Like nearly everything else in beekeeping, how you handle queen cups depends on a number of factors. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish and whether you are a commercial beekeeper or a hobbyist. It is also influenced by your general attitude toward messing with nature. Oddly enough, it also changes with time: one year it may be “fashionable” to cut cell cups and another year not. The thing to remember is the bees don’t change—just the beekeepers.
For the most part, I ignore the occasional queen cup found on the sides of frames. Bees often build these, take them apart, and rebuild them. If we want to ascribe human thinking to bees, we can say they are building them “just in case” they need to perform an emergency supersedure. The number of queen cups built in this way has been found to vary by subspecies—a fact that indicates there is a genetic component to cell building.
Cell cups being built on the bottom edge of frames are usually precursors to swarming and should be handled differently. As to whether I cut them or leave them, my answer is “neither.” When I find an active swarm cell—one where the bees are tending it—I simply remove that frame from the hive and put it in a nuc. During swarm season I keep a number of these “starter” hives and use them for different purposes as the season progresses.
My reasons for this practice are many:
- Your bees may swarm even if you cut the cells. This leaves your original hive queenless and you’ve destroyed your queen-to-be.
- You can sometimes forestall swarming by removing some of the bees—and the swarm cells—and giving the old hive some new frames to work on. In essence you are splitting the hive.
- If one queen fails—in either the hive or the nuc—you can recombine them later and still have a queen.
Personally, I always try to prevent swarming. There are many who think that we should allow bees to swarm so they can populate the wild places, and because it’s a natural thing for bees to do. However, the world they swarm into is no longer “natural.” In this time of so many perils to bees—including ordinances against bees, pesticides, diseases, lack of suitable habitat, mites and other parasites—there is very little chance of a colony surviving in the “wild.” It’s almost cruel to let them go.
An almost foolproof method of preventing swarming once you have swarm cells that are capped or nearly capped is to take the old queen along with some capped brood, newly hatched workers, and some honey and put her in a new hive. In other words, make a split by putting the old queen in a new location and allowing the old hive to keep the swarm cells. This “artificial swarm” has a similar configuration to a natural swarm in that the old queen leaves and the new queen stays.
Although there are many ways to keep your bees from swarming, once you destroy your replacement queen by cutting the cell you’ve seriously compromised your options. When you see a swarm cell, look at it as an opportunity to experiment.
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