The question of whether honey bees move eggs from cell to cell has been a hot topic on forums, blogs, and websites for about three weeks now. The assertion seems to be that honey bee workers will move eggs to where a larva is needed, such as into a queen cup. I don’t know where the discussion began, but I’m getting plenty of questions about it.
Personally, I have no clue whether honey bees strategically move eggs, but I have some thoughts. Unfortunately, that’s all I can offer for now.
Do bees carry?
One of the arguments in support of egg redistribution is that someone has seen bees “carrying eggs the way an ant carries pupae.” This is not at all surprising. Various textbooks and papers give us good clues to this behavior.
- It is known that honey bees will reduce the number of eggs in a nest if the queen has produced more than the workers can care for. Some books claim that the eggs are “re-absorbed.” I assume that means eaten. Even in a colony of vegetarians, re-absorption makes sense because conservation of nutrients and energy is extremely important for survival. Nutrients are not wasted, but simply reused. Re-absorption can also occur after a large loss of field bees, which can reduce the flow of nutrients into the hive.
- It is also known that even healthy queen-right colonies have a background level of laying workers. These workers deposit their eggs in cells whenever they can. But the eggs are soon discovered by other workers (by pheromones, I assume) and are either consumed or removed from the hive.
Given these behaviors, it does not surprise me that eggs appear where no queen has been, such as above an excluder, or that someone has seen bees with eggs in their mandibles.
If the eggs were discarded, how else would the bees move them? They don’t have rucksacks. And eating requires mandibles as well. So, yes, I believe these situations may cause a bee to carry an egg in its “teeth.”
But carrying does not imply strategic placement. Possession and intent-to-distribute are two different things, just ask your lawyer.
Is intent even possible?
Based on what I know about honey bees, I think strategic relocation of eggs is clearly within their capabilities. In other words, I can easily imagine them being programed to do it. Honey bees are survivors. I can almost hear them conspiring among themselves, “We need an egg in this queen cup. Let’s bring one in from over there. No one will know.”
But, at this point, no one has proven it to me. When someone proves it—possibly by raising workers from the relocated eggs—I’m ready to believe. But I won’t believe just because it’s a good idea.
Honey Bee Suite
Good answer, Rusty. Except I don’t think bees have teeth!
Yes. I agree. Too bad.
I guess you’d have to wonder if it’s easier for the bees to relocate an egg to a cup or build a cell around an egg without moving it. I suspect the bees would just create a cell around an egg without going through the trouble of moving it.
That’s a very good point.
“Possession and intent-to-distribute are two different things,”
Very good! You’re not just a pretty face.
I will have to do some research on my part. A hypothesis of, can you graft an egg or a larva from one cell to another cell within the same frame or colony, with the intent of raising a worker bee or a drone bee. If this has been done to your knowledge can you share? Thank you!
Not sure what you mean. Are you saying graft a drone egg to a different drone cell and a worker egg to a different worker cell?
DJ that particular example wouldn’t change the worker into a drone or vice versa since the genetics are totally off. One is fertilized by sperm and the other isn’t, so they’re not interchangeable based on the size of the cell alone…
Yes. I cannot think of a practical reason why one would do this other than to answer the question can you. It would make sense if I can graft so can they. The next step is can you graft from colony to colony. Another experiment would be to graft an egg or larva in to a queen cup made by them. I would assume it would be feasible, but I do not like to assume anything. I can’t imagine this has not been reviewed in the past by bug people who wear white lab coats.
If, let’s pretend, bees can discern the difference between possession and intent to distribute as an active thought process then they are one whole heck of a lot smarter than we are giving then credit for. They move from genetically programed beings to beings with free will. That’s a thought and a half.
Recently I removed a queen in advance of installing a new one, but the new one was delayed. It was about 5 days until I installed the new one. At that point the bees had made more than a dozen queen cells hanging on edges of comb. If the bees don’t move eggs, then how do the eggs or tiny larva get into the new queen cells?
The bees know within about 15 minutes that they are queenless. At that time, there were still plenty of eggs and young larvae to choose from and they built queen cells around those that they choose. They prefer those at the edges of the comb.
Hi Rusty. It’s a yes from me, have suspected for some time this happened, especially when you find a queen cell hidden in a very odd place, good work, Regards Hamish
When I read your post I filed it away as interesting until I got into my bees this morning. Above the queen excluder I found a single solitary capped drone cell. Now if the queen had been there I fully would have expected half of the honey super to be full of brood, not a single cell.
Between your post and this experience something flipped a switch in what’s left of my grey cells that still function. I remember a few years back while inspecting my queen castle, I found a capped queen cell laying on my bottom board. Maybe the word “laying” doesn’t paint an adequate picture in your mind’s eye. One may conclude that it had been dislodged from a frame while doing the inspection. Not so, it was built in place. Firmly and solidly waxed to the floor. Because I had multiple other cells on the frame I removed this one with my hive tool. On inspection the bottom of the pupa was fully exposed. My conclusion was that an egg or young larva had fallen to the floor. The house bees not knowing what to do just finished off the queen where she lay. That’s my story and with my wife as a witness I’m sticking to it.
My guess would be a laying worker left the egg above the excluder. There are some in every hive. But on the second one, I agree with you that an egg (or larva) dropped down and the bees built a cell around it. Also a guess.
Here’s my bit: three years ago I tried to make a split from one of 2 colonies I looked after at a nearby Nature preserve. Like everything else I tried there – it was a woodland location with poor forage, but the owners were dead set on having beehives – it failed. When I first checked it, not only had all the adult bees left, but the very nice frame of eggs was completely empty. So the bees either moved them or ate them. The frames of honey were empty too: a very clear message that the time or place or both, were just wrong.
(Last summer I brought the 1 surviving colony back here to the farm, where it’s become quite strong.)
There are supposedly herbivorous mammal species that are known to consume their own young under stress or dearth. Why not insects, as well? Cool to speculate, anyway.
“Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and has a longer memory and a stronger sense of justice, than ours”
– Wendell Berry
I’ve always wanted to believe this to be true. The ‘sticking point’ for me, is that eggs laid by the queen have an adhesive substance that sticks the egg upright to the bottom of the cell. If a work moves an egg, how does she deal with this substance?
But eggs only stay upright for a short time and then they lay over on their side. Maybe the stickiness dissipates by itself?
If I’m correct, eggs stay upright for a day, begin to ‘lean’ on day 2, and are horizontal by day 3. If the stickiness dissipated, which is very possible, this would mean that bees tend to move eggs that are older rather than younger …
I don’t know that. I just think the stickiness is not much, if any, of a deterrent to the workers. Bees are huge in comparison to the egg, so I can’t imagine them being unable to move an egg, sticky or not.
As I said originally, I’m really hoping this to be correct. Th either question is HOW they move eggs. You wrote “… these situations may cause a bee to carry an egg in its teeth.” Could you possibly elaborate?
I was joking about teeth; bees carry things in their mandibles. For example, they carry dead bees, pieces of litter like newspaper strips, and dead insects like moths, beetles, and wasps. If they can carry their dead sisters out of the hive, certainly they can certainly carry an egg.
Oops – I didn’t t get the joke, Rusty! “Rare as hen’s’ teeth” I’ve heard of, but bees?
My casual observations suggest that dead bees, litter, etc. are carried out by bees using their legs. I’ve watched with amazement as ‘undertaker bees’ struggle with their dead companions in an observation hive, stumbling along using legs and wings. I’ll look more closely to see how their mandibles become involved.
Unlike many of your prior posts, this one does not seem to be stimulating as much debate. Perhaps I should back out.
I have no doubt they are capable of, but I have never witnessed it, nor have I seen evidence (internet video) of it happening. I do doubt it is normal or guaranteed behavior, otherwise there would be no need to graft.
If bees moved eggs as a guaranteed behavior you could just make a three frame nuc with a frame of stores, frame of eggs and a frame of artificial queen cup bars, add plenty of young bees and let them fill the queen cups themselves to save the hassle of grafting.
“Otherwise there would be no need to graft.” Commercial outfits graft thousands upon thousands of cells, not onesies and twosies. I’m sure grafting would still be necessary.
I was reading your posts for some time. Thank you for sharing your beekeeper’s experience with us. Btw. I never think about this subject, but the idea that bees caring that eggs in its teeth are brilliant.
Just remember that “teeth” are actually mandibles.
A little story for you – true story:)
11 days ago, I grafted 17 larvae onto a cell bar into plastic cell cups, the next day I check how I did and only 9 took, I guess I’m still learning…today when I went to move the 9 queen cells I noticed 5 other cells being drawn down from my failed grafts. Now someone may be thinking, “it’s very common for the bees to put a thin rim of wax around a failed cup” very true – but this was not a thin rim of wax. On further inspection, the cups had royal jelly and small larvae in them!
This is how I found this blog post searching the net! This was the same cell bar as there’s only one in the cell builder hive. Anyway, for any non believers out there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes today!
I may see if I can get them to repeat this with my next graft.
Thanks for a great blog, I’ve read many others in the past.
That is awesome! Now you need to see if the bee-grafted larvae mature into queens. If so, that eliminates the possibility that a laying worker put them in the cups.
> That is awesome! Now you need to see if the bee-grafted larvae mature into queens. If so, that eliminates the possibility that a laying worker put them in the cups.
Not necessarily. Very rarely, worker eggs will form viable queens. In order to prove workers move eggs, rather simply lay them, we need a photograph of the bee carrying the egg in its mandibles. Such photos exist for ants, so bees are capable of it. Whether they do it, is another matter. I read that someone observed a worker scavenging eggs from a queen cage (queens often release eggs when confined) but there is no photograph. Currently, I have an observation hive with the queen confined to a small patch of comb by a queen excluder. Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience to stare at it until a worker comes out carrying an egg in her mandibles. But it could happen. The queen has already laid multiple eggs in each cell so they have spares
Since A.m. capensis exhibits thelytoky, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like it surface on rare occasions in our honey bees, but certainly viable queen eggs in multiple cups would be rare, no? But I agree, a photo would be the best bet.
Right. I am still working on it. So far, the queen has been in an excluder cage for about a month and no eggs have appeared of any kind outside the cage. We’ll see.
I googled “bees carting eggs from hive” and this was the first thing that came up. The reason for my google search was that I observed my bees packing eggs – in their mouth – to the entrance and tossing them over the side. First time in 5 years on Vancouver Island that I’ve seen this. It’s November and turned cold (-1c) so maybe the workers figured to shut down the nursery for the winter… Just never seen this before and it surprised me.
It surprises me too because I’ve always heard the bees eat the eggs if too many are laid. I’ve never heard of them being tossed out. Very interesting.
I got involved in a long discussion about this, earlier this year. Clearly, bees could move eggs, although I have never seen a photo of one holding an egg in the mandibles, whereas I have seen pictures of ants doing this. Ants move all sorts of stuff, of course.
Anyway, I set up an experiment. I placed several queens in separate custom built queen cages where instead of a screen, I installed a piece of queen excluder. It is known that queens sometimes lay eggs in cages, so I reasoned the bees could pick them up and move them to the comb.
This, they did not do, even though they had all summer to do it. Then I designed a cage with comb inside where she could lay, which she did. The bees still did not move any of the eggs out of the cage. So, this does not prove they couldn’t but — they didn’t.
Also, I read of experiments where dozens of queens were banked in cages with a couple square inches of comb. These researchers never reported any eggs being moved out of the cages. It could happen, but as we say, it would be vanishingly rare.
You might like this lonely queen cell residing in a super about to be extracted. Evidence surely of some worker egg-movers: https://www.vita-europe.com/beehealth/blog/do-workers-move-eggs-evidence/
Thank you. Very interesting and good photos. Do you think workers can tell a drone egg from a worker egg before it hatches?
I really have no idea, Rusty. But if I was at gunpoint and had to choose, I’d guess yes and that some pheromone may be at work.
Are you thinking that the ‘queen cell’ may in fact be a worker’s drone and that the bees just had one of those senior moments and thought they should make a queen cell?
Yes, that’s what occurred to me. But on thinking it over, I agree with you that they must be able to distinguish fertile from unfertile eggs. It would have been interesting to study the pupa more carefully.
How is it every time I have a question your site has the answer?
In regards to bees moving eggs. I have a hive that consists of one deep and one super with a queen excluder between the two. Two weeks ago I checked this hive to see how it was doing. Found the queen, immediately put the hive back together and the queen was in the deep. Today I checked this hive again to see how it is as doing. Once I found a nice laying pattern and eggs in the deep I closed up that part of the hive by putting excluder on and then the honey super. I thought I am going to take a quick peak at how much honey they have stored. To my surprise I found an uncapped queen cell in the middle of a frame in my medium supper. There was actually a bee in there feeding the larva. I checked for more eggs and/or larva. Nothing. Just a lone queen cell in a place that it shouldn’t be. (In my opinion). I left the cell and closed the hive up. What do I do???
Nothing. Just cut it away if you don’t want it there.
I picked up a package of Saskatraz last Saturday and had already drawn comb in an 8 frame hive. I checked Wednesday to be sure the queen got out and confirmed but saw no evidence of eggs. I added a frame of all stages egg to capped brood. I inspected today to find 6 emergency queen cells with larva on the frame next to the brood frame I installed… still no sign of a laying queen so it makes me think that the workers moved eggs.
Interesting. Let me know what happens with that colony.
I had a similar experience to Eric. I have a split that appears to have failed to produce a laying queen. I added a frame of mostly capped brood with a few eggs on the edges of the frame. 7 days later I opened the hive and the cells where I had seen eggs were all empty, not even any larva. However, there were three uncapped queen cells on the bottom of the adjacent frame where there had previously been empty queen cups.
I have a hive where the queen is laying but the workers seem not to be tending the brood. The eggs are not reaching the larvae stage. What causes this?
If you live in a northern area, it may be because the workers want to maintain a smaller colony. Remember, it’s the workers who make most of the decisions in the colony, not the queen. The workers may have noticed a lack of nectar or pollen and decided it’s time to shrink. The queen, who stays inside, may be the last to know. In a case like that, the workers often eat the eggs.
This is a popular question, and there hasn’t been much research about it. A few years ago I partnered in a simple research project for the University of Montana Master Beekeeping program. Over 30 nucs each with multiple empty queen cups, made queenless, then checked for eggs/larva in the queen cups.
The queen cups remained empty, and it seemed the bees never moved (in their teeth or otherwise) eggs into the queen cups once they were queenless.
Horizontal split failed. No queen and masses of drones. I put in a frame of eggs from a different hive and also a frame of capped brood so there would be bees (nurse) of the right age to raise a queen. 2 weeks later, larvae growing but no queen cell on that frame. There IS however a sealed queen cell on a different frame. I am confused. IF they moved an egg – which seems unlikely – WHY?
I don’t have an answer, but I sure would like to know if anything emerges from it. Let us know.