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Finding Honey Bee Queen Cells in the Hive
A common decision for beekeepers is the question of what to do with queen cells? These large peanut shaped cells signal that the honey bee colony is making a new queen. But, beekeepers are not always happy to find this replacement being made. Your decision of what to do with any queen cell is based on the needs of the colony and 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! Learning when to do something and when not – that is the skill of beekeeping.
How to Identify a Queen Cell
A queen honey bee is larger than worker bees. So naturally, she requires a larger wax cell for development. Even though the size of a queen bee varies, she can not develop to her true size in ordinary brood cells.
This large unusual cell is much longer than other brood cells and hangs down the front of the comb. Beekeepers describe it as “peanut shaped” and it can be quite exciting to the new beekeeper upon finding the first one.
It is common to see several cells being produced at one time. This increases the chances that at least 1 will survive to lay eggs for the colony.
Difference between Queen Cups and Queen Cells
There are various stages of queen cell development in any colony. In the beginning, the cell being made ready for 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 of them 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 cups during hive inspections. But, if you see many newly constructed cups in a hive that didn’t previously have them – take heed.
Once you see an egg or larva in a cup – the race is on – your colony is making a new queen. Once the cup has a developing larva it is a charged queen cell.
Should I Destroy Queen Cells?
Do not destroy queen cells you find in your hive. It does not stop swarming-it is just delayed. It is hard to stop bees from swarming.
When you find them in your bee colony, you are tempted to quickly cut them out. Don’t cut out those cells – at least not yet.
You can always cut out cells later but you can’t put them back once they are destroyed. Look for and find the existing queen bee . Then, try to understand what the bees are telling you.
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 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 her constant egg laying, population begins to drop.
The hive may not have enough time or the resources to try a second time. If something happens to the replacement, 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.
Why Colonies Start Queen Cells
As discussed in – Queen Cells: What do they Mean, there are 2 different types.
Each one tells a story about what is happening inside the hive. Before manipulating any of these cells, try to understand what your bees are telling you.
What to do with Supersedure Cells
If you find several large peanut shapes 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 her if they want to.
Check back in a couple of weeks to insure that replacement was successful and the colony has fresh brood.
Letting the bees rear a new queen does introduce local genetics into the hive. However, you run the risk of an inferior queen being produced.
If you want to try new genetics, this is a good time to buy a new queen for the hive. Tear down any queen cells and kill the old queen before introducing a new one.
This is especially good advice in the case of emergency queen cells. Finding just a couple of these cells here and there on the comb may indicate that the colony in in crisis. This is especially true if the cells are very small or seem or poor quality.
They are working with what they have but may not have the best larvae to work with. Giving them a mated queen is a good choice because they will have new worker bees sooner.
Should You Cut Out Swarm Cells?
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?
Developing queen cells are on the bottom of frames are likely swarm cells. It is past time to put swarm management techniques into play. The colony is already in swarm mode, you may need to split the colony into 2 smaller hives-at least for a time.
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. If you miss even 1 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.
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 early in the season.
How to Use Extra Queen Cells
If you have enough bee population to work with and some extra equipment you can use excess cells in several ways.
Splitting the Colony with Many Queen Cells
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 another reason it is a good idea to always keep extra beekeeping equipment on hand.
Start a New Nuc Hive
Excess queen cells can be used to start a new nuc hive. If colony A is strong with many replacement cells and a laying queen, you can move the frame with some of the queen cells (or the old queen herself) to a new box.
Then, add a few frames of bees (from that hive), brood, honey and pollen from other hives. Let this new split raise a new queen bee.
If you have a very large colony, 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.
Help a Queenless Colony
Seeing queen cells in the hive can be a good thing. Sometimes a beekeeper is delighted to find them. If needed you can use these extra cells to help another colony.
A queen cell can be given to a colony without a queen. This gives them a jump start as they do not have to construct a cell from scratch.
Give the queenless colony plenty of worker bees, honey and a cell. In a couple of weeks, you may have a young, laying queen.
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, or 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.