It’s springtime and a lot of folks are eager to expand their apiary by doing splits. Splits are very popular since they are “almost free”. Problem is, a good portion of those doing splits use the “walk away” method, because it’s easy and cheap, without thinking it through.
Bees will rear queens in three different circumstances. Swarm queens, supersedure queens, and emergency queens. Swarm queens are reared when a colony is booming, resources are plentiful, and the colony is ready to initiate a natural split. Swarm queens are reared out of desire and not out of need, and are also reared vertically in queen cups. Since swarm queens are initiated by bee when conditions are optimal, the results are quality queens.
Supersedure queens are reared when the colony is unhappy with the performance of the queen and decide to replace her. Supersedure does not consider availability of resource or drone population for proper mating. Supersedure queens are reared from eggs of an unacceptable and/or failing queen, therefore results are marginal at best. You will find some folks that say supersedure queen are perfectly fine. Just keep in mind, that although young supersedure queen may seem just fine, come fall, when the weather starts getting tougher is when the poor quality is most likely to show up. This also, coincidentally, is the worst time to have to try and requeen. I have also seen, and heard from many beekeepers, of hives that will perpetually supersede the queen. This leads me to believe that whatever quality of the queen the bees do not like is being passed through genetics.
Emergency queens are the worst case for the bees. They have no laying queen and the colony will perish if the situation is not rectified. There is no current queen so one is raised from eggs laid in worker cells. What differentiates a queen from a worker is the food that is fed to the larvae on or around day 3. This happens to coincide with the bees needing to get the larvae from the horizontal cell to the new vertical cell they build on the face of the comb. To get the larvae to the correct position, they float it out on thinned out royal jelly. Does this thinned out royal jelly have the same nutritional value? Right at the critical time of a larvae being either a worker or a queen. There may not be an abundance of resources for the bees to produce quality royal jelly and they just do the best they can. Out of necessity, they will attempt to raise multiple emergency queen in hope that one is successful. Any larvae that may be a little older (more than 3 days and didn’t continue to get feed straight royal jelly) will also be the first to hatch and kill all the younger, perhaps better quality, unhatched queens. I also often hear that bees will know and always select the right aged larvae. Out of desperation, bees will try and rear a queen from a non-fertile laying worker larvae (drone), so wouldn’t it be plausible they would attempt to rear from a slightly older than prime larvae? Are “good enough” queens OK, or do you want the best queens?
So next time you plan to do a split, either wait until you have some nice swarm cells, rear yourself some quality queens, or truly think through the long term costs before you write off a $20 quality queen as too expensive. Any beekeeper trying to deal with a late Fall/Winter queen failure would gladly drop $20 if given the chance for a do-over.