Making & Using a Grafting Tool

Homemade Grafting Tools

It is probably the thing most dreaded by apiarists who want to rear their own queens, that whole "grafting larvae" thing. So dreaded is the very thought that whole sets of techniques and tools have evolved to rear queens without needing to graft larvae.

But it's silly really. Avoiding grafting larvae makes the whole process needlessly complicated, usually adding days to the schedule. But when it comes right down to it, all "grafting larvae" is really, is just picking up a little worm from one place and setting it down in another. That's it. It's no more difficult than that. It's certainly not microsurgery. The anticipation is far worse than the actual deed.

Literally, if you can write with a pencil and paper, you already have all the physical skill needed to graft honeybee larvae. In fact, if you can write with a pencil and paper, the only thing you lack to be able to graft honeybee larvae is a little practice, and the confidence it would bring.

Just spend a little time (and you might be surprised how little), getting "the feel" of probing wax comb with a grafting tool. Learn first hand how little pressure it takes to tear the wall, or punch through the bottom of the cell. What you'll actually do is refine your muscle memory (that you already have from knowing how to write) to the specialized task of grafting larvae.

You can see an animation of the motion to practice in this YouTube video produced by Matthew Hébert and titled Grafting Honeybee Larvae. Obviously there's more you'll need to know before actually rearing your own queens, but this is all the physical skill (dexterity) you need to practice.

And all you need for that practice is a frame of empty comb and a grafting tool. If you just harvested honey, you've probably got a few frames of empty comb lying around. So all you really need is a grafting tool, and it happens that you probably already have all you need to make one.

What follows is a description of how to make your own grafting tool, excerpted from my book "Splitting Hives & Rearing Queens: Growing & Managing Your Small Apiary." Actually, you can buy grafting tools cheaply enough, but probably not as cheaply as a #2 pencil and a #1 paper clip. And since these are used in the field, and are consequently prone to being lost in the tall grass, you may prefer this less expensive approach.


 

You can make your own grafting tool from a standard #1 paper clip. The diameter of a #1 paper clip is approximately 0.03", and when straightened it is about 3-3/4" long (see picture).

Shaping the paper clip is technically called forging, or more specifically cold forging since you won’t be heating the metal to a plastic state. You won’t need a coal fire, but you will need a small tack hammer and a hard metal surface to hammer on.

If you have a vise on your work bench it will do nicely. In fact, it probably has a flat hammering surface on the back end.

Begin by flattening one end of a paper clip until it is between 0.1" and 0.15" wide (see picture). This will reduce the flattened part to a thickness between 0.005" and 0.009", or in more meaningful terms, about the thickness of a sheet of printer paper.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, don’t get out a vernier caliper. If your paper clip looks kind of like the drawing in figure 19a you’re golden. In fact, the blade (the flattened part) can be considerably shorter and still work just fine.

What is critical is polishing the blade of your grafting tool. You must remove all burrs and round any sharp corners or edges before use. Otherwise you risk slicing, tearing, or puncturing any larvae you try to graft.

I recommend using an emery board to polish the blade of your grafting tool, but be very careful doing so. The blade should be literally paper thin; it will crease and tear easily. That’s why I suggest clamping the blade in your vise (or a pair of pliers), leaving only the slightest portion of the edge you’re polishing exposed. This supports and protects the blade while you smooth and polish it.

Once the blade is shaped and polished, curl the end and bend the shaft as shown in the picture above. Then cut the shaft to the desired length and push it into the eraser end of a pencil. Cut it diagonally to form a sharp point. Then you can twist it as you press it through the eraser, boring it further into the wood. This will make the tool more secure than if it were only in the eraser (see topmost picture).

The offset angle of your new grafting tool not only prevents obstructing your view, it allows you to grasp it just like you would normally grasp a pencil. This works well because the fine motor skills you will use grafting with this tool are the same ones you’ve already developed for writing.