honey bee management queen bees swarming

Queen cups: cut them or leave them?

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.

Honey Bee Suite


  • My bees did kill the purchased queen so I made my next move. I got a frame with eggs from my other hive 3 days ago. Today I checked the frame and they have one sealed queen cell and 3 open cups. How fast do they normally seal the cups? This was from an egg. It just seems fast. This hive also had/has a laying worker. Does this mean I am re queening the hive correctly or no? I did took the box away and got all bees off it all. I need help. This I my first year keeping bees. I hope I can save them give me any advice u can.

    • Alex,

      Queen cells are capped about 4.5 days after the egg is laid. If you have laying workers, you should read “How to fix a laying worker hive.” It’s hard to do and you have to add open-brood pheromone repeatedly to suppress the worker ovaries. Are you sure you have laying workers? It makes all the difference when it comes to requeening.

      • Ok so they can kill the queen? Still? Even if it grew up in their box? The eggs have hatched so now they have some open brood I will add another frame from my other hive in a few days

        • Alex,

          As long as you have laying workers they will attempt to kill any queen you introduce. The only way to deal with them is to slowly reverse ovary development with open-brood pheromone. In my opinion, it is usually not worth the effort.

  • Is there a way to tell if the queen cell has been used? There are 5 in one of my 2 deeps hives. I waited a week and also fed them. I’ve just checked for eggs and can’t see any yet. Both boxes were completely empty of any stage of babies last week. The edges of the queen cups look jagged. Is there a way to tell if queens have hatched out of them? Or do I just need to keep checking for larvae? I plan to check in another week again. I only looked at a few frames in the top box today. I figured I shouldn’t check every frame in both boxes (like I did last week) each week or they might get sick of me. Lol

    • Kari,

      When a queen emerges, she cuts a perfectly round circle from the bottom of the cell. Sometimes the flap hangs on, so the opening may look a little like a hinged man-hole cover. If the cell is slit on the side, it means the inhabitant was killed by a bee. See “When will a newly-emerged queen begin to lay? for the timing of emerging/mating/laying.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m fairly new to this and learning as much as possible, which your site has been tremendously helpful with. When simulating a swarm by putting the old queen in a new box with worker bees I’ve read that you shouldn’t put brood in there. If they swarmed to a tree in the forest somewhere they would need to build comb first before the queen could start laying. Is this just a preference thing? It sounds like your method might move the colony along faster given there is already capped brood. Thank you.

  • Rusty,

    I live in NY Hudson Valley and it is August 21. I inspected my hive yesterday and discovered 1 queen cup with a larva in it. It’s late in the season for a swarm. My thoughts were make a split or destroy it. I contacted another bee friend for his advice and he was torn between the 2 options as well, but we decided maybe it would be best to destroy the cup. I’m curious to know what you would have done so late in the season. I will be doing weekly inspections to keep an eye on their behavior. Thanks so much for your knowledge and insight!


    • Stephanie,

      I would not have destroyed the cup. It sounds like the bees need to replace their queen, and without a new queen on the way, they could become queenless.

  • Hi Rusty! Our one hive overwintered so well that we were afraid of a swarm occurring. 7 days ago we decided to split the hive, but couldn’t find the queen as hard as we tried (to move her into the new hive and prevent said swarming). Today we checked both hives, turns out the old hive has the queen and some open swarm cups. The new hive has emergency cups (as we left them plenty of 1-3 day old eggs in the split). We removed the swarm cups from the old hive in hopes that she won’t swarm. Was that the right move? Or should we have transferred her into the new hive, regardless of the emergency queen cells that are present there?

    I’d like to add that we have already added a new brood box and two supers (one super is already full) to the old hive to give them enough space, since they keep plugging the queen out. The old hive is rocking!

    • Summer,

      If you remove all the queen cups, and then the colony swarms anyway, you won’t have a replacement queen in the making.

  • I purchased two packages of bees and they were delivered. Both queens seemed to have made the transition week and it has been two weeks since I put them in the hive. Today, I did a two-week assessment to see if both hives had brood as both hives have been very busy with the daily activities, but I have one hive with no brood. I could not find the queen today in the broodless hive.

    Last week, 8 days ago, my neighbor called and had a swarm which I captured and quickly have three hives. The newly captured hive already has brood on three frames and my other Russian hive has 3-4 frames with brood.

    Should I pull a frame of brood from one of those hives and place it in the queenless hive and let them produce a new queen or is there another option outside of buying another queen?

  • New to bee keeping. Reading the posts I have a question regarding avoiding a swarm. One string suggested moving the old queen to a new hive when there is a new queen cell. Can you alternatively move the new queen cell to a new hive instead? Seems easier than finding the old queen and moving her.

    • Don,

      Technically, you can move the queen cell. The problem is that in a natural swarm the old queen leaves with the swarm. If the old queen stays in the original hive, the colony may not feel like it has swarmed, so it might swarm anyway. When you remove the old queen and part of the bees, the colony “thinks” it has already swarmed. Yes, it’s more work, but it’s also more effective.

  • There were 7 queen cups on our hive, and we mistakenly removed them. We now know we shouldn’t have done that and will split the hive. How long until the queen cups are rebuilt and an egg laid? How long should we wait to split the hive? Thanks!

    • Alexis,

      You can split the hive any time, as long as the part without a queen has plenty of eggs or very young larvae. The queenless workers will start raising queens immediately.

  • I have open brood including about 100 drones, scant young brood, many frames of capped brood but I could not see a single egg and there is too many bees to find that queen. They still festoon, foraging and bringing in pollen but not an egg in sight… no superseding cell and only two empty cups. I only have the one hive so I cant steal eggs from some other place. Do I order a new queen?

    • Rachel,

      You don’t say where you are, which makes it hard to say more, but everything sounds normal. In the more northerly climates, egg-laying should be slowing down or stopping altogether at this time of year.

      • Thanks! You are spot on. My local beekeeping friend told me there is a break in the brood cycle here, even though we have a mild climate, we are in Canada (west coast) … I love this hobby… it’s so interesting and exciting to see what happens.

  • I see that this is an old thread, but I have a question on this subject. I have an overwintered hive that is incredibly strong. Stronger than what I have dealt with before. I am in Denver, CO and was late getting into the hive this season, until I saw them perform a practice swarm 2 days ago. Bees EVERYWHERE, flying in circles around the neighbor’s yard and our yard etc. Definitely not orientation flights. Luckily everyone went back home after 30 minutes or so. I got into the hive later that day. It was packed. I finally found the queen and moved her, along with a few frames including one with a capped swarm cell into a nuc. I did destroy several of the capped swarm cells because there were upwards of 10, but left 3-4 behind. I hope this wasn’t a mistake. I added undrawn frames to replace the ones that went into the nuc box and added a super. There was plenty of capped brood in the hive but only a few older larvae. So far I have not seen any signs of swarm activity from the hive after the split. I have been watching them closely. How long should I continue to watch them closely to make sure they aren’t swarming? Also, how long before I should inspect the original hive to make sure they have successfully produced a new queen? Sorry for the long post. Thank you in advance!

    • Jenny,

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “practice swarm” before. They don’t need practice; swarming comes naturally. It sounds to me like you saw an unsuccessful swarm attempt. That can happen if for some reason the queen doesn’t leave with the rest of them or if she gets lost, damaged, or eaten.

      Anyway, the original colony could be done swarming for now (because you removed the queen and some bees) or else it could send out a secondary swarm. You just can’t tell. A secondary or even a third (tertiary) swarm could attempt to leave with a virgin queen, or the colony may wait until it has a mated queen before it takes off. If it’s going to happen, it could be today or two or three weeks away.

      You may have prolonged the process by destroying cells. You have no way of telling which or how many of those cells will produce healthy queens. The colony only needs one, of course, but if she doesn’t return from her mating flight, they will need another. And then if another swarm leaves, you might need another. In nature, the bees produce many cells because the entire process is fraught with danger. I can’t remember how many queens on average return from mating flights, but one estimate said 2/3. There are many variables, so just remember they all won’t return so it’s nice to have backup cells.

      • Thank you for the quick reply and for your help! I have seen the term practice swarm online, but it makes much more sense that it is actually a failed first attempt at a swarm. While it was happening, I thought I saw a queen on the ground in front of the hive unable to fly more than a couple feet. I’m not 100% sure due to the chaos, but she looked like she was trying to get back to the hive. She could have been the queen that I later moved to the nuc box. Same coloring at least. No signs of swarming yet today and tomorrow we go back to the pattern of afternoon storms. I’m hoping that if they are still planning to swarm, the weather for the next several days slows them down. The one nuc box that I had now holds the split and it will take a while to receive new ones that I am about to order online. I should have been more prepared! At least I am lucky to work from home so I can keep an eye on the situation. Hopefully I can catch any future swarms before they bother my suburban neighbors.

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