Learning to recognize queen cells and queen cups helps a beekeeper predict what a colony intends to do. But distinguishing a swarm cell from a supersedure cell is a difficult skill for two reasons. First, beekeepers use confusing words to describe cell types. Second, the location of the cells is more important than their size, shape, or number.
Let’s start with some basic Q&A
Question: What is a queen cell?
Answer: A queen cell is a special waxen cell that hangs from a brood frame. It cradles a larva that will grow into a virgin queen. A finished queen cell looks like a peanut in size, shape, texture, and color. Queen cells can be either swarm cells or supersedure cells.
Question: Why do I need to distinguish between a swarm cell and a supersedure cell?
Answer: If you see swarm cells, you know your colony is soon going to swarm. If you see supersedure cells, you know your colony is having a problem with their queen and intends to replace her. As a beekeeper, this information will help you make sound management decisions.
Question: Why does a colony build swarm cells?
Answer: When a colony swarms, the old queen and about half the bees leave the parent colony to establish a new home. Before they leave, the workers raise a batch of queens so the old colony can have a new queen and a good chance of survival.
Question: Why does a colony build supersedure cells?
Answer: A colony raises supersedure cells when a queen dies, becomes ill, damaged, or loses strength. A colony cannot survive without a powerful queen, so supersedure cells are often called emergency cells.
Question: So queen cells, supersedure cells, emergency cells, and swarm cells all look alike?
Answer: Absolutely! But you can often guess their purpose by their location in the hive.
Question: When does a colony build swarm cells?
Answer: Swarm cells usually appear during swarm season. Although it depends on local conditions, swarm season begins in early spring when many flowers are blooming. It usually ends at the beginning of the summer nectar dearth. Although swarms can occur outside of swarm season, they are rare.
Question: Where does a colony put swarm cells?
Answer: The workers like to put swarm cells at the bottom and sides of brood combs, often in clusters. If you have two brood boxes, the bees place the swarm cells at the bottom of the top box, right in the middle of the brood nest.
Question: Where does the colony put supersedure cells?
Answer: Because supersedure cells are built in an emergency, the workers put them wherever they find a larva of the right age. By the time the workers decide “This is an emergency!” there may not be many young larvae left. For that reason, supersedure cells are often scattered on the face of the comb. They may be several inches apart or found on different combs. They are generally on the face of the comb instead of the edges, and they are not in groups.
Question: My bees built a bunch of cells the size of thimbles, then stopped without finishing them. Does that mean they gave up?
Answer: We call those thimble-sized cells with open ends queen cups. We believe bees build queen cups “just in case” they might need them for starting a queen cell. Some colonies build a lot of cups, some don’t. Some colonies build them and then tear them down, seemingly for no reason. Queen cups are a normal part of colony life.
The cells of drones and queens
Drone cells often appear near swarm cells, but don’t confuse them. Drone cells usually occur in clusters 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 suspect the people who use that term have never seen a bullet.
I 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.
Queen cells are very different. When completed, they look like peanut shells—rough-textured, elongated, perhaps an inch or more overall, 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, but you can be ready for it. You might even have time to make a swarm-control split.
Queen cells in their unfinished form are called queen cups. They provide a place for the existing queens to lay eggs that may become queens.
Queen cups: natural and purchased
Now, more confusion. Beekeepers also use the term “queen cup” to describe a commercially manufactured product used to raise queens. Their purpose is the same—a place to lay an egg that will grow into a queen. Instead of beeswax, the commercial ones come in wood, plastic, or perhaps wax.
Bees made the ones you are looking for. Some folks call them “teacup” shaped—although I think they look more like tiny bowls. After the queen lays an egg in a cup, the workers enlarge it into a complete peanut.
Now, as I mentioned above, a cell hanging off the middle (or face) of a comb is usually a supersedure or “emergency” queen cell. A cell hanging off the bottom or side of a comb is usually a swarm cell. Remember, though, that usually does not mean always. In truth, since they don’t have building codes, they can build either type of cell anywhere they want.
Supersedure vs swarming
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, on the other hand, 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 occupies two brood boxes, the swarm cells will almost always hang from the bottom of the upper row of frames between the two boxes. When experienced beekeepers hunt for swarm cells, they frequently just tip up the upper brood box and examine the bottoms of the exposed frames.
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