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4 Stages of Queen Cells

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Queen Cell Development

When a honey bee colony needs a new queen bee, they begin construction of queen cells. Producing a new queen takes time.  There are 4 stages of Queen cells. Each stage is important to the colony’s attempt to make a good queen for the hive.   Having a quality queen is vital to colony survival.

developing queen cell in capped stage on the frame in hive

One of the marvels of nature is the ability of a honey bee colony to make a queen bee. The only requirement is that the bees must have a very young female larva or fertilized egg.

Only fertilized eggs or larva from fertilized eggs are female. They are the only ones who have the potential to develop into a queen.

Any colony that does not have fertilized eggs or very young larva is doomed without beekeeper intervention.

queen cell in hive - 4 stages of queen cells

How Long Does it Take to Make a Queen Cell?

There are several reasons that a bee colony may need to produce another queen bee. The time from egg laid to queen emergence is an average of 16 days.

The queen cell develops through several different stages in that time period. A beekeeper inspecting the hive may notice queen cups.

Queen cups are the very first or pre-stage of a queen cell. However, in practice, we don’t designate a cup as a true queen cell until it contains an egg or larva.

Why? Because some colonies keep several queen cups on hand all year. It appears to be a genetic tendancy because not every colony has them.

Perhaps it is some type of inherited survival tactic to have some queen cups in place, just in case they are needed.

In some instances, the old queen will lay an egg in a polished queen cup. This happens when the colony is preparing to swarm.

Finding Queen Cups in the Hive

Queen cups are included in this article because the sight of them often frightens new beekeepers.

Upon seeing queen cups they fear the colony is about to swarm. And, yes it might be?

queen bee cup first stage of queen cell on comb

Certainly seeing numerous queen cups in a colony that didn’t have them previously is some cause for concern.

However, the presence of queen cups alone is not an indicator of queen rearing activity.

Once that queen cup contains an egg or larva – it is game on. Your colony is making a new queen bee.

Queen Cell Timeline

The stages of normal queen cell development are: queen cups, open queen cells, capped queen cells and emerged queen cells.

Every queen that is made by a colony goes through this 16 day (on average) process. The life cycle of the queen progresses from fertilized egg, to queen bee larva, to queen pupa to adult.

The timing of cell and bee development can vary a little due to temperature and hive conditions.

However, on average, the queen spends 3 days as an egg, the larva is capped around day 8, and the adult emerges on day 16. But a lot is going on during this short time span.

In calculating the age of queen cells, finding an open queen cell means you have between 12 and 4 days until an adult queen emerges.

But, finding a capped queen cell means a new queen could emerge anytime in the next 4 days.

Open Queen Cells

Open queen cells occur during the larval stage of the developing queen. Worker bees build out the cell along the face of the comb.

Or, if the cell is being produced in a queen cup at the bottom, you notice the cell is being elongated.

Notice the difference in terminology and understand that some beekeepers use different terms.

In this article, “open” means an uncapped cell with a larva. It does not refer to a cell that has “opened” and the new queen left the cell.

The term “charged” is also sometimes used for a cell that has a developing queen inside.

open stage of queen cell with developing larva

A queen bee can not fit in a normal brood cell. She must have more room. Therefore, the open queen cell will be noticeable on the face of the comb or at the bottom of a frame.

A look inside reveals a growing larva floating in a bed of brood food. It is the quality and quantity of food in this cell that is responsible for queen development.

Any worker larva has the capability to become a reproductive queen if she is fed copious amounts of nutritious food very early in life.

Capped Queen Bee Cells

The queen cells become a long structure that resembles a peanut. Large queen cells are hard to miss.

capped queen bee cell stage on comb

As the developing queen finishes her larval development stage, she is finished eating. Workers cap the end of the cell with wax.

Inside the queen larva enters the pupal stage, she spins a cocoon and completes the transformation into an adult bee.

Emerged Queen Cells

Around day 16, a fully formed adult queen will emerge from her cell. Her first order of business is to seek out any other developing queens and sting them to death.

Survival of the fitest can be an ugly business sometimes. Often beekeepers know that a queen has emerged from a cell when they find the end of the capped cell opened.

The queen bee is not ready to take over the colony just yet. She will need to mature for several days and then take her mating flights.

After mating with drone honey bees, she can return to the hive to begin her life’s work – laying eggs.

What Pictures of Queen Cells Tell Us

In general, it is thought that larger queen cells produce queen of better quality. This is due to the belief that a strong colony with a large population has more workers to feed developing queens.

When the beekeeper is deciding what to do with queen cells found during an inspection, the largest ones should always be considered the best to keep.

This is true in regards to raising or rearing queen bees too – the larger queen cells are most desirable.

queen cells on bottom of frame

Finding a queen cell, or several, that are torn open on the side is and indication that the colony has reared a new queen. The torn cells are evidence of her killing her rivals.

Final Thoughts on the Stages of Queen Cells

Taking the time to observe closely the activities inside the hive is important as it tells us a lot about the status of the colony.

Whether you are planning to raise your own queens or simply trying to understand what your hive is doing, understanding the different stages of queen cells is good to know.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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