What to do With Queen Cells in Your Hive?
If you are new to beekeeping, you may wonder what the heck are these large peanut shaped structures on my comb? You have found queen cells. One of the most fascinating queen bee facts, is that bees can make a new queen. As the beekeeper, you are faced with a decision – what do do with queen cells?
It’s true, the site of a large peanut shaped cell queen cell can be perplexing the first time you see one.
You know that you are seeing something unusual but it’s hard to understand why the bees are doing this.
However, once you realize the purpose of a queen cell it is easier to understand what they mean for your colony.
How to Identify a Queen Cell
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 ! It is normal to see several queen cells at one time.
Queen Cups are No Cause for Alarm
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.
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 that needs a new queen, seeing queen cells is a good thing.
A queen less colony can be given the resources to make a new queen. Give this colony without a queen plenty of worker bees, honey and fresh eggs (or a queen cell from another hive). 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 beekeeper is about to experience honey bee swarming.
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.
This is why most beekeepers put swarm prevention techniques into practice. We can not always prevent swarming but we hate to lose bees.
Finding Multiple Queen Cells
The miraculous system for how bees make a new queen bee 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 cutting out even one queen cell, the colony can still swarm. And, if even if you are successful in removing all the cells -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.
Your first task is to ensure that the current queen is still there. Look for and find the existing queen bee before destroying any queen cell.
Ask Yourself 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. But, because the colony is already in swarm mode, you may need to split the colony into 2 smaller hives for a time.
Knowing how to split a beehive into smaller parts is one way to manage overcrowding and slow down the natural swarm impulse.
If you do not want more hives long term, you may be able to combine hives later in the season – once the time of heavy swarming is over.
What to do When You Find 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. When I do this, I cut out all of the queen cells except for the biggest 2 or 3.
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.
Whether you let the bees go forward on their own, or give them a mated queen – you will still want to check the hive again in a couple of weeks to ensure a good queen is in residence.
What Does a Capped Queen Cell Mean?
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.
Has the colony already swarmed and taken the old queen with them? Sometimes, it is difficult to tell. Finding a capped queen cell means it is time to make a quick decision on what to do.
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.
Using Extra 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.
As I tell students in my Online Beekeeping Class, being a good beekeeper is about balance – you have to work with the natural tendencies of the honey bee.
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.