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Queen Cells : Do They Mean Trouble?

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What are Queen Cells?

When we see a honey bee colony producing queen cells, they are trying to tell us something. This hive is preparing to have a new queen honey bee. One of the most remarkable things about a colony is their ability to easily replace her in most conditions. There are different types of queen cells that mean different things.

Queen bee cells on a frame in a hive image.

Anytime the beekeeper finds queen cells in the hive, this is a clear sign that further inspection is needed. We much try to decipher the story that the bees are trying to tell about colony conditions.

But, it is important to investigate carefully and not destroy any of the queen cells until we understand why they are there.

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 – with one requirement. They must have the materials needed.

Any hive with ample food, worker bees and fresh fertilized eggs has the material needed to make a queen. A good queen can not be produced from older larvae so the replacement process must start early on.

picture of a queen honey bee cell why bees build them

Worker bees choose a very young larva 2 days old or younger. This is the beginning of the life cycle of the queen honey bee.

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. For the first 7 or 8 days, the only thing the queen larva does is eat and grow.

A queen cell is capped around day 8 as the pupal stage begins. Development continues in the capped cell until the adult queen emerges.

Seeing developing queen cells in various stages indicates that a new queen is on the way. But, bees build them for different reasons.

What do Queen Cells Look Like?

Because the queen bee is larger (longer) than workers, the 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. Regardless of the types of queen cell – they all look the same and hold a developing queen honey bee.

Capped queen cell on the face of honeycomb in a beehive image.

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.

3 Types of Queen Cells

Honey bees build 3 types of queen cells: Swarm cells, Supersedure Cells and Emergency Cells.

  • Swarm Cells
  • Supersedure Cells
  • Emergency Cells

How does the beekeeper know which kind of cell is present ? We make educated guesses in most cases but there are some clues to consider.

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. A hive normally produces several cells at a time.

Swarm Cells Produced By the Colony

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. 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 swarm cells but that is not the norm.

This is the type of queen cell that requires fast attention by the beekeeper to prevent a swarm. If you see, a bunch of queen cells on the bottoms of frames in a strong colony, take action.

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.

Supersedure queen cell on the side of a comb image.

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 cells – maybe 3 or 4 instead of 6 or more than is common for swarm cells.

Emergency Queen Cells Can Be Anywhere

With supersedure and swarm cells the colony had time to plan. Swarm preparations take place over weeks. And, an older queen bee typically fails over time.

This gives the colony time to select the best young larva for producing a new queen. Remember only the youngest larva make a good 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. Supersedure 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 supersedure cells, there is always a danger that less desirable larva may not produce the best queens.

Queen Cups: What They Mean

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?

Your first task is to try to decide why the colony is raising a new queen before removing any queen cells.

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.

Importance of Understanding Why Colonies Build Queen Cells

Learn how to identify the different types of queen cells. The bees are telling us what they are planning.

The beekeeper must decide what to do with any queen cells in the hive. Whether to interfere or leave the bees to their own plans. 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 why they are trying to make a new queen. If the queen bee dies, the colony knows it is in a difficult situation.

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