Does it ever feel like your beekeeping revolves around the queen? We get it. She’s super important, and while the behavior of worker bees can tell you a lot about your colony, bees live and die by their queens. Queen cells can tell you a lot about your colony.
The other week we talked about brood comb, specifically the differences between capped honey cells and capped brood cells. I wanted to take a few minutes today to talk to you about queen cells, which are some of the other types of cells you may notice when observing and inspecting your hive. They are equally important but fairly different in appearance than the former.
In fact, each of the three queen cells I’ll tell you about can give you valuable insight into the inner workings of your colony. So, take note, and get ready to differentiate between the cells.
Before we get into the three types of queen cells, let’s quickly review the general appearance of one, and how you can tell it apart from the other brood cells in your comb.
Queen cells are much bigger than the drone or worker brood cells and resemble a peanut. Since queens are much larger in body size than drones and workers – from egg to pupa to larva – the queens just need more space in their cells. In fact, when queen cells are laid, they are laid vertically instead of horizontally, like workers and drones, so that they can grow to fill that lovely peanut-shaped cell over a few weeks’ time.
Of course, she has royal jelly from the worker bees to help her grow into her large, egg-laying self. This milky substance has proteins, simple sugars, and vitamins perfect for those early life transitions. While workers and drones are fed the royal jelly for three days before switching to bee bread, the queen continues to be fed royal jelly by the worker bees throughout her development.
The presence of a queen cell can mean a number of things for the colony. Let’s talk about that.
You may see swarm cells in the spring and throughout warmer months. These queen cells are typically located hanging down from the edges of the comb and are nothing to worry about.
Keep in mind, swarming is a normal bee behavior and typically means the colony is outgrowing the hive. So, the old queen splits off with some of her workers to find a new home with more space, leaving a new queen to occupy the old hive and begin the busy work of laying thousands of eggs every day. If you want to know more about swarming, check out our blog about it from a few months ago.
If you notice swarm cells, it could mean your colony is getting ready to swarm. Now’s the time to pay attention to the activity in the hive and keep your eyes open for the swarm that will be taking flight and looking for its new accommodations. In fact, having a harvest box handy, which isn’t just for honey, can help you out if you have a swarming colony; you can transport the swarm easily and safely using this hand-crafted beekeeping accessory.
If you want to see how it works, we have a video for that:
Our advice: If you see a swarm cell, just keep an eye on your colony and be ready to take care of a swarm. It’s a good thing! It means the colony is healthy, growing, and engaging in normal bee behavior.
Supersede cells can be found on the face of the comb rather than the bottom, like with swarm cells. There are also usually fewer – three or four total, as opposed to six or more you might see with swarming colonies. The function of these cells is to replace a queen that is nearing the end of her lifespan or can no longer perpetuate the colony.
While some queens can live for a year or more, unlike the six-week lifespan of workers in the warm seasons, her egg-laying is finite.
After her initial mating flight where she may be fertilized by a dozen or more drones, she lays eggs and fertilizes them until the sperm she stored in her spermatheca is used up. She only seeks mates once in her lifetime, and that one time supply of drone sperm is all she has to work with. Read about the drone’s perspective on this one-time event here.
So, is a supersede cell something to worry about? Not necessarily. If the workers notice the queen becoming less effective at her job, they will work to replace her in order to keep the rest of the colony alive; they depend on a steady supply of worker brood to forage, nurse new brood, protect the hive, attend to the queen, and repair comb. Without more workers, the colony cannot survive.
If you see supersede cells, keep a closer eye on your colony and check on them more frequently than you usually would; they are trying to keep their numbers up and doing the best they can to survive. They should be able to replace the queen if all goes well, and this action allows the colony to stay in its current hive, just with a new, egg-laying queen.
Emergency cells are a last-ditch effort by the colony: The existing queen died suddenly from disease or was killed in a squishing accident, and the hive didn’t have advanced warning. In these unexpected circumstances, they will convert a regular brood cell into an emergency queen cell in order to replace the dead queen.
Since this isn’t a planned action by the workers, there are usually only one or two of these cells at a given time, and they are typically located where you would find normal brood. In fact, the workers sometimes convert cells with 1-2 day old larvae into the queens. Unfortunately, this scenario means the new queen may not be the hardiest or most adept at laying eggs, and this can impact the colony in the coming weeks and months.
If you notice a missing queen and the presence of an emergency queen cell or two, keep a close eye on your colony. When we let bees be bees, they often find ways to recover from whatever challenges they face, especially when it comes to growing the colony and this is just another effort by them to survive.
The presence of a queen cell is not an inherently bad or worrisome situation in a beehive. It typically means something is going on with the queen, whether she’s preparing to swarm, struggling to lay eggs, or even passed away, and these cells hold her replacement.
Your role as a beekeeper is to make sure you know what’s going on in your hive at any given time. Look for these cells when you do your inspections, and keep an eye on the activities of the colony. If the new queen is not viable, for whatever reason, you may need to replace her with a mated queen. Otherwise, let the bees work out this transition using their amazing teamwork.
If you want to learn more about managing your comb, inspections, and how to install a new queen, check out Beepods Lab. It’s full of how-to guides, video walkthroughs, and tons of downloadable content you can take with you out to the hive. Click on the link below to get started.