Queen Bees of Kimberly
February 25th, 2016 by Jody Foss
Liz Lovelock of Kimberly, Oregon, with some of her bees. She and her husband have more than 100 hives. Photo courtesy of Liz Lovelock

Liz Lovelock of Kimberly, Oregon, with some of her bees. She and her husband have more than 100 hives.
Photo courtesy of Liz Lovelock

There is a royal flush of queens in Kimberly.

Soon, when the weather is warm, Liz Lovelock of Apricot Apiaries in Kimberly, Oregon, will be busy raising a round of queen bees every seven to 10 days.

“Raising our own queens makes us more self-sufficient,” Liz says. “When we need a new queen, we need it now. It complicates the process to have to order queens and wait for them to arrive.”

Many queens are raised in Hawaii, where the weather is warm year-round.

“Bees are really fun,” Liz says. “Sometimes you can use their natural responses to get them to do what you want. But of course, they don’t always.”

Liz and her husband, Matt, started beekeeping as a small-scale hobby with a few hives in the backyard.

“Matt and I were into it,” Liz says. “We’d be elbowing each other, ‘Let me look at it!’ We realized that to do some of the experimenting we wanted to do, we needed more hives. We increased from two hives to 10, then 30. Now we are up over 100 hives.”

The couple also has an observation hive in their living room.

Their hives are placed on private land throughout the area to give the bees a variety of flowers and plants to feed on.

To make their business more self-sufficient—and after spending more than $1,000 in one year buying queens—the couple decided to raise their own.

“There are lots of variables,” Liz says. “We do our best to control the ones we can.”

Bees naturally raise queens in three situations. One is in the spring when the hive wants to reproduce and swarm. The second is in an emergency when they lose their queen. The third is when they deem their queen unfit and want to remove her from the throne.

“We take advantage of the swarm and emergency impulses,” Liz explains. “Swarming happens when a hive is big and healthy and wants to split into two hives. Usually, the old queen flies off with a third to half of the workforce and leaves behind daughter queen cells to take over the parent hive. This usually happens in the spring when there is abundant pollen and nectar, and the bees feel crowded.”

Matt and Liz create the swarm impulse by crowding a lot of bees into a box without a queen. It is also an emergency. The bees desperately want to raise a new queen and they won’t raise just one.

“It’s crucial that the queens are all the same age so one doesn’t emerge early and kill the other ones,” Liz explains.

She uses a small, intricate tool to graft larva at 4 days old. She scoops up the tiny grubs that are smaller than a grain of rice and deposits them in a tiny cup. The grafted queen cups spend 10 days in the cell-builder box.

“When the cells are about a day away from emerging, we transfer them into our mating nucs, which are queenless mini hives,” Liz explains. “They stay there for three weeks, during which time they hopefully get out on a successful mating flight.”

If the weather is at least 70 degrees and not too windy, each bee will go on a mating flight and mate with 10 to 15 drones.

When the queens are ready, they are picked from the mating nucs and caged to be sold or transferred into other hives.

“It’s kind of crazy that this one insect is sold for $25 to $40 each,” Liz says.

One of her favorite aspects of the process is picking the queens.

“I have to be very careful not to squish them,” she says.

She marks the queen with a non-toxic paint dot in the middle of her back on her thorax. A different color is used each year to keep track of how old a queen is. Marking also tells Liz if she raised a particular queen.

Liz is responsible for the detailed chore of keeping all records on queen production, hive vitality and honey sales.

“I have to really follow closely to make sure things happen on the right day, and also to record which hive I want to propagate and what hives have been doing in the past,” she says.

Raising queens is only one aspect of a beekeeper’s job.

Liz and Matt have been in business as Apricot Apiaries for two and a half years. In addition to selling bees and queens, they rent their hives for pollination and produce honey for sale. Matt, a talented woodworker, creates honey spoons and wooden tops for the honey jars.

The two attend the Oregon State Beekeepers Association annual meeting to trade information with other beekeepers.

At a meeting three years ago, they connected with a couple who operate a 2,000-hive operation in Hermiston, Oregon. The couple needed help during the almond pollination season in Central California. Liz and Matt joined them to work as apprentices.

“Almonds need the pollination to produce more pounds of nuts per tree,” Liz says. “We were able to rent 48 of our hives down there this year. Our bees made more money than we did.”