The Ins And Outs Of Queen Cells

How To Identify them, And What They Say About Your Hive

For anyone just starting beekeeping, identifying different cells can be a hard task. Knowing how to deal with them can be even trickier.

If you open your hive and suspect you’ve found queen cells, you may feel panicked. And while some beekeepers will tell you to exterminate them immediately, that’s not the only option.

Bees are intuitive creatures – there will be a perfectly logical reason why they’re building queen cells. You just need to figure that out, so you can deal with it appropriately.

First, what is a cell?

A cell refers to any kind of closed space that has been created from wax by bees – they’re the hexagonal shapes that the bees make to construct their hive. There are many types: honey storage cells, drone cells, brood cells and pollen cells. But queen cells are different from the others – instead of having tidy hexagonal outlines, they’re larger and shaped like peanut shells.

The royal trio

There are three types of queen cells – swarm, supersedure and emergency. Swarm cells can be bothersome to your overall hive health and you may need to take action, but with supersedure and emergency cells, there’s not much you can do other than trusting your bees’ instincts. It’s important to distinguish these cells from one another, so you’re equipped to manage them appropriately.

Here’s how to spot the different queen cells, and what to do if you find them in your hive.

Swarm cells

Bees create swarm cells from queen cups to raise a second queen. When a colony expands and becomes overcrowded, the queen will flee with half of the colony in search of another hive space. The colony prepares for the swarm by raising a new queen in a swarm cell, and then half the bees stay behind in the current hive and wait for the new queen to emerge.

In a double brood hive, swarm cells usually hang vertically off the bottom of the frames and can be mistaken for drone cells. You can tell them apart by their shape – drone cells are round and shaped more like bullets, while swarm cells typically have a lumpier peanut shape. There will usually be between 10-20 swarm cells, but in some cases, there can be up to 100. In single brood boxes swarm cells can appear anywhere on the frame.

It’s most common for bees to swarm in the summer months when the hive population expands. During swarm season it’s common to find multiple swarm cells throughout your hive. If you spot these cells, your bees are already in swarm mode – and there might not be much you can do to stop them other than regularly removing the cells before they hatch. While some beekeepers swear by this technique, it may only delay a swarm, not prevent it altogether.

Although a swarm is generally harmless, you don’t want to lose half your colony – and you’ll need to gently intervene to make sure that doesn’t happen. The best option is splitting your hive into two smaller ones, so you get an extra hive rather than losing bees. Just take your time, do your research and don’t leave it too late in the season.

Supersedure cells

The main difference between swarm and supersedure cells is that a supersedure cell doesn’t create a queen for a new hive, but rather replaces the old queen. When bees sense that their queen is failing, injured, sick or old, they’ll begin to create a new queen. They will find a young larva, feed her royal jelly, and then build a supersedure cell around her for protection. The queen that emerges from that cell will take the place of the old one.

Like swarm cells, supersedure cells are entirely vertical, but they will usually be located on the face of the comb rather than on the bottom of the frame. Cleverly, the bees create several supersedure cells at once – there will usually be two or three in a group on the same comb. Feeding several larvae gives the bees the best chance of creating a strong new queen. Usually, the first bee to emerge will kill the others and become the new queen.

The general rule is to trust your bees if they’re making supersedure cells. If they think they need a new queen, leave them be – there’s no need to interfere, and you’ll likely do more harm than good if you do. Queen cells are easily damaged, so handle with care and ensure they’re kept vertical when you remove frames from the hive.

Emergency cells

If the queen dies suddenly and the hive becomes queenless, the bees will go into emergency mode, and work hard to create a new queen. The nurse bees convert standard brood cells to supersedure cells and feed them royal jelly.

These types of cells are partly horizontal and partly vertical with a right-angle bend in the middle. Bees will build these cells anywhere on the comb, so they may be scattered – this is an easy way to distinguish them from clustered swarm or supersedure cells.

Emergency cells are a sign that your hive could be in crisis – but if all goes well, they should get back on track relatively quickly. It takes around 15 days for a new queen to emerge, so give them a chance before you intervene. If they haven’t raised a new queen in that time, you may need to buy a queen and introduce it to the hive.

Approach queen cells with care

If you find queen cells in your hive, you might feel panicked – but if you know what to look for and how to deal with them, there’s no need to worry. Supersedure or emergency cells should be left for the bees to manage unless they’re unsuccessful at making a new queen. But if you have a swarm situation on your hands, you need to know how to deal with it appropriately to make sure you don’t lose half your colony.

New to beekeeping? Our blogs offer tips and tricks for beekeepers old and new – have a read here.


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