Bees producing queen cells in a hive is a perfectly natural activity.
It’s often in response to specific conditions within the hive. Sometimes this means the outlook is good! Other times it means things are looking bleak 🙂
Understanding why a colony produces queen cells can help beekeepers control the outcomes.
But whatever the reason for the queen cells appearing inside your beehive, you’ll probably need to take action…
What are queen cells?
A honeycomb frame contains thousands of little hexagonal cells (approximately 3000 per side). These compartments make up the majority of the hive. Still, occasionally you might discover larger-looking “cells” in the middle or edges of the frames.
These are likely to be queen cells. And as the name suggests, they contain the larvae of a replacement queen.
There are actually two types of queen cells:
- Supercedure cells
- Swarm cells
Supercedure cells are created by the workforce within a hive when the existing queen can no longer perform her function correctly.
If the queen becomes ill or starts to get old, its capacity for laying eggs reduces. As a result, the longevity of the colony is endangered. Therefore, the queen must be replaced by a new healthy queen.
Worker bees will begin building queen cells on the face of the frames so they can raise a new queen. The young queen will “supersede” her predecessor.
Alternatively, these cells are sometimes called “emergency” cells if the queen has suddenly been killed. Again, the name befits the situation! The bees need to get a new queen in place quickly!
The other type of queen cell is known as a “swarm cell.”
Swarm cells are built on the outer edges of the hive frames when a colony is thriving, and the old queen is getting ready to swarm. She’ll leave the hive with about half the worker bee population if she swarms.
Obviously, the rest of the colony can’t be left behind without a functioning queen, so the colony will raise a virgin queen in preparation for the old queen’s departure.
- Supercedure cells are a sign that your colony is struggling.
- Swarm cells indicate the bees are thriving and your colony needs to expand.
What do queen cells look like?
Queen cells look similar in size and shape to a peanut husk and have a honeycomb texture. They are larger than normal cells and protrude from the surface of the comb face or extend out from the edges of the comb.
The two types of queen cells look slightly different and can be identified mainly through their location.
Swarm cells appear on the outer edges:
Whereas supersedure cells look like little vertical cups in the middle of the honeycomb:
Why do bees make queen cells?
As a beekeeper, it’s helpful to understand why your bees are producing these cells.
Bees will make queen cells for the survival and growth of the colony. Some of the main reasons for building queen cells include the following:
- The bee colony is queenless (sudden death)
- The queen bee is sick or injured
- The queen is too old
- The beehive is too small
- A strong nectar flow
- The colony is strong
An essential skill for beekeepers is figuring out the activity inside a beehive. Bees’ behavior is fascinating, mainly when they build queen cells. This understanding will help you analyze the state of the queen and the rest of your bees.
And it will probably give some ideas about what action you should take to improve conditions in the hive.
So when do bees make queen cells? And how do you know why this is happening?
Below I’ll talk about the various circumstances that trigger the production of queen cells:
The Bee Colony Is Queenless
One of the critical conditions in a bee colony that will trigger the production of queen cells is when the colony is queenless.
This may be for several reasons:
- The queen bee may have died from illness or parasite invasion.
- The queen bee may not have returned from a mating flight due to falling prey to a predator.
- You could have accidentally killed the queen during an inspection!
Whatever the reason (even if you squished your queen by mistake – it happens!), the queen’s absence will prompt the creation of emergency queen cells.
Emergency queen cells are noticeable due to their location on the comb.
Remember, normal queen cells are generally built on the bottom edges of the brood comb. In addition, emergency queen cells are constructed on the face of the comb. These are created when a normal cell with a fertilized egg is extended to allow additional space for a queen-sized bee to develop.
A new emergency queen can only be raised by the workers if there is a supply of eggs less than three days old in the brood comb. Then, the workers will extend a cell to become an emergency queen cell and feed the newly hatched lava a diet of royal jelly to stimulate the larva to develop into a new queen.
This strategy is crucial for the colony to survive the loss of a queen. The colony will not survive if it is impossible to raise a new queen.
If a new queen is not raised, the workers will begin laying eggs, producing only sterile drones, which signals the colony’s demise.
If you notice worker bees laying eggs, it is time to introduce a new brood frame with newly laid eggs to the stricken colony. This will give the workers some eggs of an appropriate age to raise a new queen.
The Queen Bee Is Sick Or Injured
A sick or injured queen is a threat to the survival of the bee colony. The bees tending the queen will be aware of her condition if she struggles to perform her egg-laying duties.
The status of the ailing queen will prompt the workers to produce supersedure queen cells on the face of the comb.
These queen cells will be used to raise a new queen to replace her predecessor. The worker bees may raise multiple new queens to ensure success. The first queen to emerge will move around the comb and kill all the queen larvae that have not yet emerged (thus ensuring her predominance).
Suppose multiple queens emerge before a single queen can kill the other larvae. In that case, the new queens will battle to the death, stinging each other until one remains to lead the colony.
The Queen Bee Is Old
As the queen bee ages, her egg-laying capacity diminishes, as does her ability to produce the pheromones to prevent workers from laying eggs.
When the worker bees detect a drop in the queen bee’s production and efficiency, they will again produce supersedure queen cells on the face of the comb. However, fewer cells will be produced than in an emergency where the colony is already queenless.
The workers will raise a new queen in this fashion, and when she emerges, she will fight and kill the old queen and take over the colony’s “reign.”
The Beehive Is Too Small
A bee colony needs space to build sufficient comb to expand the number of workers and build storage comb to sustain the colony through periods of dearth.
A period of dearth occurs when the available resources diminish, such as during the wintertime or periods of drought.
If the space in the hive does not allow room for expansion, the colony will have no option but to find new nesting sites to accommodate the size of the expanding colony.
The bees will prepare to leave the old nest site by building new queen cells. These cells are often called swarm cells since they indicate that the colony is about to swarm. These queen cells are constructed on the lower edge of the brood comb.
Once the larvae in these queen cells have been capped, the original queen will swarm off with most of the colony to a newer, larger nest site. A small number of workers will remain behind to tend to the new queen, and worker larvae are still in the development stages.
When the new queen emerges, after the old queen and the swarm have left, she will take over the old nest site. Then, the virgin queen will go on her mating flight and build the colony again.
The beekeeper can avoid this eventuality by expanding the size of the beehive to give them more room to grow the colony.
Expanding the beehive is easy if a modular beehive system such as the Langstroth hive houses the bees.
A Strong Nectar Flow
A strong nectar flow will cause the queen to lay more eggs to boost the number of workers in the colony.
This bounty can lead to overcrowding in the colony, reducing the effectiveness of the queen’s pheromone in the hive.
The worker bees will build swarming cells at the lower end of the brood comb, and the colony will swarm to find a new nest site.
Often there is nothing a beekeeper can do to prevent this swarming. Still, it can be an opportunity to increase their number of colonies. Locating a few strategically placed catch boxes around a colony about to swarm will give the swarming colony a new, readily available nesting site.
Since this swarming often occurs in spring, many beekeepers put out additional hives and catch boxes to catch these swarms and increase their colony numbers.
Some beekeepers will try to stop the swarming response by removing the queen cells. But unfortunately, this does not always work, especially if the swarming impulse is too strong. In this case, the colony may swarm anyway with the old queen and leave a queenless, weak colony behind.
A Strong Colony
A robust and healthy colony will produce bees in large numbers, and the colony will need to multiply to remain sustainable. This is a natural progression in the life of a large, healthy colony and how bee colonies reproduce in the wild.
The queen cells built for this reason will be swarming cells at the lower edge of the brood comb.
While there is not much a beekeeper can do to stop this swarming, it is another opportunity to catch the swarming bees and house them in a new beehive. This allows the beekeeper to expand their number of colonies or contribute to the population of wild bee colonies.
What to do if you find queen cells
When you find queen cells, you first need to figure out why this is happening and what kind of cells they are. The beekeeper’s actions will differ depending on whether you have swarm or supersedure cells.
What to do with supersedure cells
In this case, you’ll need to find the old queen and remove her (or verify her absence if she is dead).
You can then requeen the hive in two ways. Either by introducing a newly mated queen or leaving the supersedure cells in place so the bees can raise a new queen.
Alternatively, if the hive seems small or weak, you can unite the remaining worker bees with a stronger colony. An easy way to do this is to stack two boxes on top of each other with a sheet of newspaper in between. This will prevent fighting until the two sets of bees begin to share the same “hive odor” and unit.
How to deal with swarm cells
Swarming isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if your bees are preparing to swarm you’re probably doing a pretty good job helping your bees to thrive!
But most of the time, beekeepers are encouraged to minimize swarming.
There are several swarm prevention and control methods you can use when trying to keep swarming in check. Some of which involve dealing with the swarm cells.
Firstly, if you require a new queen for another colony, you’re in luck! Then, you can remove the frames with the swarm cells and put them in a nuc for rearing.
If cells aren’t capped, then you have time to react. If they look ripe, you need to act quickly.
Some beekeepers simply scrape them off to remove them from the hive. But remember, this doesn’t do much to suppress the bee’s instinct to swarm. Instead, they will simply continue to make queen cells, so other actions might prove more effective.
Better methods include requeening the hive or performing a split (moving the old queen, some brood, and food supplies to another hive or nuc). The old colony will raise a new queen from one of the swarm cells. This is known as an “artificial swarm” since it replicates the process of an actual swarm, only it’s the beekeeper making things happen 🙂
When bees build queen cells, it’s generally for one of two reasons; to replace a dead or weak queen or to expand a successful nest.
Regularly inspecting the beehive and checking for the queen cells is the first step to helping your bees. And the good news is, it could be an opportunity for beekeepers to obtain a new colony!