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I'm going to try grafting and raising a few queen cells this year. Because I only need to wind up with 4 or 5 cells, can I start and finish them in a nuc? Manipulating and dedicating a whole hive seems like overkill.

Looking for your thoughts and experiences.
 

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I used to raise queen cells by the the thousands, and it is a very complicated process. I have always wondered what the minimum size is required to get a couple of decent queen cells. It is quite probable that you can do it with nucs.

Basically, a strong four frame nuc should be able to raise a decent queen for itself if there are enough nurses, honey and pollen. But using it as a cell builder, is a different matter. It might work fine for a half a dozen good cells.

A very strong one story queenless hive can start and finish 45 cells. I used to use two deeps. The first would be empty. On top of this a queen excluder to prevent any stray queens from getting in or out of the unit.

The second story is where the action is. Here you would have brood, pollen, honey, and an inboard feeder if necessary to keep the colony pumped up. Fresh nurse bees would be added twice a week.
 

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I raise all of my queen cells using homemade styrofoam nucs. I make them wide enough to hold five frames, medium depth (all my hives use only medium frames), and I keep four frames in it when growing the queen cells. I keep the two outer frames full of honey/nectar and pollen (I also keep a pollen substitute patty resting on top of the cell bar). The two inner frames are full of emerging worker brood. The extra space is for the cell bar (which I place in the center) and for the extra nurse bees to cluster. I shake nurse bees from several hives periodically to keep the cell-builder nucs overflowing with bees. I can get six to ten nicely finished queen cells with each nuc configured this way.

Since the frames of emerging brood are replaced often, and they usually also contain eggs and open larvae, which the nurse bees can convert to queens, I frequently check them for rouge queen cells, which I carefully destroy. Shaking most of the bees from these combs helps tremendously in locating these rouge cells. One overlooked cell can quickly ruin a batch of cultured queen cells.
 

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The first time I did queen rearing I used a 5 frame nuc- they made 2 queen cells- my goal was to make a split and added the larvae (Jenter system) in the nuc so they would raise their own queen. Worked out well for me.
 

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Here is a 15-cell, cell-bar, photo taken today. These cells were raised in a 5-frame, medium depth nuc, with only four frames (fifth frame - center - is where cell bar fits). The "H" shows where an unfinished cell was harvested to experiment with early placement of unfinished cells. The "M" is where one graft did not take - I call those misses.


Early this morning I plucked this cell bar from their home, brushed most of the attending bees from the bar, then I took it into the house where I placed a blue towel on my paraplegic wife's chest, had her hold the bar while I took a couple of pics.
 

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Manipulating and dedicating a whole hive seems like overkill.
Recommend you use a starter finisher setup. You will get better queens this way. You can do this with one double deep hive although it is easier if you have 2. (sweep nurse bees from both hives into your nuc to get a strong starter.

Now you are going to exploit the Emergency Queen Rearing instinct in your bees: Make your nuc out of the hive with standard set up of nurse bees and frames of honey and pollen (no eggs, larvae or capped brood). Add a wet sponge and put on a feeder (I use a screen hole in the cover with an inverted jar). Give the nuc a few hours in a closed but screened nuc in a cool place to get in the 'mood'. Make your grafts from newly hatched larvae (<24hours old is best) and place your starter bar in the NUC. Give them 48 hours to start the cells then prepare to move them to a finisher.

Next you are going to exploit the Supercedure instinct in your bees: Move capped brood, honey and pollen to the upper box, make sure the queen is confined to the bottom box, lay on an excluder and then the top box, place the cell bar with the started cells in the middle of the upper box. The brood in the upper box will draw the nurse bees and the queen excluder will cause the level of queen phermone to drop in the top box. It is easier to do this with a second hive since it will be at full strength. Close it up and come back on day 9.

If you have to use the original hive it may need boosting. In that case I'd smoke both the hive and nuc down well or spray them with sugar syrup with a drop of vanilla added. Add the nuc bees into the top box of the hive, close it up and come back on day 9.
 
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