Queen Rearing, the cell punch method

For demonstration purposes and for my own queen rearing I use most of the standard methods of producing artificial queen cells. In my experience they all work well and I’m happy to use any of them. I have used the cell punching method for the last few seasons and it is still my favourite method.

I am the only person I know who uses cell punching on a regular basis, which I think is a pity, because it is such a simple method. Cell punching is much discredited and ridiculed, mainly by those who know nothing about it and have probably never used it, which only puts others off using it. Cell punching in various forms has been used for many years, but has never been popular, probably for the usual reasons why things aren’t popular in beekeeping – there is specialist equipment needed that has a cost to it and those in influential positions don’t know anything about it, so they downplay it. Sorry to be so cynical, but I hope I can encourage beekeepers to use a system that has a lot of merits.

There are holes punched in brood combs and this is seen as a disadvantage by some. It is true that bees don’t usually fill in the holes, but I believe they use them as passageways around the brood nest, as they are roughly the size of a beespace, so they probably do a colony some good.

The cell punch method is simple and you have no need to handle the larvae, as you have to with some other methods, such as grafting. All we are doing is punching out a cell with a worker larvae of the right age from an existing brood comb. It could have been the larva that you might have grafted. It’s that simple! For heavy handed people, it’s a godsend.

It may appear easy to make the cell punches, but a little thought needs to be given to it.

Although at the time of writing the parts aren’t readily commercially available, but they can be found if you search them out on the web. They are quite easily made from readily available parts.

The benefits of cell punching are:-

You select the larvae of the correct age.
You don’t touch the larvae, so they are unlikely to be damaged.
Rejects can be re-punched or grafted into the punched cell the bees have removed the larva from.
You can take larvae from one or more colonies to fit in the same cell bar.
You can rear a small number of Q/Cs, but as many as you have cell punches for.
Suits all beekeepers.

My method of using a cell punch.

On a brood comb that is taken from the colony you wish to rear queens from, select a cell that contains a suitable larva. Make sure it is not over a frame wire, otherwise you may blunt the cell punch. Put the sharpened end of the cell punch over the cell so the tube encircles it.

Push the cutting edge right through the comb with a twisting or turning motion as shown above left, then withdraw it with the punched cell inside. Punching is easier if the comb is laid on a piece of plywood or board, so you can cut against it.

Young comb will easily collapse, making punching difficult. Old comb will have a lot of cocoons in it, so will be tougher to cut. There is a happy medium and with a little experience you will know what works the best for you.

The punched cell itself is inside the tube.

Isolated cell use the dowel as a piston to push the cell back along the tube
Using the dowel as a plunger, the contents of the tube are pushed through fully, so the cell is exposed slightly beyond the mouth of the cutter.

The selected cell now protruding from the mouth of the punch. The dowel is a slide fit on the tube, so if you hold the cell by the dowel the tube will fall off in the cell building colony. To prevent this happening I use a brood frame with 10 “Terry” clips fixed to a wooden bar, so the clip grips the tube, not the dowel. They are used for holding things such as round tools and are available from DIY or hardware stores in various sizes. They should be selected to give a reasonable grip to the brass tube of the punch, so they can be clipped in and removed easily. The frame is prepared with a wooden bar fixed to the side bars, about 2ins/50mm from the top bar, to accept the row of ‘Terry’ tool clips. If larger frames than the deep langstroth are used, then use as many clips as you wish. One row of 10 clips suits me and my bees. I tried a frame with 2 rows of clips, but my bees wouldn’t accept more than about 12-15 larvae. More prolific and more swarmy bees probably will. If you put two rows, you don’t have to use them all. Do not be too concerned about the cleanliness of the punches, the bees seem to use them if simply cleaned by hand, often accepting them better than fresh or ‘cleaned up’ ones.

If you leave the punched cells “as punched” the bees will have to chew the sidewall of the cell away. To save them having to do this work, I either cut it back with a sharp knife or scalpel, or slice through the cell lengthways, folding back the sidewalls and pressing against the plastic collar that holds the punched cells.

Check for acceptance after 24 hours, Cell’s that has been accepted and filled with royal jelly are the ones bees will start to work on when the frame is inserted in the cell building colony. After a little time has elapsed the cells will be seen to be fully filled with royal jelly.

I usually check initial acceptance after a couple of hours, if not then after about 24hours. Any larvae that have not been accepted can be re-punched or grafted. If done 24 hours later, then make note as they will emerge about 24 hours later than the others on the bar. The objective in all of these operations is to produce sealed queen cells.
The sealed cells can be placed in a nucleus or colony for emergence in the same way as you would any other cells. The large diameter wooden plugs can be removed, or simply pressed into the face of the comb or in an existing hole or gap to secure the cell sufficiently to prevent it dropping (the bees will soon fix it).In a colony that is densely populated with bees, I like to place the Q/Cs in the gap that bees often leave between the comb and the side bar of the frame. I remove most if not all my queen cells to an incubator a day before they hatch. I place them in hair roller cages and move them to mating nucs after they hatch.
If the receiving colony hasn’t been queenless for long the cell may need to be protected. There are several ways of achieving this by using readily available protectors.

I have made a number of attempts at cell punching and grafting, but none have come close to this method. Most alternatives are much more complicated. I think the cell punching method is an excellent method of rearing queens. I have raised many queens by this method and I have enjoyed doing it, as I always do when seeing a good home raised queen. I hope this page will encourage others to consider using it.

I think there are a number of reasons why the punched cell method has never been popular. There has never been a regular supply of good quality cell punches and apart from the booklet by Richard Smailes, there is little information on their use.

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