I often get customers call to say they have queen cells and what should they do. After an often long conversation, I find out that they don’t have queen cells but they have “queen cups”. Queen cups are often found in a colony, usually along the bottom of the frame, on closer inspection you will see they don’t have any eggs in them. It’s only when you see an egg in one that you need to pay attention. Have you heard the term “Charged Queen Cell”? – this is when a queen cup has an egg placed in it and royal jelly, it may still be cup form or extended more like the peanut shaped queen cell you should be familiar with, and it is not sealed but open on the end as the larvae is still being fed.
So, just for clarification: empty queen cups are of no concern, you will regularly see them in a colony, often around the edges of the frame, but any queen cup or cell that has an egg in it or royal jelly in it, is something to be concerned about. It means you need to be aware and pay attention as you may need to take action.
When you do see charged queen cells, what you don’t do is panic and start taking them all down. Queen cells in a colony do not necessarily mean the colony is preparing to swarm, they could be supercedure or emergency queen cells. Before any action is taken you must first work out why the bees are making queen cells.
There are three types of queen cell – Supercedure, Emergency and Swarm. Below I have looked at each one individually with a view to explaining what they are and what you should do in each case.
Supercedure cells – These are queen cells that are produced because the existing queen needs to be replaced for some reason. It may be that she is getting old and not producing enough pheromone. Or, she may not be laying as well as she used to, maybe she is running out of sperm. Whatever the reason our bees are so clever that they know that they need to replace the existing queen and therefore they will start to make supercedure cells. These are often, but not always, found on the face of the frame, in the middle or higher up and they often make them in small groups of 2 or 3. Having said that do not assume that queen cells on the bottom or side of the frame are swarm cells, if there are just a few of them they may well be supercedure cells. Supercedure cells are also more likely to be made on frame with younger wax rather than older wax.
If you do find supercedure cells leave the bees to it, they know their needs better than us. The new queen(s) will emerge and one will be chosen as the new queen for the colony. The existing queen is still present, so you will have eggs throughout the whole supercedure process. The new queen will take her mating flights, when completed she will also start to lay; if you are lucky enough you will have the pleasure of seeing both queens, mother and daughter, working together on one frame. Once the new queen is laying the bees will focus all their attention onto her and start to ignore her mother. Eventually the mother will die, the daughter will head the colony on her own. The colony will not have a break in brood and will carry on with the new queen as if nothing has happened, your honey harvest will not be affected in this colony, likewise the temperament of the colony should have been the same all the way through. If you are not doing weekly inspections, or if you only inspect a few brood frames to check for eggs, you may even miss the supercedure happening. One day you may find your queen is no longer marked, the reality is that is not actually the queen you thought it was, it’s her daughter!
Emergency cells – These are produced by a colony when they are rendered queen-less and therefore in an emergency situation. The queen may have accidentally been badly damaged/squashed during an inspection without you knowing. Or, if she was unknowingly on the frame that you had removed for inspection, she may have simply flown off – I have seen queens fly from a frame that was being passed around at a beginners course. The frame had been out of the colony for too long, the queen was not happy so she took off. I have also seen a queen walking up the outside of the hive next to the one I am working on. What had happened here is that the queen had walked off the frame that was lent up against the colony, she had walked down the hive stand and onto the other hive. It’s worth mentioning that I had not actually seen her on the frame, I would never have sat it outside of the hive if I had. I also recall another occasion when I found emergency cells in a colony where the queen had just disappeared since the previous inspection. This was in my early days of beekeeping, feeling confused as to what had happened to the queen, and on this occasion I was working the bees on my own so had no one to ask, I decided the best cause of action was to leave the bees to it and I put the colony back together. I put the crown board on and as I picked up the roof I saw the queen, nicely pressed like a dried flower, on the roof batten. The colony had previously been inspected by my mentor. So, no matter how many years we have been working with bees even the best of us still make rookie mistakes!!!
These are often, but not always, smaller than swarm or supercedure cells. The reason they can be smaller is that, in their need to make a new queen quickly they may use an older larvae. The older larvae will have originally been fed as a new worker larvae and only fed royal jelly for the first 2 days after hatching. Due to this often the emergency queens themselves are also sometimes smaller, this does not mean she won’t be as good but it may be more difficult to spot her. Not all emergency cells will be made from older larvae, if the bees can, they will make queens from younger larvae, and therefore these will still be being fed royal jelly which will continue until the queen cell is sealed.
Emergency cells do often hang from the frame slightly differently. The way to know if they are emergency or supercedure is to look for the original queen and eggs. If you have fresh laid eggs; a new laid egg will be sitting upright on the bottom of the cell and not laid on its side, then you most likely have a queen even if you can’t see her, therefore the queen cells are supercedure not emergency. If you don’t have any eggs you can probably make the assumption the colony is queen-less, therefore these are emergency queen cells. A queen-less colony often shows a change in temperament and noise. A colony that has raised emergency queen cells will have a break in the brood pattern, just as a colony that swarmed does, however there will be no reduction of bee numbers other than the normal mortality rate. All being well your new queen will emerge and within a couple of weeks of her starting her mating flights you will find eggs. To read more about timings of queens coming in to lay see this page
Swarm Cells – If you are seeing multiple queen cells in your colony during spring and summer then they are most likely swarm cells. When the bees decide to swarm, usually as a result of not enough space for their queen to lay and for their stores, the bees will start to produce lots and lots of queen cells. You may have 10 or 30 queen cells, I had so many in one colony that I stopped counting them, I gave up when I hit 40! I have also seen colonies with only 6 or so swarm cells but truthfully this is rare. What is a consistency is that they are nearly always found towards the bottom of the frame and down the sides, that’s not to say they won’t be seen in the middle of the frame. In a double brooded colony they are almost certainly going be hanging off the bottom of the frames in the top box. If you do have swarm cells you definitely need to take action, before you can decide what to do you need to work out if the bees have already swarmed, or if the original queen is still there.
To read more about swarming – prevention and control see separate post.