Table of contents
- Why do colonies build so many queen cells?
- How can I use queen cells in my apiary?
- How can I tell a queen cell from a supersedure cell?
- When should I move a queen cell to another colony?
- How do I cut the cell from the donor hive?
- Must I keep the queen cell warm and upright?
- How do I actually install a queen cell into another hive?
- Will my colony accept a newly installed queen cell?
- How long will it take a virgin queen to hatch and begin laying eggs?
Extra queen cells can be a gold mine for beekeepers. They are cheaper than purchased queens with no need for ordering and shipping. Instead, they miraculously appear in your apiary, usually the offspring of a colony that survived winter in your area—an excellent thing!
Even better, you can often install queen cells from local hives before southern producers send their queens north in the spring. This can give you a jump on the season with a queen that wasn’t shipped in a cage with a lump of sugar.
The downside is you need to collect the cells, move them, and install them properly, all of which is pretty easy. The hard part is waiting for your new virgin queen to complete her mating flights and begin laying eggs.
Now, let’s look at the entire process and see how you can use swarm cells to aid springtime expansion.
Why do colonies build so many queen cells?
We often find early spring hives loaded with queen cells. That’s because spring is the season for colony reproduction, also known as swarming. A colony will often raise many queen cells to assure it will have a new queen after the old queen leaves with the swarm.
Colonies may build a few queen cells or dozens. The workers often place these cells along the bottom or sides of a brood comb. You may also find some on the face of a comb. Once a queen emerges, she may assert her dominance by destroying any unopened queen cells she may find.
New beekeepers often destroy all queen cells thinking it will control swarming. But that doesn’t work, and the colony will simply build more cells. And sometimes the swarm may leave anyway, leaving your hive queenless. If you destroy all the cells after the swarm has left, you may end up with no queen at all.
How can I use queen cells in my apiary?
Instead of destroying those precious queen cells or allowing a new queen to do it, you can harvest the cells and repurpose them. You can install queen cells to replace an old or failing queen, start a nuc, or revive a queenless hive. You can also give them to fellow beekeepers who might need a queen or two.
In addition, you can also “bank” them in a queenless hive or above a queen-right hive with a queen excluder. Keep them in reserve for a few days until you’re sure the new queen survives her mating flights and begins laying. If there is more than one, you’ll need to cage them before they emerge so they don’t kill each other.
How can I tell a queen cell from a supersedure cell?
A colony builds supersedure cells when a queen becomes ill, damaged, low on pheromones, or dies. Since a colony cannot survive without a healthy, productive queen, it must replace an ailing queen immediately.
Colonies in this situation attempt to replace the queen by building a queen-sized cell around a newly hatched larva from an egg the ailing queen laid. The cells are called supersedure or emergency cells. Since the workers must find a young larva somewhere in the colony, the supersedure cell may appear just about anywhere. Most likely, it will be on the face of a comb among other brood cells.
Supersedure cells end up looking like swarm cells, although there are usually fewer and not likely grouped together as swarm cells often are. The position of a queen cell is a clue to its purpose, but only a clue.
Another clue is the season. Swarm cells generally appear during swarm season in early spring when many flowers are in bloom. Swarm season usually ends before the summer nectar dearth begins. Less commonly, swarms can also occur outside of regular swarm season.
Remember, supersedure cells are usually needed to replace the existing queen, so it’s best to leave them there for that purpose. Also, supersedure cells may not be the best choice for requeening another colony because they are sometimes grown from older larvae. In fact, they may develop into intercaste queens that will soon need replacement.
When should I move a queen cell to another colony?
People who raise queens commercially recommend placing queen cells in a queenless colony or nuc two to five days before emergence. This translates to roughly six to ten days after grafting. But the hobby beekeeper who finds queen cells in a hive rarely knows how much time has passed since the egg was laid.
I’ve had excellent results by removing the cells as soon as they are fully capped and installing them the same day. If you find one that you want to use and it’s already capped, just move it right away. At worst, the queen may hatch before you get the cell installed. If that happens, put her in a queen cage with a candy plug and install her as you would a purchased queen.
How do I cut the cell from the donor hive?
Cutting a capped queen cell away from the brood comb is easy, although it can be scary your first time through. It’s helpful to have a frame holder on the outside of the hive, so you have a safe place to hang the frame upright while you work.
Then, using a knife or box cutter, you can simply cut around the cell, being super careful not to cut into the cell. That means you want to leave some extra comb around the perimeter of the queen cell. It’s far better to sacrifice some comb and worker brood than damage the queen.
But here’s something to remember: Warm beeswax is bendy and pliable, and that includes queen cells. Do not squeeze, twist, tug, or pull. Instead, you must gently and tenderly support the queen cell in one hand while cutting with the other. If you behave like the slasher, slicing and slivering randomly, you will end up killing the virgin within. Easy does it.
Must I keep the queen cell warm and upright?
Many beekeepers say you should keep the cells upright in their normal position. However, people ship queen cells through the mail, and I’ve got a hunch the postal service doesn’t much care about a bee in a bassinet in a box, no matter what you write on the outside.
If you’re simply moving the cell from one side of your apiary to the other, why not keep it upright or nearly so? But if it tips over, you shouldn’t lose sleep over it.
As for temperature, avoid extremes: room temperature is good. But remember, the bees inside the queen cells are close to emergence, so they are not as delicate as open brood. Still, you don’t want it freezing or sweltering, because you might damage or kill it. Use your judgment, if you have some, and your soon-to-be queen should be fine.
If you’re going to drive the cell somewhere, pack it for travel. I’ve seen cells in egg cartons, jewelry boxes, medicine bottles, and test tubes. But first, wrap it loosely in tissue paper or newsprint to keep it from rattling around in the container. Put the whole thing in a warmish place and get on your way because the sooner you install the cell, the better.
How do I actually install a queen cell into another hive?
Once you get your queen cell to its destination hive, you need to attach it to a brood frame. Put it somewhere where there is space. Or, if you can’t find space, make room on a brood frame with lots of workers.
Next, gently attach the queen cell to the frame. I sometimes run a wooden toothpick through the bit of comb surrounding the cell and then through the comb in the frame. Sometimes you can stick it on with a pliable piece of wax, or you can tie it with wire, string, or rubber bands.
Just remember to be gentle and keep the cell in the proper orientation. The end where the queen will come out should point down, and there should be room for the queen when she emerges. Don’t squeeze her in.
Will my colony accept a newly installed queen cell?
Queenless hives usually accept virgins from queen cells without question. Still, check on her after a few days to make sure her emergence went smoothly. Remember, too, that not all queens are perfect at birth. It’s possible to get a defective queen. If so, try again with a new cell.
How long will it take a virgin queen to hatch and begin laying eggs?
Queens take about 16 days to mature from egg to emergence. How long it takes for the new queen to mate and begin laying is variable, but it’s at least 8 days at the very minimum up to about a month.
Also, recall that about one-fifth of virgin queens don’t make it back from their mating flights. So, if possible, keep any extra queen cells until all your queens are mated and laying. Only then should you consider destroying the remainder.
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“Use your judgment, if you have some,”
I know I still have some because I don’t use it enough to use it up. : )
Now there’s a thought. No wonder I still have some left (I think).
Very helpful. This is great information.
I guess if you use plastic foundation you’re out of luck, true?
Not necessarily. Swarm cells usually hang off the edges and bottoms of frames, and they are not built snugly against the foundation the way brood cells are. I’ve taken swarm cells from plastic foundation with no issues. Not all of them will be good candidates, but some will be fine.
Now I wonder if using swarm cells is such a good idea unless we wish to favor the genes that produce colonies that tend to swarm.
As far as moving cells around without damaging the pupae, isn’t that a matter of what age the pupae are? Some stages of development are surely more sensitive than others. Also understanding how the pupa is attached in the cell would help in knowing how they can be handled without causing damage.
I have had success introducing newly emerged queens, like the one hatched in your hand, immediately to both queenless and in one case queenright colonies.
“About one-fifth of virgin queens don’t make it back from their mating flights.” For my area, in my experience, that statistic is more like one in a hundred. Whatever the correct figure is, it must be very local.
I use supersedure cells not swarm cells unless I am desperate and if I do use a swarm cell that queen will get replaced as soon as possible.
1. Swarming is a biological imperative. Honey bee colonies must swarm if the species is to survive. Only the strongest, healthiest, most robust colonies are able to swarm, whereas weaker colonies often cannot. I don’t understand the purpose of keeping weak colonies without the strength or temperament to swarm. Yes, it is often inconvenient, but it is the best thing for overall honey bee health.
2. Yes, age is important, which is why I recommend new beekeepers use only capped cells. Some people transfer charged cells that are uncapped, but it is more difficult and has a lower success rate.
The pupa is encased in a cocoon and the cocoon is attached to the inside of the queen cell. For a discussion of cocoons and how they work, see The Puzzling Pupa and Its Cryptic Cocoon.
3. I’m curious how you know the number of virgins that successfully completed their mating flights. Even if every one of your hives successfully requeened itself, you still don’t know how many virgins went on a mating flight. You could have several from one colony leave on the same day, or on successive days. If several emerge simultaneously, they may not be successful at destroying each other, and multiples may be active at once. Often, too, new queens don’t manage to kill all the capped queens, so others are usually in line for the throne. The major reason so many cells are produced is to give the colony multiple backup chances.
4. Supersedure cells can be a poor choice, especially if the bees were forced to begin the supersedure cell with older larvae, which is often the case. Sometimes they end up yielding intercaste queens. Supersedure cells are called “emergency” cells for a reason: they will do in a pinch, but they are not the best choice.
An excellent paper on mating behavior and frequencies can be found here: Heidinger IM, Meixner MD, Berg S, Büchler R. Observation of the Mating Behavior of Honey Bee (Apis mellifera L.) Queens Using Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID): Factors Influencing the Duration and Frequency of Nuptial Flights. Insects. 2014 Jul 1;5(3):513-27. doi: 10.3390/insects5030513. PMID: 26462822; PMCID: PMC4592583.
Thanks for the reply and for the referenced article on mating flights of the honey bee. I expect the use of the RFID technique will change a good deal of what we ”know” about bee behaviour.
I do love a bee swarm but prefer it when it’s not my bees although a summer with no swarms among my own colonies, as was the case this past summer, leaves me feeling a bit cheated. I try to remedy this by chasing other people’s swarms. As I’m sure you are aware the tendency to swarm is at least partly enhanced by certain genetic inheritance and over the years I have consistently chosen a healthy, strong colony that has not swarmed (among other favourable characteristics) as material for further propagation. I have seen no negative effects of this choice in my apiary. I have always had exceptional overwintering stats and a quite satisfactory honey harvest above average for my area.
Another trait I favour in my bees is the tendency of certain colonies to rejuvenate through supersedure. It is not a common occurrence in my apiary but when it happens I am pleased to see a colony requeen without any interruption in normal activities. I find the occurrence also a natural one. Is there scientific evidence that supersedure queens are inferior to swarm cell queens in general? I have not been able to detect any. I wonder also where you find support for the idea that supersedure cells are built over worker cells of hatched larvae? That sounds like emergency cells to me. I can understand that cells built out of season may result in inferior queens. I have no experience of these as by the time “out of season” occurs (late July here) I have finished requeening activities and there are no colonies with weak queens.
Normally I replace queens with queens that I rear myself from stock in my own apiary. It is from this activity that I get my 1% failed mating flights. Over the years I have had a total of 5 queens that did not lay proper (worker bee) eggs in their mating colonies (single-frame mini-nucs). So the figure 1% is ballpark. It’s probably more than that in reality but definitely nowhere near 20%. Three of the queens that failed were all from one year when we had very bad weather, cold, and wind, for 3 weeks in a row. I can’t understand how the ones who mated got the job done at all. In fact, with the kind of weather we have, I am often baffled by the fact that not only do they get out and mate but these tiny colonies often make honey.
Unfortunately, I was unable to read the article “The Puzzling Pupa and its Cryptic Cocoon” in its entirety as ABJ allows only page one without a subscription to their magazine which I don’t have.
If eggs are available for building supersedure cells, the workers will certainly choose those or recently hatched larvae instead of advanced larvae, but that’s not always possible. If the only thing available is older larvae, they will use those. The terms “supersedure cell” and “emergency cell” are used interchangeably and refer to those cells used to raise queens under less-than-ideal conditions. Queen cups, on the other hand, are often built proactively and may be used or may be taken down later.
I forgot ABJ only runs an excerpt on their site. I republish my ABJ articles here on my site, but I have to wait until after a contractual period of time.
I like to harvest and use swarm cells from hives that made lots of honey the prior year. If they made lots of honey the prior year, that means they didn’t swarm and likely aren’t “swarmy” bees, it also means they overwintered. In the current year with that 2nd-year queen, I’ll let ’em crowd themselves a bit in the spring so they make swarm cells. I would think using swarm cells from non-swarmy bees doesn’t breed swarmy bees.
As a beekeeper of some years, I can tell that this is all good advice from someone experienced.
A further tip I would add is that In some cold areas (like mine), I would recommend trying this method when you are sure there are drones about – if your own hive or neighbours hives have started producing drone brood, your probably good to make a nuc this way, with the virgin queen likely to have drone brood available in the area for their mating flight.
Good point. Usually, the workers won’t build swarm cells until drones are prolific, but the same is not true of supersedure cells. So yes, it’s a good thing to check for.
Another comment to add in is if you have cells on a plastic foundation frame and are afraid to cut it off – well just take that entire frame with all of its cells (likely there are more than 1) and move it into the nuc box to let them finish hatching and mating instead of moving just the queen cell. I have several 3 frame boxes just for this reason.
Another lesson learned for me was when I was trying to cut off the cells on the bottom of the frame that are attached to the wood. I learned to take a sharp knife and shave off a bit of the wood to go along with the cell as opposed to trying to fillet off the queen cell and likely damaging it in the process. A small thin splinter or shaving of wood does no harm if it comes along.
Thanks, Herb! Those are both great ideas and ones I will try myself.