What Queen Cells Mean?
Honey bee colonies can make a new queen bee when needed. They construct special larger cells for the developing queen. Seeing queen cells indicates that a new queen is on the way. But, bees build them for different reasons.
Upon finding queen cells inside a beehive, the beekeeper can be sure of one thing. The bees are trying to tell a story about something happening inside the hive. The 3 types of honey bee queen cells are: Swarm cells, Supersedure Cells and Emergency Cells.
Each kind of queen cell is constructed for a different reason. A wise beekeeper learns to discern the difference between the 3. Important management decisions need to be made.
3 Types of Queen Cells
- Swarm Cells
- Supersedure Cells
- Emergency Cells
How Honey Bees Make a New Queen Bee
A honey bee colony has a miraculous capacity to produce a new queen bee when one is needed. Any hive with ample food, worker bees and fresh fertilized eggs has the material needed to make a queen.
This is the beginning of the queen bee life cycle. When a queen is needed, nurse bees select very young female larva (generally less that 2 days old). These larvae are fed a special diet and lots of it.
This intense feeding program allows the larva to develop into a sexually reproductive female: the queen bee.
The time for a queen bee to develop from egg to adult is 16 days on average. A queen cell is capped around day 8 as the pupal stage begins. They remain sealed until the queen emerges.
What do Queen Cells Look Like?
Because the queen bee is larger (longer) than workers, cells have to be bigger. She can not develop in a normal, small worker cell. It is common for the bees to produce more than 1 queen larva.
These specially designed “queen cells” resemble peanuts on the frame of comb. Each “type” of queen cell looks the same and serves the same purpose – producing a new queen.
Don’t be fooled by another type of cell. Drone cells are sometimes confused for queen cells by new beekeepers. But queen cells are much larger and hang down from the comb.
Where are Queen Cells Located?
The number of the queen cells present and their location tell the story of the hive’s status. They can be present anywhere in the brood nest area.
Some cells are found primarily on the bottom of frames and others will be on the face of the comb.
A strong honey bee colony is likely to produce swarm cells in the Spring. It can happen at any time during the warm season.
Swarming is a natural occurrence for honey bees. It is reproduction on the colony level.
When a colony swarms, a queen (usually the old one) and about half the population of bees leave. They will travel to a new location that has been selected by scout bees. Here, a new hive will be established.
But what about the bees left in the original location? Surely, they need a queen too! Yes, they do.
Before the swarm leaves, numerous queen cells are constructed. These are called swarm cells because their construction is part of swarm preparations.
Once the developing queen larva are mature and ready to emerge, the swarm leaves. In the next day or so, a new queen will emerge from one of the cells.
She kills the other queens still trapped inside and becomes the leader of the colony.
Swarm cells are most commonly seen along the bottom of frames. A colony can swarm with only a few queen cells but that is not the norm. This is the type of queen cell that requires fast attention.
If you see, a bunch of queen cells on the bottoms of frames in a strong colony, take action. This colony should be split into 2 hives or other methods employed to stop the swarm impulse.
To avoid queen supersedure at inconvenient times, I try to keep young queens in my hives. The best way to keep track of this (for me) is with marked queens.
Each color corresponds to a year. The color for 2019 is green. I will mark each new queen with green. This helps me find the queen easily and tells me her age.
This is the best type of pen to use for marking queens. I have some in all colors.
Another type of queen cell is called a supersedure cell. These queen cells are produced when the colony needs to replace their current queen.
Honey bee queens don’t live forever. And even more importantly, they contain a finite number of eggs and/or semen to fertilize those eggs.
When a queen bee shows declining egg laying, the colony will make plans to replace her. This may seem cruel but a honey bee colony must have a continual supply of new workers during the warm season.
These bees only live about 6 weeks during summer. Maintaining a strong worker force is the colony’s only chance of survival.
Supersedure cells can be anywhere in the brood nest area. But, you will most often find them on the face of the comb – not the bottom. And you will find fewer supersedure queen cells – maybe 3 or 4.
In both of our previous types of queen cells, the colony had time to plan. Swarm preparations take place over weeks. And, a queen typically fails over time. This gives the colony time to select the best young larva for development.
Emergency queen cells however are different. They are exactly that – an emergency.
Sometimes, a queen is lost suddenly. Perhaps, she dies from disease or is killed. Or maybe a beekeeper accidentally squeezes her between frames.
When the queen is lost suddenly, emergency cells are constructed anywhere young larva are available. The construction of one queen cell (or 2) means a lack of suitable age larva.
In addition, the colony may have to choose larva that are older than 2 days – if no young ones are available. The danger is that less desirable larva may not produce the best queens.
Queen Cups are Not Queen Cells – Yet
Many colonies keep a few “queen cups” constructed on the comb. These small acorn-sized cells are prepared in advance of actual queen cell construction. There presence is no reason for concern until an egg or larva is present.
Once that happens, the worker bees are serious about producing queens. The beekeeper must either let nature take its course or intervene.
If you allow the colony to do what nature intends, just be sure to recheck later to ensure successful requeening.
Should You Remove Queen Cells?
No, I don’t think so. Your first task is to try to decide why the colony is raising a new queen.
If they currently have a queen and the brood pattern is not good – perhaps you should let them work replace her. Or, purchase a new mated queen for them.
Cutting out swarm cells will not stop a colony from swarming. First of all, it is darn hard to find each one in a crowded colony. Also, the colony will simply build more.
Removing swarm cells can be a part of a management program but don’t rely on it completely. And never make the mistake of cutting out queen cells until you have a plan.
A better plan would be to split the colony (before it splits itself). Then leave 2 or 3 of the largest queen cells in each part.
Beekeepers often view queen cells as a bad sign or a problem. And yes, they can be a signal of an issue that needs attention. They are in actually a sign.
Learn to identify the different types of queen cells. The bees are telling us what they are planning.
Beekeeping holds so many fascinating opportunities. It takes time to learn how to read the bees and have a good “guess” at what they are planning.