Although we are taught that two queens can’t survive in one hive, it happens frequently. It occurs most often when a supersedure cell hatches while the original queen is still alive. The virgin daughter hatches, mates, and begins to lay eggs right alongside her mother. This is usually a temporary situation, but it can persist for weeks or even months.
Based on my own experience, I think it happens more frequently than we realize. We often search for the queen and then quit looking once we find her—assuming there is only one. With that assumption, it is easy to miss the second one.
The photos below came from a hive getting ready to swarm. Many swarm cells were lined up on the combs and some had already hatched. It’s possible that one of these is a newly-hatched virgin. The more yellow of the two (the first photo) was both smaller and quicker, signs of a possible virgin. Although a hive usually swarms before the virgins hatch, cold and rainy weather may have kept the swarm from leaving on time.
I just found this fantastic photograph of a queen cup and I wanted to share it with you. These cups are built by the bees on the surface of the comb. The bees select a regular cell as a base and then enlarge it. If the queen lays an egg in one of these cups it can be expanded into a long peanut-shaped queen cell. Otherwise, it goes unattended.
The bees may build one or dozens of these throughout the hive, the number being dependent on the bees’ genetics. After a while, the bees may tear down an empty cup and use the wax elsewhere, or they may just leave it alone.
Although most queen cups remain empty, some will be used to raise supersedure queens (queens reared to replace the existing queen) or swarm cells if the colony is preparing to swarm. Supersedure cells are generally built on the face of the comb while swarm cells are usually placed along the bottom edge of the comb.
Thanks to Max xx for this great photo of a queen cup. This photo made the cover of l’Abeille de France et l’apiculteur in 2006.
About twice a week during the winter months, I walk around to all the hives just to make sure they haven’t been tipped over by a bear or some other hairy creature. While I’m making these rounds I flick the dead bees off the landing board and clean away any snow or soggy leaves.
I pay fairly close attention to the number of dead bees. Usually there is the equivalent of two or three dead bees per day per colony and that is a number I’m comfortable with. A lot more may mean something is wrong. None may also mean something is wrong. For example, if the bees are unable to remove the dead bodies, it may signal the hive is too weak for house cleaning. They could be low on food or have a disease. So I figure a happy medium is a good thing.
I’ve been doing this body count for years, but yesterday something took me aback. I hadn’t checked on them for about a week and I was seeing about 15 or 20 dead bees per hive. So far, so good. One hive had a particularly large pile, so I opened that hive but found nothing amiss. But at the next to last hive I did a double take—I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, amid a little pile of about ten bees was the queen—deader than a door nail with all six feet in the air. Darn!
I turned her over a few times. She was really long, light colored like an Italian, and she looked old. Of course, maybe that was because she was dead. Whatever . . . she had that “worn out” look. But she was all of a piece and I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong with her. I flicked the other dead bees away, carried the queen around for a minute, then flicked her away as well. Afterall, what could I do?
Today, I took one of the nucs up the hill and, using a piece of newspaper, combined it with the queenless hive. Before I added the nuc, I checked the frames from the queenless hive. Sure enough, the remaining bees were diligently tending supersedure cells in a misguided effort to produce a new queen. I say misguided because there are no drones to mate with in the dead of winter. Why they go through the motions is one of those “bee things” I haven’t quite figured out.
Needless to say, whenever I saw a dead bee today, I was sure it was another queen. In truth, that will probably never happen to me again; but for now, I can’t help but expect it. Really, though, it was just one of those lucky moments that makes beekeeping so endlessly fascinating. If I hadn’t noticed her, I would never have known the hive was queenless until it was too late to do anything about it.
In the December 2010 issue of American Bee Journal, Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum describes the phenomenon of honey bee usurpation—the taking over of a healthy colony by a summer swarm. Mangum not only describes this unusual behavior in great detail, but provides photographs as well.
Until recently, usurpation sightings have been limited to Africanized bees taking over colonies of European honey bees in the southwestern United States. However, Mangum’s usurped hives are located in Virginia and the resulting colonies did not show any of the aggressive behaviors typical of Africanized colonies. Instead they were “normal” colonies with average European honey bee traits. According to Mangum, other occurrences of usurped hives have been recorded in nearby areas of Virginia and North Carolina.
According to the article, usurpation works like this:
A summer swarm invades an established colony.
Fighting between bees is evident.
The queen of the established colony is killed by the invading swarm.
The usurping queen eventually becomes accepted and begins laying eggs.
The summer swarm, which under normal circumstances could not survive the winter, overwinters on the stores collected by the usurped colony.
In the first usurpation that Mangum documents, the entire process—from the arrival of the swarm until the invasion was complete—took 18 minutes. If this is typical, the process may be more common than we realize. From the outside, at least, the invaded hive looked no different in the evening than it did the previous morning. On the inside, things were unsettled until the old queen was dead and the new one was accepted—a process which took three days.
Mangum cautions that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a normal supersedure and a colony usurpation just by looking at the queen, so one should not jump to conclusions. However, the possibility of usurpation casts a different light on the survivability of summer swarms.
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.
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.
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.
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.