How to Raise Queen Bees with the Doolittle Method

Raising genetically strong queens that produce healthy colonies can help you avoid the multitude of worries and problems currently facing honey bees. Robust colonies are resistant to pests, chemicals, and diseases.

The most common method of producing large numbers of queens is with the Doolittle Method, by grafting larvae of the right age into special wax or plastic queen cell cups that are affixed to bars. The bars are positioned in frames, and the frames are inserted into a queenless nuc equipped with lots of nurse bees and lots of provisions such as honey (and/or syrup) and pollen (and/or pollen patties).

Tools and equipment for raising queen bees with the Doolittle Method

Grafting requires some special equipment and supplies. All are available from most beekeeping suppliers. If you’re a gadget lover, grafting has a lot of allure.

  • Cell bar frames: These contain one or more bars that hold plastic or wax queen cups into which larvae are grafted. The frame is then inserted into a queenless colony where queen cells will be raised.

    A cell bar frame (detail of individual queen cup).
    A cell bar frame (detail of individual queen cup).
  • Grafting tools: You use grafting tools to lift the delicate and oh-so-fragile larva out of its original cell and place it gently in the cup on the cell bar frame.

    Three different kinds of grafting tools.
    Three different kinds of grafting tools.
  • Queen cell protectors: Cell protectors keep the newly emerged virgin queens confined, preventing them from being able to move about the colony and kill the other queens.

    Queen cell protectors snapped into place.
    Queen cell protectors snapped into place.
  • Queen cages: These are designed to confine the queen and provide, via screen or perforations, a way for the bees on the outside of the cage to feed the queen inside.

How the Doolittle grafting method is done

There are steps leading up to grafting day, and steps following grafting day. You select the colony headed by your best queen for grafting.

  • Four days before grafting day: The eggs you’ll want to graft are laid four days before grafting day. To make it easier to locate the right-age larva, confine the queen on a frame of empty drawn comb four days ahead of grafting day. Use that comb when transferring larvae to cell cups.

    A “push-in” queen cage helps you confine a queen to just a few cells. The eggs laid in th
    A “push-in” queen cage helps you confine a queen to just a few cells. The eggs laid in these cells are the ones you will want to use for grafting.
  • Three days before grafting day: Release the queen from confinement by removing the push-in cage. Mark the frame’s top bar so that you can retrieve that frame come grafting day.

  • Two days before grafting day: Create your queenless nuc to serve as a cell starter. You want to put your freshly grafted larvae into an environment where they’ll be well cared for. This means lots of bees (especially lots of nurse bees), frames of honey, pollen (and/or a feeder and a pollen patty), and little or no open brood. You want lots of nurse bees because they are the ones most geared to feeding larvae.

  • Grafting day: Using the frame you confined four days ago, graft larvae into cell cups and place the frame of cells into the queenless cell starter that you made up a couple of days ago. Grafting is a delicate maneuver, and the very young larvae are exceedingly fragile.

    The delicate process of grafting larva into queen cell cups.
    The delicate process of grafting larva into queen cell cups.
  • One or two days after grafting day: Have a peek. The bees have decided which cells they’re going to feed and draw and develop into queens, and which they are not.

  • A week or so after grafting day: Check the cells and put cell protectors on them. The cells should be capped by the bees four or five days after grafting, so the only care they need from here until emergence is warmth and humidity.

    ere in the hive protectors.the bees will have of the larvae tgrafted into the cups.While you’re in the cell builder, give the other frames a look and remove any “rogue” queen cells elsewhere in the hive that the bees may have built. If one of them emerges, she’ll kill all the other queens.

Virgin queens will emerge 15 to 17 days after the egg is laid (11 to 13 days after grafting). The average development time is 16 days, but development is faster in warmer weather, and slower in cooler temperatures.

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