if the queens in the queen cell created nucs are from the cells by timing my check back of the queens through the age of the brood in the colony. As the nucs build, treatment for mites will be completed at the appropriate time(s).


The first group will be made up with 1 frame of capped brood, 1/2 frame open brood, 1 frame of recourses, and 1 new frame. 

The second group will be made up with 1.5 frame of capped brood, 1 frame open brood, and 1 frame of recourses. 

The third group will be made up with 2 frame of capped brood, 1-1.5 frame open brood, and 1 frame of recourses. 

The second box on all the hives will be 2 new frames and 2 drawn frames. If a 3rd box is need it will be depend on what resources I have available.  I would prefer to give them at least 2-4 frames of drawn comb if available.  They will need to be fed up to weight for winter which is about 70-75# for a 4x4 and 90-100# for a 4x4x4.  

The objective of the study is to find out if the use of virgin queens is equivalent or and improvement on the use of queen cells. At this current point of time it is not economical to ship queen cells in small quantities. Beekeepers are able to ship virgins in the same manner as shipping mated queens which would allow for small to medium scale beekeepers to ship queens from northern colonies regionally. This in turn helps hobby beekeepers minimize their expenses and maintain hearty genetics.  I intend to share findings through presentations and social media.   


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Materials and methods:

Grafting for queen production began in May of 2023 and the first round of nucleus colonies were made at the end of May.  From each round of grafts, cells were either placed in nucleus colonies directly or into an incubator where they hatched, were marked, and then placed into nucleus colonies at two days old. Round four was an exception to the graft schedule as the virgins were never placed from the graft due to beekeeper error. 

The first round of nucleus colonies was made with one frame of brood (approximately both side of the frame having large hand portion of capped brood), one frame of feed, one frame of eggs and larvae, and one open frame of comb for storage, along with a shake of extra bees from a parent colony frame due to the cool nights. The cells were placed with cage protectors on them. The virgins were placed with the candy covered for 5 days, on day 5 the nuc was inspected for queen cells which were destroyed if found and the cover was removed from the candy. The second and third round was made with one to one and a half frames of brood (approximately both side of the frame having large hand side of capped brood), one frame of feed, one frame of eggs and larvae, and a one frame of comb for storage. The fourth and fifth round were made with one and a half to two frames of brood (approximately both sides of the frame having large hand side of capped brood), one frame of feed, one frame of eggs and larvae, and one frame of comb for storage. When the nucleus colonies had been made for 18 to 20 days there is a minimal amount of capped brood and the colonies were treated with OA (Oxalic Acid) Dribble to minimize mite levels in the colonies.

Research results and discussion:

The objective of my study is to find out if the use of virgin queens is equivalent or an improvement on the use of queen cells.  For 2023, the queen cells the acceptance rate was 84% and for the virgins the acceptance rate was 63%. The acceptance rate for queen cells was in in the normal range for what I have seen in my operation in previous years. I had expected the take on virgin queens to be in the same range, but their acceptance was 20% lower than queen cells.

Why the difference? Here are a few theories:

  • The last 2 rounds of virgin queens were released earlier than 5 days due to a scheduling conflict and a few virgin queens were found dead in the queen cages during check back; which could have been due to missed queen cells or other factors. 

By the end of August, most of the colonies were able to grow and were made up of two nuc boxes. Some made a third nuc box due to an amazing fall flow and a small amount of them made a fourth nuc box. In September, when I weighed the double nucs they were between 45 and 60 pounds and were fed syrup to be between 65 and 73 pounds.  The triples weighed 65 to 75 pounds and were fed syrup to be between 95 and 100 pounds. Overall, the bees looked good going into winter. I did mite washes on the colonies and the mite levels were at 0-1%.  In late October they were treated with one round of Oxalic Acid Vaporization (OAV).

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Due to the time line of this project, much of my outreach will be in 2024. I plan to present findings and beginning February 2024, I will start my sharing of my data.

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

I have learned that there are some issues that are need to be worked thru with using virgin queens. Is it a handling issue or mother nature? My plan is to buy in 1 or 2 groups of virgin queens as I have found someone that I can purchase them from.  

There is more information to come.

Project Outcomes

1 New working collaboration
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.