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Finding Honey Bee Queen Cells in the Hive
Often beekeepers are faced with the question of what to do with queen cells? The ability of a honey bee colony to make a new queen bee is awesome. But, as beekeepers we may not always be happy to see that the colony is rearing a new queen. Your decision will be based on the needs of the bees of course, but also your goals for the hive.
When we find anything “unusual to us” in the hive, it is common to think – now what are these bees doing? While honey bees always have a plan – it is not necessarily always in their best interest.
Sometimes the beekeeper needs to intervene to help the colony stay productive. And yes, sometimes we need to leave them alone and just let them be bees!
How to Identify a Queen Cell
A queen honey bee is larger than worker bees. So naturally, she can not develop to her true size in ordinary brood cells.
When the colony wants to produce a new queen, worker bees build a larger honeycomb cell for the queen larvae. This large cell is much longer than other brood cells and hangs down the front of the comb.
It is common to see several queen cells being produced at one time. Having several developing queens increases the chances that at least 1 will survive to emerge from the cell.
Difference between Queen Cups and Queen Cells
In the beginning, the cell being made ready for queen larvae looks like a small acorn. We call this a “queen cup”. It is normal for a colony to have some cups in place.
Many queen cups are never used. And some colonies tend to keep more of them on hand – its a genetic thing. A bit of pre-preparation “just in case” for the bees.
Don’t be alarmed when you see a few queen cups during hive inspections. But if you see many newly constructed cups in a hive that didn’t previously have them – take heed.
The bees may have a plan to develop it into a full queen cell and raise a new queen bee.
Once you see an egg or larva in a queen cup – the race is on – your colony is making a new queen. The cup alone is not technically called a honey bee queen cell.
However, once it has a developing larva it is a charged queen cell.
Advantages of Having Queen Cells
Seeing Queen cells in the hive can be a 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.
Share Queen Cells with a Queenless Hive
A queen cell on the frame can be given to a colony without a queen. This gives them a jump start as they do not have to construct a queen cell from scratch.
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.
There are different types of queen cells and each one tells a story about what is happening inside the hive. Still, the end result is a new queen bee.
Why Bees Make Multiple Queen Cells
Bees have a miraculous system for making a new queen . However, it is fraught with risk. The queen larva may perish before hatching (or a beekeeper may squish the cell).
The virgin queen may be eaten by a bird on her mating flight or rainy, windy weather may prevent her from being mated properly. This often results in a drone laying queen.
A colony that is in need of a queen has only a limited amount of time to get the job done. Without a laying queen, population begins to drop.
The hive may not have enough time or the resources needed to rear a queen a second time. 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.
Swarm Cells Signal Colony Growth
Sometimes multiple queen cells in the hive signals another event. A lot of queen cells in a crowded colony, means the beekeeper is about to experience a honey bee swarm.
They can be placed anywhere but are often along the bottom edge of the frame. Swarming signs are not always welcomed.
The good news is that your colony is strong enough to plan a swarm. The bad news is – 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 so we often try.
Should I Remove a Queen Cell?
When you find queen cells in your bee colony, you are tempted to quickly cut them out. Don’t cut out those queen cells – at least not yet.
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. Try to understand what the bees are telling you.
What is happening in the hive. You can always cut out cells later but you can’t put them back once they are destroyed.
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.
Finding Swarm Cells in the Colony
Is the honey bee colony crowded? Do you see a lot of bees crowded on the frames? Are there so many bees on the frames that it is hard to see the cells?
If so, those developing queen cells at the bottom of frames are likely swarm cells.
It is past 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-at least for a time.
Consider Splitting the Colony
Splitting a large strong hive 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.
This is a another reason it is a good idea to always keep extra beekeeping equipment on hand.
Should You Cut Out Swarm Cells?
What to do if you find swarm cells in your hive and do not want to make a split? Yes, you can cut out the swarm cells – as long as you know the old queen is still present.
However, this is only a stopgap measure and is labor intensive. The colony will quickly make more queen cells. You must continue to cut out the cells until the swarm impulse passes.
If you miss even 1 queen cell, the colony can still swarm. Cutting them out can work but it is not the easiest way to work with a colony in swarm mode.
What to do with Supersedure Queen Cells
If you find several queen cells higher up on the face of the frames. These are likely supersedure queen cells rather than a sign of swarming.
If the present queen bee is failing in egg laying or pheromone production, the colony will replace her. In most cases, trust the bees and let them replace their queen if they want to.
Check back in a couple of weeks to insure that queen replacement was successful and the colony has fresh brood.
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.
If you want to try a queen with different genetics, this is a good time to buy a new queen for the hive. Kill the old queen and tear down any queen cells before introducing a new queen.
This is especially good advice in the case of emergency queen cells. Finding just a couple of queen cells here and there on the comb may indicate that the colony in in crisis.
They are working with what they have but may not have the best larvae to produce a new queen. Giving them a mated queen is a good choice because they will have new worker bees sooner.
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. Don’t cut out those queen cells until you verify that she is still in the hive.
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.
The hive may be split into 2 if it is primed to swarm – or I may let the bees continue if I think it is a supersedure issue. One thing is certain, a capped queen cell means that a new queen will emerge soon.
When you are a beekeeper, it is sometimes hard to decide what to do. No choice is guaranteed to be the best one.
How to Use Extra Queen Cells
If you have the resources, you can use excess queen cells to start a new hive. If colony A is strong with many queen cells and a laying queen, you can move the frame with some of the queen cells to a new box.
Then add a few frames of bees, brood, honey and pollen from other hives. Let this new split raise one of the queen cells into a new queen bee.
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.
Final Thoughts on What to do With Queen Cells
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.
The beekeeper can use queen cells to help grow the apiary as long as the needs of the bees are the first priority.