Queen Cell Production: Grafting and Graft-Free Methods (2023)

There are numerous methods of producing queen honey bees. Beekeepers who wish to produce more than a handful of queens in a season typically do so by grafting. Grafting is the action of transferring a larva from a brood cell into a manufactured cell cup. This technique allows beekeepers to create any number of queen cells that are easy to handle and transport. This article describes common grafting and graft-free techniques and equipment for producing queen cells in moveable cell cups (Figure 1).

Grafting Basics

Before grafting, a cell builder or starter must be available to receive the grafted larvae. Information about cell builders can be found in the article Cell Builder Basics.

The next step in grafting is selecting the brood frame. Frames from vigorous colonies are ideal; look for day-old larvae on frames where eggs and older larvae are also present. Larvae suitable for grafting will be very small with a slight comma-shaped curvature, while older larvae are larger with a more defined C-shape (Figure 2).

(Video) NNY Bees - Very Simple Graft-free Queen Rearing Method

Figure 2. Eggs and lare in brood cells (A) Graftable larva. (B) Older, larger larva. (C) Egg. Photo: Kate Anton, Penn State

Gently brush nurse bees from the selected frame to prevent damaging the delicate larvae. The larvae must be grafted quickly upon their removal from the colony, as they are vulnerable to chilling, desiccation, or starvation without nurse bees to regulate the temperature and humidity, or to provide feeding visits. A damp towel draped over the frame will keep the humidity high and should be used to cover the part of the frame that is not in use. Optimal environmental conditions for grafting include a warm, draft-free room. For grafting, the donor frame is often placed on an incline (Figure 3) and a flashlight or headlamp is used to identify the best larval candidates.

Figure 3. Grafting frame on a stand with a damp towel to maintain humidity. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State.

Many beekeepers graft into colorful plastic cell cups, while others make their own from wax. There are several commercially available brands, the most common style is the plastic base mount cell cup (Figure 4.A). These cell cups are inserted into a grooved bar (Figure 4.B) that fits in a specially made frame. Alternatively, a grooved top bar in a standard frame may be used.

(Video) How We Produce Queens

Figure 4. (A) Plastic base mount cell cup. (B) Grafting bar with cell cups. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State.

Before grafting, many beekeepers prime their cell cups with a small amount of royal jelly mixed with water, although water alone can be used. Priming prevents larvae from drying and may provide a small amount of nutrition. Too much liquid, however, can drown the larvae. Nurse bees will remove the priming liquid and replace it with royal jelly in the cell builder.

Grafting Tools

A variety of commercial tools are available for this delicate work. Tool choice is subject to individual preference, and beekeepers often create their own from materials such as wire, a paper clip, or other common household items.

The German grafting tool (Figure 5A) is made of stainless steel and looks similar to a dental instrument. About the length of a pencil, this model is easy to grasp and offers the beekeeper a great deal of control and visibility inside the cells.

Figure 5. (A) German grafting tool. (B) Chinese grafting tool. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State.

(Video) Grafting

The Chinese grafting tool (Figure 5B) has a pliable plastic tip for sliding under the larva and royal jelly and scooping out the contents of the cell. A spring-loaded retractable mechanism allows the larva and royal jelly to be moved from the tip into the cell cup. This tool does not require cell cups to be primed, which can speed the grafting process. This tool is a common choice in commercial operations.

Grafting Technique

Grafting is delicate work that requires patience, a steady hand and excellent vision. To graft, lower the grafting tool behind the curve of the larva, maneuver the tool under the larva and the small pool of royal jelly, and gently lift and transfer the larva to the center of the cell cup (Figure 6). If using the Chinese grafting tool, simply deposit the larva and royal jelly in the center of the cell cup. When using the German grafting tool, surface tension from the priming liquid helps to transfer the larva from the grafting tool to the cell cup. Mastering this technique takes practice and repetition. Damaged, submerged, or poorly positioned larvae will not survive.

Figure 6. (A) Young larva in brood cell. (B) Larva and royal jelly on a chinese grafting tool. (C) Larva and royal jelly in detail. (D) Grafted larva in cell cup. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State

When grafting multiple cell bars, be sure to cover the bars with a damp cloth to prevent dessication. After the desired number of grafts have been made, place the cell bars (with cell cups facing up) in the frame and transport it to the cell builder (Figure 7B). Invert the cell bar frame and lower it into the center of the colony (Figure 7A). Once this process is started, the queen cells should be handled gently, and care should be taken to avoid inverting queen cells again for the duration of development.

(Video) 🔵Grafting Queens for Beginners! Queen Rearing series | Part 2

Figure 7. (A) Grafting frame placement in cell builder. (B) Grafting frame, with cell cups facing up, transported to the cell builder. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State

Graft-free cell production

Grafting requires practice, excellent vision and a steady hand and is not practical for every beekeeper. There are many techniques to rear queens without grafting which work well for small scale production. Alternative graft-free methodsinclude the Jenter and Nicot systems, which allow for the production of numerous, moveable queen cells.

The Jenter and Nicot systems are graft-free systems that work by enclosing the queen in a special box that is positioned on a brood frame. The queen lays eggs directly into a 10 x 11 grid of removable brown cell cups (Figure 8). Workers freely enter and exit the box to care for the queen and young larvae. When the eggs hatch into larvae, the brown cell cups are transferred into customized equipment that attaches to a cell bar (Figures 9A and 9B). The cell bars fit into a specialized frame that can be introduced to a cell builder or starter, as detailed above.

Figure 8. Nicot system viewed from the top and bottom.

(Video) Raising Queens - Grafting to Incubation

Figure 9. (A) Brown cell cup and Nicot cup holder and socket. (B) Cell bar with Nicot components. Photos: Kate Anton, Penn State

Large scale queen cell production has allowed the commercial honey bee industry to meet both agricultural and hobbyist beekeeping demands.Convenient and inexpensive, these methods make it relatively easy to produce any number of queen cells. This scale of queen production, along with the flexible behaviors inherent to honey bee colonies, are ultimately responsible for making honey bees the dominant pollinator in many landscapes.

More Information

This article is part of a series on biology and techniques for queen rearing from the Center for Pollinator Research at The Pennsylvania State University.


How do you raise queen cells without grafting? ›

Queen Rearing Method without grafting (or finding the queen)

Make up the two nuc boxes with combs from the brood box and drawn comb. Combs from the brood box should be shaken free of bees to ensure the queen is not accidently moved above the queen excluder.

What are the non grafting methods of queen rearing? ›

The non-grafting options are the Jenter system and the Nicot system, these methods are ideal to use if you do not feel very confident in grafting the larvae and placing them into the cell cups. The natural method is simply that, where you split your hive into two and let the bees raise the queen themselves.

What is the queen rearing grafting method? ›

Beekeepers who wish to produce more than a handful of queens in a season typically do so by grafting. Grafting is the action of transferring a larva from a brood cell into a manufactured cell cup. This technique allows beekeepers to create any number of queen cells that are easy to handle and transport.

How many queen cells should you leave? ›

How many queen cells should you leave? The queenless component of your swarm control only needs one queen cell. Any less than that and the colony will be non-viable without further intervention from the beekeeper. Any more and there's a risk that the colony will generate one or more casts.

Why do my grafts fail? ›

Graft failure can be caused by factors such as: Poor formation of the graft union due to problems with anatomical mismatching (when the rootstock and scion tissue is not lined up properly), poor grafting technique, adverse weather conditions and poor hygiene. Mechanical damage to the graft union. Graft incompatibility.

What are the 3 most common grafting methods? ›

Several different methods are commonly used for grafting plants. These include cleft grafting, inlay grafting, four-flap grafting, and whip grafting.

What is the easiest grafting method? ›

Budding is becoming the grafting method of choice in fruit tree production. Budding uses incisions rather than major cuts, which takes much less time and makes it more economical. Budding also uses individual buds per rootstock, so more plants can be produced.

What are the 4 types of grafting in plants? ›

(a) Cut grafting, (b) cleft grafting, (c) crown grafting, (d), splice grafting, (e) tongue grafting, (f) approach grafting. The success of the graft depends on the compatibility between the rootstock and scion.

What is the most successful grafting technique? ›

One of the simplest and most popular forms of grafting, cleft grafting (Figure 2), is a method for top working both flowering and fruiting trees (apples, cherries, pears, and peaches) in order to change varieties. Cleft grafting is also used to propagate varieties of camellias that are difficult to root.

What do you need for queen rearing? ›

Successful raising of queens requires:
  1. ample supply of nectar and good quality pollens.
  2. an abundance of sexually mature, high-quality drones for mating with the newly emerged virgin queens.
  3. suitable weather for mating of drones and queens.
  4. suitable starter and cell raising colonies (described later)
Jun 19, 2023

What is the most successful grafting? ›

Factors for successful graft

Genetically identical clones and intra-species plants have a high success rate for grafting. Grafting between species of the same genus is sometimes successful. Grafting has a low success rate when performed with plants in the same family but in different genera.

How often should you check for queen cells? ›

A five-day interval is a good target, leaving you a little margin for weather delays. Even regular inspections every weekend may not catch things in time if you are delayed, even for just a day. That's because a queen cell is capped on the eighth day after the egg was laid.

What does a good queen cell look like? ›

Answer: A queen cell is a special waxen cell that hangs from a brood frame. It cradles a larva that will grow into a virgin queen. A finished queen cell looks like a peanut in size, shape, texture, and color. Queen cells can be either swarm cells or supersedure cells.

Can plants naturally graft? ›

Introduction. Natural root grafts are common in trees and occur when thick underground roots are pressed together because of their cambial activity and the cambia come into contact after the pressure crushes the soft cortex (Mudge et al. 2009).

How are queen cells formed? ›

Queen development takes 16 days from egg laying to eclosed (emerged) adult virgin queen bee. The egg is laid in a cup and hatches on the 3rd day. The larva is fed copious amounts of Royal Jelly until day 8 when the cell is sealed or capped. About 16 days after the egg was laid the new queen emerges.


1. Grafting Honey Bee Larvae for Queen Rearing
(The Honey Company)
2. Making Queens The Easy Way! Beekeeping 2020 #beekeeping #makingqueens
(Live More Outdoors)
3. How to cut natural queen cell| Natural queen rearing| Cuting queen cell
(Khmer beekeeping)
4. QUEEN bee breeding • bee grafting method • queen grafting for beginners beekeepers
(canadian apiary • 99K views • 11 minutes ago txxyz)
5. 3 Methods of Raising Queens
(Canyon Rim Honey Bees)
6. If You Need Queens but Do Not Know How To Graft!
(Woolie B's Apiary)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Carlyn Walter

Last Updated: 05/10/2023

Views: 6136

Rating: 5 / 5 (70 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Carlyn Walter

Birthday: 1996-01-03

Address: Suite 452 40815 Denyse Extensions, Sengermouth, OR 42374

Phone: +8501809515404

Job: Manufacturing Technician

Hobby: Table tennis, Archery, Vacation, Metal detecting, Yo-yoing, Crocheting, Creative writing

Introduction: My name is Carlyn Walter, I am a lively, glamorous, healthy, clean, powerful, calm, combative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.