Editor’s note: Our international correspondent spent the second leg of her beekeeping trip in New Zealand. So far, she has written three articles about her New Zealand adventures, but we are waiting for final permission to publish the first two. Today’s story is about grafting larvae with the ultimate goal of harvesting royal jelly.
We wake up at 5:30, slap together some sandwiches, and I wrestle a bee suit that’s two extras too large. An hour later, we’re on site, pulling fresh brood from a yard of nucs. There aren’t many bees inside—the strong colonies were taken to the honey flow long ago—but nevertheless we pull two or three frames per colony. In total, we need three boxes (30 frames) of graftable brood and one box of sealed brood. We’ll use the sealed brood later to bolster the starter colonies.
Pulling brood means finding queens, and I’m no good at finding queens when I want to convince people that I’m good at finding queens. When I’m nervous, I forget what I’m doing and wind up missing the queen for the bees. I start admiring and stop searching. My eyes catch on emerging bees, pale yellow birthdays, bustling workers, and bumbling drones. I turn the frames over in my hands, observing without assessing, tucking the queen back into her hive, completely oblivious. I usually miss a couple this way before I have no more cool to lose, and then I can relax and do the job right.
It takes us a few hours to find sufficient frames. Then at 9:30 we head to the grafting shed, which is a small shack in a big field with a bench, some stools, and a radio. We turn on the generator, hunch over our frames, and begin scooping up larvae almost too small to see. We place these larvae into plastic queen cups. There are three rows of cups on each frame and twenty cups per row. The experts average a sixty per cent success rate. These guys have been grafting six days a week since Christmas, and some of them are on their second or third year.
The queen cup frames are destined for starter colonies. These are colonies kept in a perpetually queenless, orphan frenzy. We transfer the queen cups to starter colonies in the afternoon, and we feed them a dollop of pollen goop and a splash of sugar syrup. We also provide sealed brood to maintain the starter colony population. Frantic to grow a queen, these bees pile royal jelly into the queen cups.
We pull out the frames the next day and use a machine to remove the eggs and suck out the jelly. The jelly goes to a royal jelly packer who wraps it in capsules and sells it as a nutritional supplement. I haven’t seen the machine that sucks out the jelly, but I bet it looks like an octopus.
It takes us 4 hours to reach our grafting quota. In between larvae, I hold my grafting tool in my mouth, and I bet I consume a good capsule and a half of royal jelly this way. It’s bitter. Actually, it tastes like the stuff we spray on the TV remote at home to keep my dog from chewing on the batteries. But this stuff is nutritious, and if I want to lay 2,000 eggs a day, I had better take my supplement!