Identifying Queen Cells

Obviously you know that queen cells are larger than normal brood cells. Even a drone cell, with it's taller domed cap, is too small to hold a fully developed queen. So queen cells are easy to identify since they hang vertically, unlike other brood cells that are oriented essentially horizontally.

But can you identify the different types of queen cells? That's the point of this article, to help you identify the different types of queen cells you will see in your hives. After all, you can't really know how to react if you don't really understand what's going on.

First you should know that there are two kinds of queen cells that occur naturally in the hive. There are supercedure cells and swarm cells. They are both intended to replace a queen, the difference being why the queen needs to be replaced.

For the sake of full disclosure, some consider the emergency supercedure cell a third type of queen cell, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of supercedure cell. Still, I will discuss the difference below.

Supercedure Cells 

Pictured above is a supercedure queen cell. Supercedure cells are intended to replace a queen that, for whatever reason, can no longer provide the colony with a reliable source of brood.

Consequently, the first distinguishing characteristic of a supercedure cell is its location. You will notice in the photo above that the supercedure cell is located in the middle of the worker brood nest. This is a typical location. Sometimes supercedure cells are located on the edge of the worker brood nest, but not usually. The key point is that supercedure cells are always constructed somewhere on the worker brood nest to make use of the newest eggs.

So what instigates supercedure?

In the photo above the supercedure cell was constructed as an emergency response to replace a queen that was unexpectedly lost. This is that special case of supercedure, an emergency supercedure, that some consider a third type of queen cell.

Maybe the queen was killed, or maybe she died from injury. Maybe she just fell out of the hive and couldn't get back inside. Remember that most queens are too well fed to be able to fly. In any case and for whatever reason, the queen was lost. She could therefore no longer provide the colony with brood, and the colony had to hastily respond to the emergency.

It is precisely that haste that gives the emergency supercedure cell its secondary distinguishing characteristic. Do you see, in the photo above, how the queen cell is darkly colored. It's the same color as the surrounding comb? That's because in an emergency the worker bees must scrounge wax from nearby comb to construct the queen cell. They simply don't have time to wait for newly excreted wax.

But such an emergency is only one possible reason for a supercedure. There are other reasons a queen may not be able to continue producing brood. 

Maybe the queen is too old, and has depleted her spermatheca. If so, then she will start laying unfertilized eggs, i.e. drone eggs, where worker brood should be.

Maybe the queen was inbred, and is producing diploid males where worker brood should be.

In either case, the worker bees will discriminately remove any inadvertent drone brood from the worker brood nest, producing what beekeepers call "spotty brood." So if you notice spotty brood in one of your hives, don't be surprised to see supercedure cells show up soon thereafter.

Of course, in such a case the worker bees will move at a more deliberate rate. So it is quite normal to find non-emergency supercedure cells that are constructed with bright yellow newly excreted wax.

One final point I want to make is that you will sometimes find multiple supercedure cells, sometimes in various stages of construction. This is because the workers know that if their efforts fail the colony will die. It is literally life and death for them, so they take steps to maximize their probability of success.

This is less likely in the case of an emergency supercedure, since that queen was presumably laying worker brood reliably at the time of her loss, but in the case of a failing queen the workers will not want to risk discovering too late that the one egg they chose just happened to be defective. So they can, and will, construct multiple supercedure cells as a type of insurance.

So what should you do when you find a supercedure cell in one of your hives?

Well, if you find a capped supercedure cell, close the hive and leave the bees alone for a month. If they have a complete, capped, sealed, and closed supercedure cell, they have everything under control. There is literally nothing you can do to help them at this point.

If you find a partial supercedure cell, one that is still under construction, close the hive and check on them in a few days. If you then find the supercedure cell capped, closed, and sealed, close the hive and leave the bees alone for a month.

If you check back and find that they have neither a supercedure cell nor eggs around which to build one, then look into getting them a new queen. You might consider providing them with a frame of brood (with eggs) from one of your other hives. Just be sure to pick it from a colony that you want to reproduce.

Swarm Cells 

This photo shows a swarm cell from which a new queen has recently emerged.

The distinguishing characteristic of a swarm cell, just like that of the supercedure cell, is location. You will note in the photo above that the swarm cell is located at the very edge of the comb frame. In this case it's along the bottom, which is usual, but sometimes swarm cells can be found along the vertical edges too.

The purpose of a swarm cell, like that of a supercedure cell, is to replace a queen, but not because she can no longer produce brood. Swarm cells are produced as part of the reproduction cycle of the super organism, the colony.

The old queen will be coerced into laying an egg in a swarm cell. The worker bees will then restrict her diet and force her to exercise more. They will literally make her run laps around the brood nest. The object is to get her down to flying weight so she can leave the hive with the swarm.

While this is taking place the workers will raise their new queen, and this is the reason for the location of swarm cells.

It is instinctive for a queen to kill any threat to her position in the colony. When young queens emerge, even before they mate, the first thing they do is patrol their hive looking for competing queens. If you ever hear piping from one of your hives, this is what's happening.

If a queen finds another competing queen the two will fight to the death. Now an older queen who no longer poses a threat might be tolerated, but only if she is past being productive. If a queen finds even a larval queen in a queen cell, she will tear a gash down the side of the cell and kill the queen inside with her sting.

This is why swarm cells are placed away from the brood nest, so the workers can keep the elder queen away from her replacement.

So what should you do if you find a swarm cell in one of your hives?

Well, first you need to make certain that it's actually a swarm cell and not just an empty queen cup.

There is a distinction made by beekeepers everywhere that it's only a queen cell once it's occupied. If it's empty, it's just a queen cup. So until you find a swarm cell, one that's actually occupied, you really don't need to do anything.

Notice in the photo above that the swarm cell is bright yellow, formed from newly excreted wax? Do you see how this is in stark contrast to both the surrounding older comb and the emergency supercedure cell in the previous photo? There's a reason.

A strong and healthy hive has a generous population of young worker bees of the wax-excreting age, and they need to do something with all that extra wax. If they need more comb they'll draw some out, but when they have nothing else to do with their surplus wax they make queen cups.

This means that it is not uncommon to find many queen cups, potential swarm cells, along the bottoms and edges of your brood frames. This is not an ominous indicator. Quite the opposite, this is a desirable indicator of a strong and healthy colony.

Of course, reproduction is also part of the very definition of a strong and healthy organism, so eventually you should find an actual swarm cell in your hive. And when you do, you should take the opportunity to increase your hive count by performing what the old-timers used to call an artificial swarm. Today we call it a split.

But I'm afraid doing splits is a whole 'nother topic for a whole 'nother day.

Summary

In summary, there are two types of naturally occurring queen cells you can expect to find in your hives. They both occur for the purpose of replacing the queen, but for two very different reasons. And they are distinguished by the locations where they are constructed.

A supercedure cell will be constructed directly on the brood patch in order to replace a queen that can no longer provide the colony with a reliable supply of brood. It is a response to accident or infirmity, and your response should be hands-off if possible. Let the colony recover.

A swarm cell on the other hand is constructed on the edges of the frame, generally away from the brood patch. Swarm cells, whether empty or occupied, are an indicator of a colony's good health. And when you find a swarm cell, an occupied, capped, and sealed swarm cell, you have the opportunity to preserve your apiary's resources, and increase your hive count, by splitting the hive.

In either case, recognizing and understanding the difference is crucial to effectively managing your apiary.