Is it a swarm cell or a supersedure cell?

During spring build-up, beekeepers often search for swarm cells in order to determine if the hive is preparing to swarm. But what is a swarm cell and how is it different from a supersedure cell?

First of all, the term “cell” usually refers to an oversize structure attached to the comb in which a queen will be raised. This can be confusing to new beekeepers, because there are regular “cells” all over the place—in fact, a comb is nothing more than a series of interconnected hexagonal cells. Confusing as it may be, however, when beekeepers talk about “cells” they are usually referring to queen cells.

Drone cells are often in the vicinity of swarm cells but should not be confused with them. Drone cells usually occur in groups at the edge of the frame, and there may be hundreds of them. They are much bigger than worker cells, and some people describe them as “bullet-shaped,” although I would guess the people who use that term have never seen a bullet. I would describe the surface of drone cells as “pebbly” or like cobblestones. In any case, the surface is rounded whereas worker cells are flat on top.

Pebbly  textured drone cells. Flickr photo by blumenbiene
Pebbly textured drone cells. Flickr photo by blumenbiene

Queen cells are very different. When completed, they look like a peanut shell—rough-textured, elongated, perhaps an inch overall (2.5 cm), and they hang vertically off the frames. Once you see a completely finished and capped swarm cell it is usually too late to stop swarming, so you have to learn to identify them before they are finished. In their unfinished form they are called queen cups. Queen cups are prepared for the existing queen to lay eggs in.

Peanut-shaped queen cell. Flickr photo by blumenbiene
Peanut-shaped queen cell. Flickr photo by blumenbiene

Now, more confusion. The term “queen cup” is also used by beekeepers to describe a commercially manufactured product that is used to raise queens. Their purpose is the same—a place to lay an egg that will be raised as a queen—only the commercial ones are made of wood, plastic, or perhaps wax. The ones you are looking for are made by the bees and have been described by others as “teacup” shaped—although I think they look more like tiny bowls. After an egg is laid in a cup, the cell is enlarged into the “peanut” shape by the workers.

Queen cup. Flickr photo by blumenbiene
Queen cup. Flickr photo by blumenbiene

Now, in case there are people who can actually follow this description, I’ll add another layer of confusion. A cell hanging off the middle of the frame somewhere is usually a supersedure or “emergency” queen cell. A cell hanging off the bottom of a frame is usually a swarm cell.

Supersedure cells are often begun after the eggs are laid. The bees, knowing they need to replace the queen, begin feeding royal jelly to a young larva they have selected. They build a supersedure cell around this larva (or several larvae) and it hangs down from the face of the comb. Swarm cells, however, are built in preparation for swarming and are not intended to replace the queen, but to raise a second queen. This way, there will be a queen for the part that swarms and a queen for the part that stays.

If a colony is in two brood boxes, the swarm cells will almost always be found hanging from the bottom of the upper row of frames between the two boxes. When beekeepers hunt for swarm cells they frequently just tip up the upper brood box and examine the bottoms of the exposed frames.

Rusty

Comments

rich godfrey
Reply

Superb photos! This was very helpful to a new beekeeper. Also, I am writing a book on queen bees, Kenya and their bee keepers. Would I be able to utilize photos if I contact you in 2011? In any case, thanks for your work!

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

Let me know if you have specific photos you want to use. Please note, however, that some of the photos on this site were taken by others and you will have to seek permission from those photographers directly. If you need help locating them, I will be happy to assist you.

ET Ash
Reply

Nice site and nice pictures. There often seems to be some confusion in regards to the reason a hive builds queen cells. By the book the reasons fall into three categories 1) swarming 2) supersedure and 3) an emergency (cells produced due to the sudden loss of the queen). The position of the cells is oftentimes given as an indication of determining if a cell falls into reason 1 or 2 although this is oftentimes a simplistic response that may lead to misunderstanding.

In reality the location of a queen cell may mean very little and lead a novice bee keeper to an improper conclusion. What is likely more useful information to the novice are the other clues that a hive is swarming (large population, crowded in whatever space they are allocated, and generally a two year old or older queen) and that some beekeeper manipulations may be the primary cause of supersedure (and have nothing to do with a queen failing). Add to this excessive supersedure typically means there is some disease at hand that needs to be dealt with promptly.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, you make some excellent points.

I would also add that certain genetic lines build more supersedure cells than others, making that another consideration to bear in mind.

Lana
Reply

Great info and fab pictures. This was very helpful, thanks!

Lyn
Reply

I’ve had my hive about 1 month. I bought it already queened and brood and honey started. I have added two more deep supers….. yes, now I know I should have made the top super for honey a smaller one.

My bees still have plenty of room but my queen has started building brood in the box ABOVE the brood box. I had the president of my bee club look at my hive and he said there are a lot of bees but still plenty of room. After looking at your pictures, I think they had built the comb on the bottom of the brood rack in the upper box. I looks like your bottom picture. HOWEVER I did not see anything that looked like a queen cell; neither did the guy helping me.

Could it be extra comb? Do I cut it off? My friend did suggest I might want to split the hive in June because there will be so many bees. What would be the easiest way to do that? If you do the “walkaway ” method can you leave the new hive in the same yard or do you have to move it the normal 2 miles?

I’ve ordered a queen excluder to keep the queen from moving up to the final top super.

Rusty
Reply

Lyn,

Lots of questions! First, it is hard to know for sure without seeing the hive, but your bees may have built comb in an inconvenient place, such as hanging off the bottoms of the brood frame. You can easily cut this away. Just always be careful that the queen won’t be injured in the process. Extra comb like that is called bridge comb or burr comb and it is not unusual to have some here and there.

If you want to split the hive, wait until you get your queen excluder and then use the method I wrote about recently called an “overnight” split. I think that may be the easiest. You can keep both hives in the same yard, just realize that all the forager bees will go back to the original hive and you will be left with only brood and nurse bees in the split. For a few days you won’t see much activity in the split until some of the brood hatches and the nurse bees become foragers. Once you split, you have to decide whether to buy a queen or let the hive raise their own. Raising their own will take a while, so you may want to buy a mated queen to get the new colony going faster.

There’s really nothing wrong with using a deep super for honey. The major consideration is extracting. If you use an extractor it will have to be of a size that will take deep frames. If you just crush and strain, it really makes no difference.

Jane Peters
Reply

Thank you so much for these photos.

One comment that I did not quite understand “Some beekeeper manipulations may be the primary cuase of supersedure and nothing to do with a queen failing ”

I am a new beekeeper and need to learn everything that I may be doing wrong.

Thanks

Jane

Rusty
Reply

Jane,

The theory is that too much hive interference by the beekeeper may cause the workers to think it is the queen’s fault. In other words, the workers believe an inept queen is causing all the disruption and therefor she should be replaced. This is just theory, of course, because we don’t know what the bees are thinking. But excessive hive intrusion does seem to correlate with more frequent queen supersedure, which is why it is a good idea to limit the number of times you go into a hive and to do the work efficiently and get out quickly.

Jim Whatley
Reply

I am a brand new buzzer boy…This is the most clear and informative site I have found. I hived a pkg of bees May 5th. How often is too much hive inspection? I have been told to be sure and check hive once a week to forget them till honey time. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

If you haven’t, please read “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” My personal feeling is less is better, but new beekeepers need to learn about what they are seeing, so for new beekeepers a little more is okay. Also, urban beekeepers need to keep tighter control over swarming, so I would expect an urban beekeeper to be in there more often than a rural one. I think somewhere between the two extremes you mention would be good . . . let’s say once every two weeks until you feel more confident.

Rael Wilson
Reply

New at beekeeping. Had my hive swarm and found many swarm cells when I checked it 10 days later. Most are opened, have not found a queen or eggs yet but planning to check again at 15 days. Should I remove all the swarm cells once I establish that there is a laying queen?

Rusty
Reply

Rael,

There is really no need to remove the swarm cells once you have a laying queen. The new queen will destroy any remaining queen cells by opening up a hole in the side and stinging the developing queen.

Donna Fletcher
Reply

Have you found that swarm cells, on the bottom edge of frames, are larger/longer than supersedure cells hanging down from the face of the comb? This was mentioned at a recent meeting. I thought the length was determined by the queen spinning inside the cell. Is this true?
Thanks for your response,
D

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

They are the same size when they are complete, but usually you just see queen “cups” on the face of the comb. The bees prepare these in case they need them. If they don’t need them, they abandon them or take them apart. So if they are just in the cup stage they look smaller. If they actually raise a queen in one, it will get as big as a swarm cell on the bottom of a comb.

Jess
Reply

Hi Rusty,

First let me just say that I really appreciate your blog and the beautiful pictures that you post. It’s so helpful and informative to a new beekeeper like me.

I have 1 hive that I started this season as a 3 lb package. I am running all 8-frame mediums. Things have been progressing beautifully. Lots of eggs, larvae, capped brood, nectar and pollen. The bees are using the first 2 supers for brood and are in the process of building up comb and filling the 3rd super with honey. The 4th super (just added last weekk) is untouched at this point.

I checked my hive yesterday (week 6) and found queen cells on the top and bottom of a couple frames. They were in various stages of development, but several had royal jelly inside and some were capped. I did not spot the queen, but I did see eggs and larvae. I don’t know why they would want to swarm this early in their hive development. I am so afraid of them depleting their colony size and not surviving our northern winter. They have room to roam in the top super… like I said, it’s untouched.

I scraped off the queen cells on the bottom of the frame (in hopes of stopping them from swarming), but left the queen cells on the top of the frame intact (in case something is wrong with the queen and they must replace her). I am not sure what to do. Can there be swarm and supersedure cells in the same hive? They were built top and bottom. Peanut texture, long and filled with royal jelly. Your advice is really appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Jess,

It is really hard to say what you should do. Being a new beekeeper, you probably don’t have another empty hive sitting around. If I found that situation, I would take one brood box and the queen and put it on its own bottom board. In other words, I’d make a split and leave all the swarm cells in the queenless box and let them raise a new queen. If they succeed and if the old queen is okay, you just have two hives instead of one. If one of the hives loses their queen, then I would recombine them.

One thing about bees—you can never say never. So although swarm cells are usually on the bottom of the frame and not the top, you can’t say they would never be on the top. Bees make their own rules.

I do not believe that destroying swarm cells is a good thing. You just don’t know which of the cells are viable. Furthermore, you can’t stop the swarm impulse by destroying cells.

Also, we often hear that bees won’t swarm the first year, but that isn’t always true either. The swarm impulse—that is the urge to reproduce—is strong and the bees are not dissuaded by cutting cells or providing more room. Some things can be done to lessen the probability of swarming, but not after capped swarm cells appear, except for splitting the hive and making them “think” they’ve already swarmed.

If you are lucky enough to catch the swarm once it leaves, you can always just put it back in the original hive—just combine it with newspaper and make sure you have just one queen. Once the swarm impulse is satisfied, you can recombine with no problem.

Nate
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Wonderful website. I have a swarm that I captured earlier this year and it is currently residing in a nuc box. The swarm has been in there a little over a month. When inspecting the today, stores seemed light, but there is pollen, nectar and brood and 3 queen cups. The nuc box has 5 partially drawn out frames. 2 frames just about fully drawn out and the other three a little over half. Could they really be ready to swarm again this late in the summear (I’m in SoCal)? Is it feasible to split a nuc?

Rusty
Reply

Where are the queen cups? On the face of the comb or at the bottom of the frames? To me is sounds more like a supersedure–a replacement of the queen may be underway. Also, look to see if anything is in the queen cups. Some bees always keep queen cups on hand, just in case. Sometimes they build them, take them down, and rebuild them. Their presence don’t mean a swarm is about to occur.

Splitting something that small probably would not work well. I would just hang tight and see if they actually begin to use the cups.

Rosanna
Reply

Hi there,

What a fantastic site! I’m a Scottish beekeeper but I’m hoping that you’ll still be able to help me.
I’m new to beekeeping. My dad did it years ago when I was about 4 and recently I decided to give it a go too. My dad is helping me but he is a little unsure of what to do at the moment!

We caught a swarm of bees last June and fed them throughout the summer and winter as both were very wet, cold and windy. They survived through the harsh winter and seemed to be doing well until mid July. We had a brood and super for the bees to go in and in early July we added a queen excluder and another super because the bees were doing really well. After an inspection we found eggs, larvae and young bees. However, about a week later we found queen cells at the bottom of the frames and one in the middle of a frame. At least one was capped but there was no evidence of them swarming. We thought the best course of action would be to create an artificial swarm to prevent them swarming.

The books all suggest that you need to locate the queen and transfer her to the new hive. After 2 hours of searching each frame at least twice we couldn’t find her. The bees were starting to get agitated so we decided to close the hive and seek advice. I am also aware that queen cells can be formed if the queen is weak or dead.

The next day we decided to try splitting the colony without finding the queen. We placed the ‘old’ hive next to the new one but the bees appear to be going from one to another. Everything I’ve read suggests that you don’t disturb the hive for 3ish weeks so we haven’t opened it. However, I’m concerned that as we are new to beekeeping that we haven’t done the right thing. Do you have any suggestions or hints/tips?

Thanks in advance
Rosanna :)

Rusty
Reply

Rosanna,

A few things. You say you saw no evidence of swarming, but queen cells along the bottom of the frames is definitely a sign of swarming. So you did the right thing by attempting the artificial swarm.

There are many ways of splitting a hive, and some require that you find a queen and some do not. On my home page there is a tab called “splits” with links to about ten different ways to approach a split.

Whenever you split a hive and leave them close together, all the forager bees will go back to the original hive. That is fine; just know to expect it. The new hive will get foragers as soon as the older nurse bees develop into foragers. It will happen gradually, starting soon after the split.

It sounds to me like you have done a good job. When you open the hives, you will have to see if you have a laying queen in each. If all goes well, you will. If not, a purchased queen may be necessary. I hope it works!

Pam
Reply

Your information is clear good photos too, a new beekeeper am I !

Jessica
Reply

I hived two packages of bees in top-bar hives exactly 2 weeks ago. I have not been able to locate the queens in either and today when I checked there is a queen cell in the middle of one of the combs. There is no brood, but the bees have been busy building comb and filling with nectar and pollen. I purchased my bees with a mated queen, so I’m not sure how long I should wait before I start seeing brood and if I need to re-queen the hives? Any expertise you can share would be great!!!

Rusty
Reply

Jessica,

You should be seeing brood, at least eggs and larvae, at this point. If you are not used to looking for them, they can be difficult to see. Hold the comb up so the sun comes over your shoulder and lights up the inside of the cells. Eggs are very small and when they are first laid they stand up straight. Young larvae are c-shaped and milky white. If you find eggs and/or larvae, don’t worry about finding the queen; she is there.

The cell you are seeing is probably of no consequence. Many colonies build some, just to have them on hand. I wouldn’t read anything into it unless they start raising a queen in there. Generally, the cells remain empty, especially ones on the face of the brood comb.

ALBERT
Reply

Hi. I’ve kept bees for about 5 years and have regularly had to deal with swarming. I’ve just checked one of my 3 hives after a 10-day holiday away to find plenty of capped brood including drone cells, no grubs or eggs but no evidence of the hive having swarmed as there are as many bees as there were when I last checked. At that time there were eggs and grubs as well as a few central queen cells which I destroyed.

On one of the frames there are as many as 8 queen cells all capped lying in the centre of the frame. Am I right to assume that the hive is queenless and that the workers are raising new queens or are they about to swarm? The queen is/was 2 years old. Should I destroy all but one of the queen cells? I am an English beekeeper and thoroughly enjoy reading the messages. Great site!

Rusty
Reply

Hi Albert,

It is always difficult to diagnose a colony without seeing it, of course. But based on your description, it does sound like the colony is trying to requeen itself. Before a swarm, the size of the brood nest is decreased, something the bees do by backfilling part of the brood nest with honey. But brood-rearing does not cease altogether before a swarm. So without any larvae or eggs, and many cells in the center of a frame, I would say they are trying desperately to produce a new queen.

Your second question is harder to answer. Many beekeepers believe you should destroy all but one queen cell, and do so routinely. On the other hand, some queens will be stronger than others because of the vagaries of genetics. If I destroy all but one cell, who is to say if I’m destroying the strongest, the weakest, or one in between? Who is to say if the one I select will even emerge?

So it is my belief that you should leave several. Once a strong one emerges, she will kill the others and she will even get help from the workers. This is the way nature designed the system, and the way I like to play it.

However, I don’t want to say the others are wrong because many beekeepers have success with killing all but one. So it comes down to a personal philosophy and a decision you will have to make yourself.

By the way, if I’m in need of queen cells in some other hive, I may take half and leave half. I hate to waste a perfectly good queen cell.

ALBERT
Reply

Thanks Rusty. Very useful info. I made the reluctant decision to destroy all but one of the queen cells. I checked the hive today. No swarming and thankfully the “queen” has made her way out of her cell. I did not try too hard to identify her as there are far too many workers about! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that eggs will appear shortly. If not I shall transfer some brood and eggs from one of the other hives. I’m very grateful for your help. Albert
Albert

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