John Gates, right, helps a student at his queen-rearing course to identify the right size of larvae to graft into a queen cell cup. Gates' annual queen-rearing course is a must for anyone wanting to learn how to successfully raise queen bees. Jeff Lee photo.

Learning how to rear honey bee queens, B.C. style

There is an art to raising good honey bee queens, it seems. So Amanda Goodman Lee and I are up in Tappen, B.C along with other beekeepers from around the province learning from two masters, John Gates and his protege, BillStagg.
John Gates and Bill Stagg run a weekend queen-rearing workshop in Tappen, B.C. every year. Jeff Lee photo.

John Gates and Bill Stagg run a weekend queen-rearing workshop in Tappen, B.C. every year. Jeff Lee photo.

Gates is a former provincial apiculturist who helped develop a made-in-B.C. queen-rearing program. Until the Canadian government closed the border to the import of queens and packages from the U.S. over concerns about mites and diseases, B.C. beekeepers largely didn’t raise their own stock. It’s a dark part of our history, I think, that most commercial beekeepers used to gas off their colonies at the end of the season because it was cheaper to buy new packages from the U.S. than go through the expense and trouble of wintering their bees. That was especially true of northern operations where costs were much higher.

So Gates was in at the ground level in helping establish a viable queen-rearing and nucleus-selling industry in B.C.
His annual queen-rearing course has become a must-do for serious beekeepers who want to learn the art of raising their own stock.
Gates sold his queen and nuc operations last year to Stagg, who has worked with him for several years and is in his own right a great beekeeper. This weekend there are 20 of us from as far away as Calgary, Terrace and northern Vancouver Island, including Rudi Peters, my colleague on the executive of the B.C. Honey Producers Association and the owner of Skeena Valley Apiary. We all gathered at Stagg’s Sweetacre Apiaries, where we each took turns learning how to graft day-old larvae.
Gates and Stagg used a modified Cloake Board method, in which they use one two-box hive fitted with an excluder and slide that allows them to manipulate the hive into both a queenright and queenless cell builder. It’s an effective way to raise queens in a single strong hive without disrupting the apiary or chewing up resources.
The process of grafting itself is finicky; you can see from the photographs that it takes a sharp eye and steady hand to find and transfer the smallest larvae you can find into queen cell cups. The cups are then given to the young bees in the top of the hive, which will then draw them out into queen cells.
Ten days later the cells are ready to transfer to individual mating nucleus colonies, where the queens will hatch out, be taken out on mating flights by their retinues of attendants, and hopefully return safely to start laying up a storm.
For Amanda and I, the reasons for doing this are two-fold; we’ll use those queens in our own operations and try to reduce the amount of queens we buy overseas, and also so that we can produce queens and nucleus colonies to sell to other beekeepers in B.C. and Alberta.
Stay tuned!
John Gates and Bill Stagg run a weekend queen-rearing workshop in Tappen, B.C. This year 20 people from all over B.C. - and someone from Calgary - showed up to learn from the masters.  Jeff Lee

John Gates and Bill Stagg run a weekend queen-rearing workshop in Tappen, B.C. This year 20 people from all over B.C. – and someone from Calgary – showed up to learn from the masters. Jeff Lee photo.

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