A honey bee colony consists of thousands of workers and 1 queen. Each individual has their own task, but arguably, non are more important than the queen. The queen lays eggs and provides the colony with the next generation of bees. In fact, the queen can lay ~2000 eggs per day. But in certain situations, queens can become damaged, killed, or start to fail, which puts a colony in a precarious situation. Without the queen (or with a failing queen), the colony would most likely fail because not other individual can reproduce. However, workers can rectify the situation by producing new queens.
Workers can produce queens if eggs or young larvae are within the colony. Workers will produce queens for many different situations, but they do so for 3 major reasons: Swarming, Queen Superscedure and Emergency queen replacement. For each situation, the colony produces relatively distinctive queen cells, which beekeepers can identify. Queen cells are overt signs of larger issues, and beekeepers should learn to interpret these signs and manage accordingly.
Lets take a look at the 3 major queen cells!
Swarm cells are the most common queen cell as most beekeeping deal with swarming. Colonies swarm for many reasons, which I have talked written about already.
Why do swarm cells occur?
Swarm cells occur for 4 major reasons:
- Colony is crowded
- Abundance of resources
- Old Queen
- Mite infestation of disease
Colonies often swarm because the colony is overcrowded. They will produce swarm cells because the colony must split in order to survive. Swarm cells are not necessarily a sign of disaster, but must be managed accordingly.
When do you see swarm cells?
Swarm cells are seen in during mid-spring, when the colony is building up rapidly with brood and resources. Oftentimes, the beekeeper does not provide space in a timely fashion, so the gets into “swarming mode”. Swarming is seen differently in other regions, but is most often correlated with honey flow and forage availability.
What do swarming cells look like?
The colony will produce swarming cells if the colony becomes to large for their current
enclosure. Unlike superscedure or emergency cells, the cells will be built on the bottom of the frame. They have the distinct peanut shaped look, but are known to be smaller than superscedure and emergency cells. If swarm cells are seen, observe whether: 1)the cell contains eggs or larvae, 2)the cell is capped or 3)the cell is open due to queen emergence. The swarm cell can inform beekeepers how far along the colony is about to swarm or not. If the colony has swarm cells with eggs or larvae, then the colony is in the early stages of swarming. However, if the swarm cell indicates a queen has emerged, then the colony has or is about to swarm. Observe these signs so you can manage accordingly.
What should you do if you see a swarming cell?
I outline the signs of swarming and preventative measures in a previous post I linked above, so refer to these. However, removal of swarm cells may not be enough, especially if the colony is preparing to swarm. Anyway, even if a swarm cell were removed, the colony can easily produce more. Swarm cell removal can be a short term solution because a colony will not swarm without a queen. Cell removal is a short term solution to a larger problem, which is ultimately space.
These are superscedure cells. The left cell is about to be capped
Colonies produce superscedure cells when they need to replace an aging or failing queen.
Why do superscedure cells occur?
Colonies produce superscedure cells when the queen is not performing up to colony standards. Many times, this is due to age and attrition because like all organisms, queens age and their performance wavers. This can hinder a colonies growth and development. Colonies can sense this attrition through pheromones and other cues, which tell colonies the queen needs to be replaced. Colonies produce superscedure cells for many different reasons, which include:
- Queen is old
- Queen is not producing enough pheromones
- Queen is beginning to lay drone eggs
- Brood pattern is spotty
These are not the only reasons for superscedure cells, but the major ones.
This is a newly emerged virgin queen
This is a nice, high performing queen
This a failing queen laying an egg. The queen has tattered wings and a poor brood pattern
This is a failing queen. The queen is tattered wings, and she has a shoddy brood pattern
When do you see superscedure cells?
Unlike swarming cells, superscedure cells can occur during all times of the year. But remember, if a colony is producing a new queen, that queen must still mate. During certain times of the year, mating will be less successful because less drones are available or the weather is not ideal. In these situations, the beekeeper may need to intervene with a new queen.
What do superscedure cells look like?
The colony will build several cells, usually on the face of the frame, to boost their odds of rearing a queen. These cells are often extensions of young eggs or larvae, which are ideal for producing high quality queens. Like I mentioned in the swarm cells, observe the stage of the superscedure cell. Does the cell contain eggs or larvae? Has a queen emerged from the cell? Is the queen cell still capped? These signs indicate the stage of superscedure. If the cell contains eggs or larvae, the cell is still in the early stages. However, if signs indicate queen emergence, then the colony may contain a virgin or newly mated queen. Just to note: the old queen may work side-by-side the new queen as superscedure does not always mean the old queen will be killed. If two queens are seen, then this may be a valid explanation.
Superscedure cell that has recently been open. The queen has emerged in the top cell. In the bottom cell, the newly emerged queens and/or workers destroyed the other developing queen. You can tell because the cell was never uncapped, and was destroyed from the side.
What should you do if you see a superscedure cell?
Many beekeepers will tell you to “let the process” run full circle, but this can depend upon the timing of superscedure cells. Queen success is based upon genetic traits and mating success, which may not be accomplished during certain times of years or if the right drone population is not available. Beekeepers want their queens to mate with as many drones as possible, but also with the right drones. Thus, requeening with purchased queens is a valid management practice, especially in the spring. These queens are often properly mated and selected for certain traits, which improves success going forward. Letting the colony supersede the queen is a risky process that can work, but can lead to undesirable traits or lack of success. Obviously queens are not availible in the fall, so beekeepers should let colonies fulfill this process, but requeening should be considered.
Colonies produce emergency queen cells if the queen is lost suddenly
Why do emergency cells occur?
It is often hard to pinpoint exactly why colonies produce emergency queen cells, but something has happened to the queen where the queen died or did not make it back to the colony. These are few reasons:
- The queen died suddenly
- The queen was crushed during inspections
- Queen was lost during inspection
- Queen flew away and did not make it back to the colony
- Virgin queen did not make it back from the mating flight
For whatever reasons, the colony is fervently trying to produce a new queen.
When do you see emergency cells?
Beekeepers see emergency queen cells during all times of the year, and it really depends upon when the queen was lost or killed. To survive, the colony needs a queen so they will worker quick and fast to replace her. Remember, the colony needs young eggs or larvae to produce high quality queens, which may be in a limited supply. While the colony has young eggs or larvae, they must produce a queen quickly before they become to old. Once they are too old, then the queen will be of very low quality or the colony cannot produce queens at all. Oftentimes, beekeepers should intervene when emergency queen cells are seen.
What do emergency cells look like?
Similar to superscedure cells, the colony will build the cells on the face of the frame and usually several at a time. The beekeeper will spot several queen cells in one area, which is a obvious indication of an emergency queen situation. Similar to swarm and superscedure cells, observe the stage of emergency cell development. This will tell you whether the colony just lost its queen or if it produce a new queen that just emerged.
What should you do if you see a emergency cells?
Beekeepers should be wary of emergency cells because they are often riskier than superscedure cells. Unlike superscedure cells, the colony has had little time to prepare for replacement. The colony picks the perfect aged larvae to produce the highest quality queens. However, the colony is forced to rear queens from the youngest larvae available within the colony. While young larvae may have been readily available when the queen suddenly died or did not return, this is often too late. Beekeepers can provide the colony with young eggs or larvae while removing the queen cells, but the beekeepers runs into similar problems as superscedure cells. The best option is to requeen the colony to ensure the colony has a genetically ideal queen that has properly mated. It is not worth losing a healthy colony if the colony can be requeened. Obviously queens are not always available, but it is an option to consider.
I included queen cups because colonies will produce them randomly, but with not real purpose. Oftentimes, colonies produce these “nervous” cups, which may make them more prone to swarming. Beekeepers should only be concerned about queen cups if they contain eggs, which can indicate superscedure, emergency queen development or swarming. If the queen cups contain eggs, refer to the signs above to identify the issue. Queen cups WITH eggs are often early signs, so it mean you caught the issue early!