Honey Bee Biology

Henry Alley, a Pioneer Queen Producer

- May 1, 2017 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

mature queen cells

In 1889, a seismic shift occurred in queen-rearing technology leading to the rise in fame of one beekeeper and the fading of another. First though, appreciate how different beekeeping was back then. In the United States, seven bee journals were devoted to apiculture, either wholly or partly. Two more bee journals were in Canada.1 That’s nine bee journals. And guess what? The American Bee Journal was published–weekly!

And as we will see, a diversity of frame hives flourished in the 1880’s, easily 20 different ones. Beehives were more like car models of today, except some hives were more functionally different. In those raucous nonstandard times, Henry Alley, a beekeeper from Massachusetts was becoming known for his queen rearing. In 1883, he published The Beekeeper Handy Book: Or Twenty-two Years of Queen Rearing Experience.

In his book, Alley described how to raise queens in a time when such formal methods were lacking. Briefly, here is his technique, which one can still use today. Using a newly built brood comb containing eggs or young larvae, he cut the comb into strips only one cell wide and about five inches long (12.7 cm). To spread out the resulting queen cells, he squashed every other larva with a slender pencil tip. Pointing the cells down, he attached the comb strip to the bottom edge of a brood comb whose lower edge had been cut straight. (He used melted wax to attach them.) Alley used an empty brood comb with the lower edge cut high up to put the queen cells well within the brood nest. The prepared frame went into a strong queenless colony. The queen cells would appear as Alley showed them in Figure 1, which were easy to separate and put into mating nucs. Ally advocated using these “miniature hives” for “breeding queens.”

The first edition of Alley’s book was a success. Two thousand copies sold in 18 months, showing a pent-up demand among beekeepers. There was a second edition in 1884 (which I have never seen). In 1885, Alley published a revised and enlarged third edition. This edition gave a greater understanding of beekeeping in the mid 1880’s. For example, to help beginners pick a hive design, the third edition had illustrations and instructions of the popular hive designs at the time–nine of them. That’s right, nine different hives, some radically different from others. Of course, they all had names: the Langstroth hive, the Falcon Chaff hive, the Van Deusen Nellis Simplicity hive, the New England No. 7 hive, the Bay State hive, the Universal Beehive, the Shuck’s Invertible hive, the Langstroth Heddon hive, and Young’s Climatic hive. I know of almost another dozen hives or so, that did not make Alley’s list. The Bay State hive was designed and promoted by Alley, a hive I have not been able to find.

However, Henry Alley also invented the Queen Drone trap (patented on Nov. 11, 1884). Figures 2 and 3 show modern versions of the trap, the later style perhaps more familiar to readers. Although beekeepers rarely use the device now, it still appears occasionally on internet auction sites, at antique shows, and flea markets. As I write this article, two Queen Drone traps are up for auction on eBay. Hardly ever is there a correct description and complete set of instructions, which would require knowledge of bee biology and history.

The Queen Drone trap had two main uses. One was preventing the launch of the prime swarm (the swarm with the mother queen). The device fit over the hive entrance, and rested on the alighting board. Internal screen funnels allowed a one-way bee flow (of the queen and drones) from the lower hive entrance into the upper compartment of the trap. When a swarm launched, the queen could not pass through the lower queen excluder in front of the entrance. The queen would ascend up through the one-way funnels and become trapped in the upper compartment. To release the queen, some traps had a hole in the floor of the upper compartment covered by a removable tin slide. On some traps, the queen excluder of the upper compartment slid out, releasing all the bees rapidly.

When the failed launch began to subside, according to Alley, the beekeeper should move off the old hive and replace it with a new hive letting the swarm cloud return there. Next the beekeeper released the queen from the trap with the returning swarm. Thus the new colony gained the swarm bees and some of the …

Figure 1. Mature queen cells as they would appear from Alley’s method.