Farmers rear queen honeybees to sell to beekeepers nationwide.
By Ann Kaiser
The honey is sweet, but the buzz is all about queen bees at Sheri and David Burns’ Long Lane Honey Bee Farms. “We started raising queen honey bees five years ago and now sell about 150 a week to other beekeepers, mostly hobbyists,” Sheri says. “We can’t keep up with the demand.”
The air is thick with honeybees as Sheri opens a hive in their honey bee yard near Fairmount, Illinois. They bump against my veil, which makes me a little nervous. But we’re in search of the queen, and I’m not about to chicken out….
8:30 a.m. On this warm spring morning, the honey bees are already flying in pollen to the Burnses’ 100 hives. Sheri outfits me in a bee suit and safari hat with veil. David, a master beekeeper, lights the smoker filled with crushed newspaper and sawdust.
“Squeeze the bellows to puff some smoke along the hive landing board,” instructs Sheri. “The smoke calms the honey bees so we can work them more easily.” I direct more smoke under the cover as she lifts it to reveal the colony, humming with activity.
We’re looking for the queen. Sheri shows me how to loosen the sticky frames with a metal hive tool and lift them out one by one for inspection. Myriad bees cover the frames, heavy with nectar in six-sided wax cells. “There she is,” says Sheri, pointing to a blanket of bees crawling on top of one another. “Do you see her? She’s bigger than the others.” I focus through my veil and finally spot the queen bee.
But I’m thrown off guard when they want me to catch her. My hands are shaking as I take off my gloves. “Queen bees rarely sting people, so don’t worry about that,” Sheri says. “Grab her wings and set her on your left forefinger.” Holding my breath, I pinch her royal wings and lift the queen bee from the swarm.
Queenie wants to crawl. “Hold down her back legs with your thumb so she can’t get away, then release her wings,” David coaches. (He teaches beekeeping and queen-rearing classes.) “Now use this pen to put a dot on her thorax, just behind her head. We mark queen bees so they’re easy to spot.” I dot her back, gently push the queen into a tiny cage—and exhale. I did it!
Dusting Off Bees
9:30 a.m. Rounding up queen bees for sale is the end of the process, Sheri says. “Let’s start at the beginning so you’ll understand how we raise them. In an active hive, there is only one queen bee, and she lays thousands of eggs in brood frames to replace worker bees, which live for about a month. We collect larvae 1 or 2 days old and graft the larvae to produce queen bees.”
Sheri, David and daughter Karee check hives for frames with larvae at that early stage. Before we take the frames inside for grafting, I brush off hundreds of bees, using a large, stiff turkey feather. Most of them fall gently onto the open hive and crawl back in. Others orbit my head.
Three of the Burnses’ six children are still at home: Karee, 20, a seasoned bee handler; Seth, 17, who helps build bee hives to sell; and Christian, 3, who knows to ride his tricycle away from the bee yard. We graft in a small outbuilding that’s also used as a classroom and small retail store. Wearing a magnifying visor, I beam a flashlight into the brood cells in search of tiny, wormlike larvae.
“Slip the grafting tool under the larva and lift it out,” Sheri instructs. I fish for one with the instrument’s flexible, spoon-shaped tip. It’s tricky, but after several failed attempts, I maneuver a few minuscule larvae into queen bee cups. The small plastic cups are set into wooden bars that fit into a hive frame.
11:30 a.m. In the bee yard, we place the grafts in starter hives. “To set these up, we remove the colony’s queen bee,” Sheri explains. “The bees then go to town, making all of these grafts queens by putting copious amounts of royal jelly into the cells.” After a day or so in the starter hive, the grafts develop to pupa stage in a regular hive, in an area the reigning queen—which, like all queen bees, can be aggressive toward rivals—can’t reach.
12:30 p.m. We take a break for spinach salad with chicken, feta, sunflower kernels and citrus-honey dressing, accompanied by banana honey muffins. Yum! Check Sheri’s Sweet Life blog, sheriburns.blogspot.com, for some of her great honey recipes, as well as free online lessons in how to get started keeping bees.
1:30 p.m. Here they come again, the bees must be thinking. We go out to collect grafts near the end of their 16-day cycle—a preventive measure. “If you let the grafted queen bees hatch together in a hive, the first one out will kill all the other queen bees in their cells,” Sheri says.
2 p.m. Back inside, we place each graft atop a bee cage. The pupa hangs from the plastic cup in a wax cell that looks like a tiny morel mushroom. I see some wiggling as we put them into an incubator. When she emerges in a day or two, the queen bee will fall into the cage.
“We put each new queen bee into a queenless hive to mate and begin laying eggs,” Sheri adds. “In two to three weeks, she’s ready for sale.”
2:30 p.m. We’re shipping 35 queen bees today, each with four attendants. “The queen bee doesn’t like to feed herself, so we select a few young worker bees to travel with her,” Karee explains. The tiny cages are sealed with a plug of “candy,” a doughy mixture of granulated sugar, powdered sugar and water. I hear squealing: The queen bees instinctively sense rivals nearby.
The price for a queen bee and her court is $28. “Considering all the work involved, that’s a bargain,” I comment, while punching airholes in courier envelopes and stamping “Rush—Live Bees” on Priority Mail boxes. From late April through October, postal employees and the UPS man know to expect precious cargo from Long Lane Honey Bee Farms.
4:30 p.m. “Remember to bee careful!” jokes Sheri as I hit the road after my busy day bowing to the queen bees. It was fascinating to learn how they’re raised. And I didn’t get stung once!