Queen Cells : What do They Mean?

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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 bee. One of the most remarkable things about a colony is their ability to easily replace her in most conditions. The number and placement of these special structures can tell us much about the status of the colony.

Mature queen cell on the comb in a hive image.

Anytime the beekeeper sees queen cells in the hive, this is a clear sign that further inspection is needed. We must try to decipher the story that the bees are trying to tell. This is the key to good hive management and success.

What are Queen Cells?

Should the beekeeper do something or leave the bees to their own devices? This depends on the condition of the colony and the goals of the beekeeper.

But first, we must investigate carefully and not destroy any anything until we understand more. To do that well, you need to understand more about honey bee reproduction.

Honey Bees Make a New Queen

A honey bee colony has a miraculous capacity to produce a new queen when one is needed. But, there is one requirement – they must have the materials needed.

Any hive with ample food, worker bees and fertilized eggs has the material needed to make a queen. Older bee larvae are not well suited so the replacement process must start early on.

First, worker bees choose very young larva 2 days old or younger. This is the beginning of the life cycle of the queen honey bee. These female larvae can develop into either a worker or a queen.

Larvae selected for future queens are fed a special diet and lots of it. This intense feeding program allows it to develop into a sexually reproductive female. One that is capable of mating and laying fertilized eggs.

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 larva does is eat and grow. Then, the feeding stage ends.

The cell is capped around day 8 as the pupal stage begins. Development continues inside the wax cell until the new queen emerges.

Seeing queen cells in various stages of development indicates that the requeening process is underway. But, bees build these cells for different reasons. To really help your colony, you need to know why this process is happening.

What do Queen Cells Look Like?

Because the queen is larger (longer) than workers, their growth chamber must be bigger. She can not develop in a normal, small cell. These specially designed “queen cells” resemble peanuts on the frame of comb.

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Drone Cells Often Cause Confusion

Don’t be fooled by another type of structure in the hive. Drone brood is sometimes confused for queen cells by new beekeepers.

Drone brood is reared in chambers that are slightly larger (wider) than those of workers. And, because drones are a bit longer, their capped cells protrude from the surface of the comb.

They are however distinctly different than large peanut shaped queen cells that hang down from the face of 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 they are found on the bottom of frames and others will be scattered on the face of the comb. A hive normally produces several at a time. This can be a signal of swarming but not always.

Numerous queen cells hanging down on bottom of comb image.

3 Types of Queen Cells in a Hive

Honey bees build 3 types of queen cells:

  • Swarm
  • Supersedure
  • Emergency

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.

Swarm Cells Produced By the Colony

A strong honey bee colony is likely to produce swarm 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 capped and ready to emerge, the swarm leaves.

In the next day or so, a new queen will emerge. She kills her rivals 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 (or one) but it is normal to see many.

This 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 found in the hive is a supersedure cell. These 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 she shows a decline in egg laying or reduced queen pheromones – 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 near the bottom of a frame.

And, there will be fewer supersedure cells – maybe 3 or 4 instead of 6 or more than is common for swarming.

Emergency Queen Cells

With supersedure and swarm cells the colony had time to plan. Swarm preparations take place over several weeks. And, an older queen typically fails over time-not at once.

This gives the colony time to select the best young larva for producing a new queen. Remember only the youngest larva are suitable.

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 by robber bees. Or, maybe a beekeeper accidentally squeezes her between frames.

When the queen is lost suddenly, emergency cells are constructed anywhere young larva are available. You many see only one or two. 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. There is always a danger that less desirable larva may not produce the best queen.

Queen Cups: What They Mean

Many colonies keep a few “queen cups – the first stage of the queen cell timeline” constructed on the comb. These small acorn-sized structures are prepared in advance of actual queen rearing.

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.

This is now a charged cup and is consider a true queen bee cell. The beekeeper must either let nature take its course or intervene.

If you allow the colony to do what nature intends, be sure to check 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 anything.

If they currently have a queen and the brood pattern is not good – perhaps you should let them replace her. Or, you can 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 locate each one in a crowded colony. Also, the colony will simply build more.

Understanding Why Colonies Build Queen Cells

Learn how to identify a queen cell and understand what the bees are telling you. The beekeeper must then 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 them 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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