Managing beehives takes knowledge, skill and practice. Although the community beekeepers in El Caracol are now highly skilled in their trade, they have recently undertaken training sessions to learn a new skill which will help them to sustain hive productivity well into the future: Raising queen bees.

The social behaviour of bee hives is a fascinating example of unity and cooperation, with each bee having its own roles and responsibilities while the group works together for the benefit of the whole hive. The queen bee is the bee which dominates all the others. Without her the hive cannot function and would not survive. She is the reason why the worker bees are working, and they dote on her every need. Her life however, is not one of luxury, as she has the responsibility of maintaining the well-being of her hive. Her genetics determine the behaviour of the worker bees, and she has to use the power of her pheromones to control the workers and promote cohesion within the hive.

A strong, productive queen will stimulate a strong, productive hive. In the wild, queens can live up to two years, but apiculturists can choose to kill the queen on a regular basis, replacing an aging queen with a younger, more efficient one. By learning how to raise their own queens, the community beekeepers will not only be able to increase their current hives’ potential, but they will also be able to increase their colony numbers without having to spend precious financial resources on buying new queens. In Nicaragua a queen bee costs between $7 -14, but, believe it or not, you can buy online for anything from $30 a queen upwards!

The timing of the process of raising a queen from egg-to-adult is vital. Therefore training sessions not only needed to take into account the availability of the community beekeepers and that of Erika and Carlos, Nuevas Esperanzas’ beekeeping specialists, but also the life cycle of the queen. Easter week holidays had to be factored in as well, so it took a lot of planning to ensure that the sessions were held at times which suited everyone.

The training sessions were hands-on, enabling the beekeepers to learn-by-doing, whilst getting immediate feedback from Carlos and Erika. Each stage of the process required the careful selection of queens which will be up to the job. The queens have to conform to exacting requirements, and at times the selection process could be ruthless. If she was too small at a particular stage, she was too late to join the next stage. If she grew too big too fast, she was cut. With one flick of the hand, that was her chance of making it gone. Other stages were more delicate, with the beekeepers carefully placing tiny, fragile larva into ‘queen cell cups’, which allow multiple queens to be nursed at the same time.

The final training session allowed the beekeepers to see the fruits of their hard work. Having nursed the queens and placed them in their new homes, this training session was to check whether the queens were carrying out one of their main functions, laying eggs. Not only were eggs present in many of the hives, honey production had also begun, which was doubly satisfying to observe.

With the queen-rearing training sessions now finished, the community beekeepers can carry on developing their new abilities. As with any new skill, the hard part will come when they carry out this newly learned process for the first time, without guidance. Next time, the beekeepers will have more control over their hives, as they will be able to choose queens which possess characters most beneficial to them. They have successfully added another skill to their set, aiding income generation and further promoting the benefits of beekeeping for their communities.