MEXICO: Making Royalty - Rearing Apis Queens
Updated: May 7
APIS MELLIFERA IN SOUTHERN MEXICO
I’m new to beekeeping, there’s no denying that. I know enough to convince experts to talk with me, but also spend a lot of time sitting with the uncomfortable place of not knowing what is going on – with bees, with cultures, with languages. I’ve been an expert in entrepreneurship for awhile, so this inquiry into global bee practices is about leaving my comfort zone to try to understand. It’s awkward, and I fumble. All of my hosts have been beyond kind.
Spending the past week at ECOSUR, I’ve been surrounded with a dozen different kinds of bee expertise – from honey experts to climate change modelers to economic analysts on propolis to people who dissolve queens in solution to extract and analyze their pheromones. There’s a lot. Like really a lot. I have more questions than when I arrived.
(Above L-R: Mosaic at ECOSUR Bee Lab, Omar with honey from his hives, native amaranth near the apiary)
When I was invited to “graft queens” I had to admit that I had no idea what Omar was talking about. Omar Argüello Nájera has nearly 40 years of bee experience and a diverse set of interests so it could mean just about anything.
DAY 1 - GRAFTING THE LARVAE
“Since I was little I have been related to the world of bees,” Omar explains, as his father was a beekeeper in the small town of Las Rosas, Chiapas. Omar graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics of the Autonomous University of Chiapas, and worked for the State of Chiapas in the beekeeping office (that exists!). Now at ECOSUR in the Abejas team, he’s an expert technician supporting research projects on bee pathology, Varroa mites, bee genetics, hygienic behavior of bees, and so much more.
His current work is making royalty -- artificially rearing queens of apis mellifera honeybee larvae. Today we were moving 30 minuscule white larva into artificial “queen cups” to manipulate the hive into growing them into queens.
A few days ago, Omar opened one of two dozen hives in the ECOSUR apiary and removed the queen. A colony without a queen will not last long, as the adult bees naturally die off, and will not have any new eggs to replace. With her pheromones missing, the colony has had a few days to feel her loss and to start coming up with Plan B for a replacement queen.
As a “eusocial” unit of bees, only the queen lays eggs, and the overlapping generations of other bee colony members share responsibilities and engage in group decision-making for a happy, successful home. So together, they need the queen to do her one job of laying eggs, and other worker bees will do the rest.
When the queen is missing, the female workers get to task in replacing her, by creating an “emergency” queen. In the center of the brood comb, the workers will create an extra large cell, aptly called an “emergency queen cell” around up to 20 eggs that the missing queen had already laid. When the eggs hatch into larvae, the workers will feed these little white specks a rich puddle of royal jelly, the highly nutritious liquid that will develop these larvae into future queens. When the queens hatch, only one virgin queen will reign, and she will kill any remaining rivals.
By removing the queen from the healthy hive a few days ago, Omar has triggered the bees’ sensibilities that they need to start making more mommas. But instead of building a queen cell around an egg in their hive, Omar is intervening by planting 30 plastic queen cells, each seeded with 1 to 3 day-old larvae from another hive that we will hand select and “graft” into these plastic cups.
We suit up, get the smoker going, and take stock of the options.
First Omar inspects the queen-less receiving hive, ensuring that they are ready as the incubator he intended them to be, removing any naturally formed emergency queen cells that had developed in the past few days. Plying the hive with smoke, we do our best to keep them calm. These bees are definitely not happy, missing their queen has them in a state of agitation, and soon our veils are dive-bombed by guard bees.
Next we move to another healthy hive that Omar has already identified as having quality larvae. Moving frame by frame in the hive, Omar admires the sea of capped older brood of this hive. He selects a frame that has enough young larvae to transfer to the queen cups. We move far away from both hives, with the guard bees from that first testy hive trailing us down the hill.
On the pine needle forest floor, hiding from the bees behind some trees and the ECOSUR truck, we take off our veils and pick up the larvae transfer tools. Omar has fashioned a tool that works best for him – a small spoon on a curved stainless steel neck, attached to a syringe handle. There are a few options, various thicknesses, curves, and technologies, including the “Chinese tool” with a wispy flap instead of the bowl of a spoon. These all look like dentist’s plaque scraper.
Mounting the line of plastic queen cups to the larvae frame, Omar begins to scoop larvae from cells, lifting them gently from underneath with a little drop of accompanying royal jelly. He places the sticky larvae into the center of the plastic queen cup, and slides the spoon back out from underneath the babe. This method, called dry grafting, doesn’t add any additional royal jelly to the larvae other than what is on the spoon, so Omar covers them with a leather glove so they won’t get chilled or dry out while he continues to work.
Once all 30 cups are filled, Omar fits the three bars of cups snugly into a slotted frame. My one row took about five times as long as Omar’s to fill. I scooped an egg. I scooped an empty cell. I poked through the cell bottom. I scooped larvae that were too old. But I started to get the hang of it, right as I was coming to the end of my 10 cells.
And we made our way back up to the apiary to offer these little larvae in their fresh cups to the queenless hive. We'll check back in a few days to see how they take...
DAY 3 - CHECKING THE CUPS
It's the moment of truth - how successful were we with the placement of the larvae. Omar greets me at the ECOSUR lab with a small bottle of homemade hidromielera (honey wine), and I'm not sure if I will be drinking in celebration or in cold comfort.
Omar learned queen rearing through university books, as it's an uncommon practice among rural beekeepers. In his first attempts, decades ago, he successfully reared two or three queens. My goal is set at achieving one successful transfer. We'll know if the larvae have been accepted as potential queens based on the wax comb extensions that they will build around the edges of the plastic cups we started with.
Same routine: suit up, start the smoker, open the hives.
Omar pulls up the frame that was fitted with 30 larvae in plastic cups, and leans in to see if the workers have started to build wax around them. Omar's counting his two bars - a perfect 10 out of 10 on each. We count my bar, and I'm beaming from the success of six successful larva grafts.
(Above: the moment of truth! Video of seeing which larvae were successfully adopted by the workers as potential queens.)
One cup has significantly less wax, perhaps where a larvae may have died a day after the transfer. The workers are smart enough to know not to waste their wax - a highly taxing production from slits on the workers' abdomens.
Omar smokes the bees again to encourage them down into the other frames of honey, and then smokes his bare hand before gently brushing away the workers with his fingers. A bee stinger pierces his wrist, and he neither mentions it nor flinches. Omar pulls off a queen cup, stuck like a thumbtack into the wood bar, so I can see what the larvae look like. In the two days since we transferred these, they have tripled in size, and now they look like plump white crescents, puddled into equally white pools of royal jelly. It's both gross and awesome. In the same way that he shielded the young larvae from temperatures on the transfer day, Omar leans forward to shade these larger delicate larva from the mid-afternoon sun.
(Above: close up video of the inside of a queen larva)
In a few days, Omar will return to the apiary to move each queen cup yet again. With 16 days from egg to hatched queens, their next step for the larvae will be full enclosure in a wax cup, which is dimpled and puckered like a peanut shell. They'll grow as pupae, and as the new queens hatch from the cells, they will seek out any unhatched rival queens and pierce their wax bubble, killing the sister queen inside. Unlike workers, a queen's stinger isn't barbed, so she can sting repeatedly, moving from cell to cell until all the new queens have been killed. Instead, Omar will intervene one more time to move each enclosed queen pupa to a small round mesh cage, keeping her out of reach from her sisters.
(Above L-R: fully enclosed queen pupae, image from GlennAparies.com; Omar's queen apartment with individual mesh units for each solo queen, close up of the same.)
Each queen will hatch alone, unable to reach the others. But the workers, who feed and clean the queen, will have access to each queen in her individual apartment through the mesh, replicating the relationship they would have with a queen if she was free to move around a colony.
In this way, Omar and the ECOSUR team will have 26 perfect queens to transfer to colonies with ailing or aggressive queens to improve the genetics of the next generation, to use queens for artificial insemination studies, or to be explored further for research on the magic language of queen pheromones.
I leave Chiapas tomorrow for travel back to the US, and in ten days, I'll raise a glass of honey wine to toast the new royalty.