What are Queen Cells?
Every honey bee colony has a queen bee. One of the most remarkable queen bee facts involves her ability to lay thousands of eggs. What happens when a new queen is needed? The colony constructs queen cells that will contain a new queen.
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.
How Bees Make a New Queen Bee
A honey bee colony has a miraculous capacity to produce a new queen bee when one is needed.
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 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.
Seeing developing queen cells indicates that a new queen is on the way. But, bees build them for different reasons.
3 Types of Queen Cells
Honey bees build 3 types of queen cells: 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 each kind.
- Swarm Cells
- Supersedure Cells
- Emergency Cells
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.
These specially designed “queen cells” resemble peanuts on the frame of comb. Each “type” of queen cell looks the same and holds a developing bee than can be become queen.
Drone Cells Often Confused as Queen Cells
Don’t be fooled by another type of cell. Drone bee cells are sometimes confused for queen cells by new beekeepers.
Drone brood is reared in cells that are slightly larger than worker cells. However, because drones are a bit longer, drone cells protrude from the surface of the comb a bit more.
They are however distinctly different than large peanut shaped queen cells that 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.
Sometimes cells are found primarily on the bottom of frames and others will be scattered on the face of the comb. The hive normally produces more than 1 cell at a time.
A strong honey bee colony is likely to produce swarm queen cells in the Spring. But, it can happen at any time during the warm months.
Honey bee swarming is a natural occurrence for 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.
Where do You Find Swarm Cells?
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 by the beekeeper. If you see, a bunch of queen cells on the bottoms of frames in a strong colony, take action.
If you do not want to lose the swarm, this colony should be split into 2 hives. The old queen and half the colony resources can be moved to a new box.
There are other methods employed by beekeepers to deal with swarm cells. Learn more about them – What to do With Queen Cells.
Supersedure Queen Cells
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 more importantly, they contain a finite number of eggs and/or semen to fertilize those eggs.
When a queen bee shows a decline in 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 instead of 6 or more than is common for swarm cells.
Emergency Queen Cells
In other types of queen cells, the colony had time to plan. Swarm preparations take place over weeks.
And, a older queen bee typically fails over time. This gives the colony time to select the best young larva for producing a new queen.
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. Superceedure cells can be as few as 1 or 2. This indicates a lack of suitable age larva.
In addition, the colony may have to choose larva that are older than 2 days – if no very young ones are available.
With superceedure cells, there is always a danger 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.
Their presence is no reason for beekeeper concern until an egg or larva is present inside.
Once you see larva in the cup, worker bees are serious about producing a queen. The beekeeper must either let nature take its course or intervene.
If you allow the colony to do what nature intends, be sure to complete a hive inspection 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.
Learn to identify the different types of queen cells. The bees are telling us what they are planning.
Swarming is only one reason for creating swarm cells. If the queen bee dies, the colony knows it is in a difficult situation. Look before you leap and don’t be too quick to cut those cells out.
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.