I’m a beginner. This has been my second year raising queens – my third year keeping honey bees. So I am in no way pretending to be any kind of an expert. But Joseph Clemens has generously agreed for me to share some of my experiences using his method of queen rearing.

For anyone who is interested this thread starter is based on a broader post about my experiences as a beginner at queen rearing.

The Joseph Clemens Starter/Finisher System

The system that I’ve been using is what I call the Joseph Clemens System – because that is where I heard about it from, and because Joseph Clemens has proven that it works by producing very large, high quality cells and queens using this system. I have found that it is very well suited for me to produce a fair number of queens while learning skills that can be scaled up to higher production later if desired. It’s fun, affordable, and you can use it even if you only have a few hives.

This system uses a queenless five frame nucleus with 4 medium frames of bees and a cell bar as a combined Starter/Finisher and produces 10-20 cells (more or less) at a time – and it can be used all season without having to be rebuilt. As you can imagine this is much more manageable for hobbyists than the way the commercial guys do it.

You can use this system over and over throughout the season without having to repopulate the starter/finisher hives, and you can use it just about any time that you want without having to do a lot of prep work – once you get it going . This system also avoids the problem of having to manage a cell builder hive that is on the verge of swarming by being Queenless – no matter how strong it is, a hive won’t swarm without a queen. When I first read about it, I thought that it sounded like such a hive would develop laying workers or some other problem because of being queenless for an indefinite time. But, because you give it fresh brood about once a week none of those problems crop up – it just gets really strong and stays that way all season long. It really does.

One of my best batch of cells using this method. I’m still learning, but next year these will be my “regular” sized cells instead of just the best ones. I hope.

This is the setup I started the season with – the top box houses a quart jar feeder. Before long I realized that the small entrance (with a piece of excluder over it) through the slatted rack was too small for such a populous hive, and that the ventilation was not adequate.

So, I changed to this setup – from the bottom – Screened bottom board, queen excluder, 5 frame medium hive body plus the same inner cover, feed shim, and tele cover as in the previous picture.

Setting up the Cell Builder Hive

The two outer frames are capped/emerging brood, the next two contain stores – honey and pollen, maybe some empty space for them to draw comb and store incoming food. The center position is where you will be putting your cell bar after you graft.

You want this hive to be very populous, so shake in lots of nurse bees. After the initial setup the cell builder will stay strong – even get stronger – from the frames of brood that you swap in every week.

Once a week (more or less) when you are working your other hives swap in a fresh frame of capped/emerging brood. The open brood on those frames along with the grafts and other open brood that you add to the cell builder keep it strong and stable. When you swap in new brood, you also have to check for queen cells in the starter/finisher, and on any frames that you take out – you will find wild cells pretty much every time. But since it’s only a 5 frame hive, and it doesn’t have a queen you can shake the bees off, and thoroughly inspect every frame in just a few minutes. Usually there is no need to even look at every frame – 2 of them will be pollen/honey, and one will be the cell bar. It’s pretty quick and easy maintenance, but it does have to be done at least once a week while the hive is being used.

How I (and you can ) Finally produce Big Cells

I tried fruitlessly almost all of this year to produce big cells like Josephs. I packed my cell builder with bees which I fed copiously, I tried double grafting, priming with royal jelly, placing fewer grafts – but no matter how hard I tried my best cells were “OK” at best (did get some nice queens though) – until I found this tip by Ray Marler: 4 days before you graft put a frame of hatching eggs/young open larva in the cell builder. That will insure that your nurse bees get into feeding mode by the time you add your grafts. My experience is that if I skip this step I get much smaller cells. Joseph Clemens produces nice big cells without this step, I think because he is continuously using his cell builder – so the bees stay in feeding/nurse bee mode – while I was only adding grafts to my cell builder every week or two.

When you swap in the cell bar with grafts on it there will almost certainly be queen cells started on the “primer” frame of open brood - At that time also check the other frames for queen cells. If you ever let one emerge it will ruin any cells that are currently in the hive – and you might have a hard time finding a virgin lose in such a crowded hive.

I feed my cell builder hive continuously – 1 to 1 sugar syrup from an inverted quart jar, and under the jar lid…

…Pollen substitute. I just spoon it in through the hole, and cover it with the jar lid. This is 8% protein mega bee mix with enough syrup to make a paste that is thick enough to not fall through the frames. The bees love it.

I hope this is helpful to anyone thinking about trying queen rearing.