Why Did My Bees Make a Queen Cell
Finding a queen cell in the beehive is exciting for any beekeeper. If you are new to beekeeping, you may wonder what the heck is this? And what is your hive trying to tell you?
It’s true, the site of a large peanut shaped cell can be perplexing the first time you see one. You know that you are seeing something unusual but it’s hard to understand.
However, once you realize the purpose of a queen cell it is easier to understand what they mean for your colony.
What Does a Queen Cell Look Like?
Because the queen bee is larger than workers, she needs a larger cell for development. When the colony wants to produce a queen, worker bees build a larger honeycomb cell that looks much like a peanut !
In the beginning, the cell looks like a small acorn. We call it a “queen cup”. A honey bee colony can keep several queen cups in place. Some will never be used – its a genetic thing. A bit of pre-preparation “just in case” for the bees.
But, if you suddenly begin to see many acorn sized queen cups – take heed. The bees may have a plan to develop it into a full queen cell and raise a new queen bee.
When the queen lays an egg in the cup, the queen rearing process has began. This is now a true queen cell. Your bees have a plan.
More than just recognizing them, we need to know what they mean. It is important to note how many queen cells you see and where they are located.
Is Seeing a Queen Cell a Good Sign?
Seeing Queen cells can be good. Sometimes a beekeeper is delighted to find them. If you have a colony and you want to raise a new queen bee, seeing queen cells is a good thing.
Perhaps you have purposely given the colony plenty of worker bees, plenty of honey and fresh eggs (or a queen cell). In a couple of weeks, you can have a young, laying queen.
Other times, the last thing we want to see are queen cells in the hive. A lot of queen cells in a crowded colony, means the hive planning to swarm.
That may not be such a good thing as approximately half your colony will leave. If you fail to catch the swarm, you have lost valuable bees.
A colony that is planning to swarm will have numerous queen cells that will usually be near the bottom of the frames. A honey bee colony wants to raise the very best queen. Having more than 1 queen cell increases the chance of success.
Upon seeing a large amount of queen cells in your hive, this may be the signal that swarm season is upon you.
You usually want to avoid swarming colonies and do your own hive splits to reduce congestion. However, it is a great idea to have a couple of swarm traps out several weeks before swarm season.
I like to use swarm lure in my bait hives/swarm traps. A trap with lure with NOT cause a colony to swarm. However, if they do swarm in spite of your efforts to stop it- maybe you will catch them.
When wanting to swarm, they make a new queen to leave behind and take the old queen with them.
Making A New Queen Honey Bee In A Queen Cell
If the bee colony is in need of a new queen, they will select a very young larva. This is true whether the colony is preparing to swarm or replacing a bad queen.
This larva came from a fertilized egg – it will be a female bee. The best queens will be produced from very tiny larva – almost too small to see! (This is why a colony must have fresh eggs/larva to make a good queen.)
Nurse bees feed the chosen larva rich concentrations of food (royal jelly and brood food) in large quantities. This will cause the larva to grow and develop into a sexually mature queen bee.
Workers bees will elongate the cell to accommodate the growing queen. At the proper time, they will cap the end of the cell to allow the queen larva to pupate into an adult.
After 16 days, the queen bee will emerge and after maturing for a few days inside the hive – she will fly outside the hive to mate with drone (male) bees.
Upon returning to the hive, she will soon begin to lay eggs and become the mother of the hive.
Queen Honey Bees Face Dangers
This is a wonderful system for creating new queens but it is fraught with possible peril. The queen may perish before hatching (or a beekeeper may squish the cell).
She may be eaten by a bird on her mating flight or rainy, windy weather may prevent her from being mated properly.
The honey bee colony only has a limited amount of time to requeen itself because the population begins to drop. If something happens to the young virgin queen, there may not be any young larva in the hive to begin again!
When we think of how many things can go wrong, it is a miracle that it works most of the time. And it explains why you will usually see more than 1 queen cell.
If something bad does happen to our new queen, the colony may be doomed to die. Hopefully, an observant beekeeper notices the problem.
And then, supplies the colony with fresh eggs (from another hive) or a purchased queen that is already mated.
Should I Remove a Queen Cell?
Seeing numerous queen cells during swarm season can be frightening. When you find queen cells in your bee colony, you are tempted to quickly cut them out. DON’T!
You don’t want your colony to swarm but cutting out queen cells doesn’t stop swarming-it is just delayed. It is hard to stop bees from swarming.
If you miss even one cell, the colony can still swarm. And, if you are successful in removing them the bees will just make more. This first thing you should do upon finding a queen cell in the beehive is to stop and think.
Stop, think and try to understand why the cells are there. You can always cut them out later but you can’t put them back.
Look for and find the existing queen before destroying any queen cell.
Where Are Queen Cells Located?
Is the honey bee colony crowded? Do you see a lot of bees crowded on the frames? If so, seeing many developing queen cells at the bottom of frames means the colony is preparing to swarm.
It is time to put swarm management techniques into play. Because the colony is already in swarm mode, you may need to split the colony into 2 smaller hives for a time.
Supercedure Queen Cells
Sometimes you find a smaller number of queen cells higher up on the frames, this signals a supercedure issue. The colony is unhappy with their current queen.
The queen may have died or she is failing. Sensing a problem, the honey bees feel the need to produce a new queen.
Depending on the time of year, maybe you should just let them continue and check back for success in a few weeks.
Instead of letting them make a new queen, you may cut out the queen cells and buy a new queen. This will result in new eggs being laid sooner.
Letting the bees rear a new queen from queen cells does introduce local genetics into the hive. However, you run the risk of an inferior queen being produced.
When Will a Queen Cell Hatch?
The life cycle of a queen honey bee from egg to adult is 16 days. Most colonies will cap the queen cell on day 8 (this can be earlier).
Expecting an adult queen to emerge on day 16, a capped cell has about 8 days left – at most. When we see a capped cell, we don’t know when it was capped.
When I see partially constructed queen cells and none are capped, I may decide to close the hive and consider how I want to proceed. I do run the risk of missing a capped queen cell and having a queen hatch early.
When you are a beekeeper, it is sometimes hard to decide what to do. No choice is guaranteed to be the best one.
What to Do With Queen Cells?
If you have the resources, you can use excess queen cells for a split or new hive. The new hive will need a large queen cell (I usually put 2).
It will also need worker bees, brood, honey, and pollen. It is a good idea to feed the bees to help them get off to a good start.
If you have a very large colony with numerous queen cells, you may even split it into 3 smaller hives. But don’t “spread your bees too thin”, or you will end up with several weak colonies.
Be aware if you take too many resources from your main colonies, you may miss the honey flow for the season.
Finding a queen cell in the beehive is certainly a reason for excitement. However, it is important to take the time to consider what it means before you take action.
If the colony feels a need to replace the queen, maybe you should let them. Does it look like a swarm is on the way? Put out your swarm traps, then you can try to keep the cells cut out or better yet – split the colony before it splits itself.
Learn more about queen cell in my post on types of queen cells in your beehive.
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