Queen cells … quantity and quality

How many queen cells should I leave in my hive?

This question pops up year after year at this time of the season.

Up and down the country we’re all busy implementing swarm control because our swarm prevention, er, didn’t 🙁

The majority of swarm control methods leave part of the colony to rear a new queen. Once she has emerged, matured, mated and proved her worth by laying up a frame or two you can then decide what to do with the old queen. 

Irrespective of the swarm control method you use – e.g. Pagden, nucleus method or a vertical split – the colony often produces quite a few queen cells. 

Similarly, if both your swarm prevention and swarm control failed and a prime swarm disappeared over the fence, there are likely to be several (or possibly lots of) queen cells left in the colony.

Queen cells – the good, the bad and the ugly

How many of these queen cells should you leave in the hive? 

Which one(s) should you leave?

Assumptions

I’m in the middle of my own swarm control at the moment and so intend to keep this relatively short and simple 1.

I am going to assume you start with one hive and you want to finish with one hive at the end of the process (i.e. you do not want to make increase). I’ll briefly mention rescuing queenless colonies and stock improvement as it’s relevant.

I’m also going to keep this as generic as possible. It’s not going to depend upon the method of swarm control employed or – with some caveats to be discussed later – whether the colony has naturally swarmed.

Here’s the starting position.

Your hive is making preparations to swarm. You apply a swarm control method that removes the old queen from the original brood box 2. This box therefore contains brood in all stages (BIAS) – eggs, larvae and sealed brood. This brood probably occupies most of the frames in the brood box. 

Also in the box are a very large number of adult bees, both workers and drones 3

And there will probably be one, several or lots of unsealed queen cells 4 present as well 🙂

Why do anything? or What’s the worst thing that could happen?

When a colony swarms naturally about 75% of the adult bees leave with the old queen. This figure is similar whether the colony is large or small. 

If you start with a large double brood colony it might contain 60,000 bees. Let’s assume a large swarm leaves as the first queen cells are capped (which is when the swarm usually scarpers).

There are still 15,000 bees and perhaps 15-18 frames of brood, several frames of which are close to emerging. The queen laying rate 3 weeks prior to the swarm was probably 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day, meaning that number of adult workers are now emerging per day. 

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

About eight days after the queen cells were capped and the swarm left the new virgin queens emerge (see the bottom row in the picture above). By this time the worker population in the hive might well be over 20,000 again (some adult worker will have died of old age in the intervening period).

20,000 bees is more than enough to swarm again if several queens emerge 5.

These secondary swarms are called casts. They are headed by a virgin queen. They can be quite large if the original colony was very strong. 

However, with a lot of virgin queens emerging around the same time a strong colony can produce several casts, one after another. These are usually successively smaller and smaller 6. Not only are these casts too small to form an effective colony, but the originating colony can be weakened sufficiently to make its survival doubtful.

What’s the alternative?

Imagine the same double-brood colony. The old queen heads for the hills with 75% of the workforce. A week later the colony strength has been boosted by the emergence of a further 7 – 10 thousand workers … but this time there is only one capped queen cell developing.

The queen emerges.

If this queen also disappeared in a cast swarm the original colony would inevitably perish.

Why?

Because a week after the original swarm leaves there are no eggs or larvae in the colony young enough to be reared as new queens. 

She’s gone …

Swarming is reproduction of the honey bee ‘superorganism’. The survival of natural swarms is low (~25%) whereas the survival of swarmed colonies is reasonably high (>75%).

From an evolutionary perspective it makes no sense for the only queen to also leave, heading a cast swarm. The colony would have ‘traded’ a ~1:5 chance of producing two viable colonies for a 1:16 chance 7

It’s a no brainer as they say 8.

So, you can probably see where this is going now …

Swarm control

The three relatively generic and representative swarm control methods –  Pagden, a nucleus method or a vertical split – all involve manipulation of the hives one week after the initial intervention.

In the ‘classic’ Pagden method the original hive is moved from one side of the artificial swarm to the other. This has the effect of ‘bleeding off’ some of the workforce, so weakening the hive. The resulting reduced worker population often tear down all but a small number of queen cells. The reduced bee numbers also make the production of casts less likely as the colony is weaker.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

In a vertical split the hive is reversed on the stand after 7 days, achieving exactly the same outcome on a much smaller footprint with less equipment 🙂 9

In both these methods the flying bees that have reoriented to the initial new position of the queenless hive return to find the hive moved. They then enter the nearest hive, which is the queenright component (i.e. the artificial swarm). 

I’ll get to the nucleus method in a moment.

Sometimes you will see it recommended that you also check the queenless colony at this one week timepoint to ensure that there are not large numbers of queen cells still present 10. It’s not usually necessary but – assuming you are careful – it does not cause any harm. As I explain below, it can help give you confidence.

If you don’t perform the one week hive manoeuvre you really should check for queen cells and reduce the number present.

In the nucleus method I describe the beekeeper must manage queen cell numbers in the queenless hive. Not doing so almost certainly risks losing multiple casts when the queens emerge together.

How many queen cells should you leave?

The queenless component of your swarm control only needs one queen cell

Any less than that and the colony will be non-viable without further intervention from the beekeeper.

Any more and there’s a risk that the colony will generate one or more casts. 

A very strong queenless colony with large numbers of queen cells is a recipe for disaster … or, if not a disaster, then a lot of frustration as you scurry around trying to catch the casts and/or rescue the colony from swarming itself to destruction.

Workers in very strong colonies can ‘hold back’ queens, effectively trapping them in the cell, so that emergence is more-or-less simultaneous. Should you chance to open a colony in this situation all hell breaks loose, with virgin queens dashing about all over the place.

Been there, got the T-shirt 🙂

Although entertaining – at least is retrospect – it’s better to avoid this sort of situation by restricting queen cell numbers.

All your eggs in one basket

And this is where the beginner starts to experience some trepidation.

They have to reduce queen cell numbers … to one.

That queen will head the colony for the next year or three. She’ll mother tens of thousands of workers who will make countless foraging trips and collect tens or (hopefully) hundreds of pounds of honey.

Choosing that one queen cell feels like a lot of responsibility.

The consequences of choosing a dud feel very serious indeed.

Surely leaving two or three would be a ‘safer’ bet? 

Backups, if you will … just in case the first one turns out to be a dud.

How do you know which one to pick?

Trust the bees

And this is where you need to trust the bees. They’ve been doing this pretty well for several million years.

You don’t need to choose a single egg from the thousands possibly present in the colony. The one egg that will be cared for, fed copious amounts of royal jelly and eventually emerge to head the colony.

The bees have already made those decisions 11.

They’ve started several queen cells, the majority of which are likely to be suitable. You just need to choose one of those queen cells to leave in the hive. 

It’s not a one in thousands chance of choosing a ‘winner’, it’s more like one in ten … in which any of the ten would probably be OK.

With a few caveats …

What are the features of a good queen cell?

You open the hive and find a number of sealed and unsealed queen cells.

Which to choose?

What are the features you are looking for?

What are the features you can see?

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Size, shape and appearance are the obvious ones. Position on the comb might also influence your choice.

What are the features you cannot see?

Is is a charged cell i.e. does it contain a developing pupa? Has that pupa been well fed as a larva?

Size, shape, appearance and position

Mature queen cells are large, about 3 cm long. The position on the comb – whether on the face or edge can influence the apparent size. They are generally conical, more or less evenly tapering to a neatly rounded tip. Queen cells that have been well-tended by the bees are often heavily sculpted on the outside. This is generally taken to be a “good thing”, but note that this doesn’t happen until after the queen cell is capped (see the photo above). Uncapped cells are usually smooth (see the next photo).

I think the position on the frame is irrelevant in terms of queen cell quality, but it does influence which I choose. The cell should be drawn from worker comb (!) 12 and – particularly if I’m likely to be either cutting the cell out or moving the entire frame – I like it to be in a position unlikely to get damaged as I manipulate the frames in the hive.

The edge of drawn comb, with space below and to the side, makes things easy. The central face of the comb, especially if it’s on fresh comb and not near a wire in the foundation, is also a good bet. 

The position is more important if you’re going to do something with the cell or frame other than let it emerge in situ.

Charged cells

How do you know there’s a well-fed pupa in the cell?

Ted Hooper (in his Guide to Bees and Honey) describes gently prising the cap off a sealed queen cell to check it is occupied, then re-sealing it to let development run its course. He finishes discussing how to re-seal the cell with the words “you have to do a good job or the bees will tear it down.”

I bet 😉

There are easier ways.

Firstly you can be pretty sure that any well-shaped sealed cell with a good, well sculpted appearance is likely to be occupied. Alternatively, you can identify these cells in advance and only allow those you know contain a developing larva sitting on a thick bed of royal jelly to mature.

A practical example

A few days ago I used the nucleus method for swarm control in all my colonies in one apiary. Due to work constraints and lockdown some colonies were only just starting to make preparations to swarm. None of the colonies had well developed, charged queen cells. Some had ‘play cups’ with eggs present.

Three days after making up the nucs I checked the queenless parent colonies. All had a few developing queen cells.

Here is the same photograph as above, with some cells numbered on the frame.

Queen cells – capped, open and just plain dodgy

Which do you choose?

Here is the view from below of the same frame.

Queen cells – practical example

  1. A sealed cell, perhaps a bit small 13
  2. Is a nice looking unsealed cell with a thick bed of royal jelly supporting a larva inside.
  3. Also unsealed and with a good space underneath for the cell to be drawn out as it develops.
  4. Is very similar to #2. Smooth exterior as it’s only 3 days old and unsealed.
  5. A thickened play cup from a previous season. There is no egg, larva or royal jelly inside it.

Remember that this is only 3 days after implementing swarm control.

I destroyed the sealed cell #1. Since it was already sealed it was probably made from an older larva. Cells are sealed on the eighth day after the egg is laid. Since this was only 72 hours after removing the queen the larva was probably two days old before being reared as a queen – i.e. 8 minus 3 days since queen removal minus the three days it would have already spent as an egg. Alternatively, it might have been present when I removed the queen, though I did check reasonably thoroughly.

I couldn’t be sure of the contents of this cell and I suspected that it may not have been fed on copious amounts of royal jelly during the very early days after hatching from the egg.

Cell #3 was also squidged. If you look closely from below you can clearly see the larva but no thick bed of royal jelly. I doubted it had been fed well enough in the early days. Here’s an enlargement …

Cells #1 to #4 enlarged.

Why risk it? There are better cells on the frame.

I ignored #5. It’s not a queen cell and never will be.

Uncapped cells #2 and #4 were retained. They are the right size, have a good appearance and are well placed on the frame.

I marked the top of the frame with a queen marking pen to remind me where to check, and more importantly where to be careful, when I inspect the colony a week after making up the nuc.

X marks the spot

Note that the photo above is a different hive to the numbered photo of queen cells (which I forgot to photograph).

Hold on … not so fast

Go back and look again at the numbered photo of queen cells.

There is another cell, uncapped and filled with royal jelly, to the left and a little higher than the sealed queen cell #1.

This cell is actually pretty obvious. There are relatively few bees on the frame and it is not particularly well ‘hidden’. 

Miss a couple more like that in a very strong hive and there’s a chance the colony will throw off several casts when the queen emerge. The unlabelled cell, and cells #2 and #4 are all very similar in age and appearance and would likely emerge within hours of each other.

Seven days after implementing swarm control

The hives are checked again 14.

I know which frames have good, charged developing queen cells. They are the ones that are marked. I therefore :

  • treat these frames very carefully. Do not shake the bees off the frame!
  • make sure the cells are now capped and starting to be sculpted by the bees.
  • gently inspect the remainder of the frame for other queen cells.
  • destroy any new cells that I find

I choose one of the queen cells and destroy any others on the frame. If there is more than one marked frame and I don’t need the cell for another colony (see below) then I destroy the cells on the other marked frame as well.

I then thoroughly inspect every frame in the brood box, shaking all the bees off the frames and checking for any queen cells I may have missed previously. There will be some.

All I find are destroyed.

I close the hive up and leave it undisturbed for the queen to emerge, mate and start laying. I’ll discuss this – apparently interminable – period in the future sometime.

I’m confident the cell contains a well fed pupae. It was the the bees that really selected the queen … all I did was whittle down their selection to the final choice.

Using ‘spare’ queen cells

In the photo above there are two marked frames. This is a good colony. Frugal, productive, well behaved etc. 15

There is another colony in the apiary which is poorly tempered. They are also requeening and are at the same stage.

Assuming the cells on both marked frames are good I’ll transfer one to the badly behaved colony when I conduct the seven day inspection. You can transfer the entire frame or you can gently cut the queen cell out and use it directly 16

All of the developing queen cells in the badly behaved colony will first be destroyed. Since there are no eggs or young larvae in that colony (and no queen as she was removed a week ago) they cannot rear another from their own genetic material.

The new queen will be better quality.

Similarly, you can use a ‘spare’ queen from a good hive to rescue a terminally queenless colony, or to replace an underperforming or substandard queen.

A really dodgy queen cell

I wanted to squeeze in a picture of what not to choose. 

Bride of Frankenstein queen cell

There are so many things wrong with this.

Where to start?

It’s drawn from drone comb and is not neatly tapering and conical. It’s poorly sculpted considering its age and size, which is far too big.

Whatever emerges from this cell, if anything, will not be any use to me or the bees 🙁

Seven day only inspection

The process described above involves an additional inspection 3-4 days after implementing swarm control. I think this is a modest amount of additional work for:

  • the peace of mind it gives when selecting the final cell to leave
  • the time saved when going through the colony at the seven day inspection

However, often it’s not possible. In that case I refer you back to the description of what a good sealed queen cell looks like.

Choose one of those.

Just one 😉


Notes

With gale force winds predicted for the next 2-3 days I ended up checking the ‘example’ colony (above) on day 6 after implementing swarm control measures. Here is the same frame:

Just one!

I removed two less convincing queen cells on either side of the one selected (#2 in the labelled photograph further up the page). There were a small number of queen cells elsewhere in the colony. All were removed. I’m leaving just one cell sealed, I know it contains a well fed larva. She’ll emerge in about a week and should be mated – weather permitting – a week or so after that.

And now the wait begins … 😉

 

Footnotes

  1. Ha! Famous last words … remind me of this in 2400 words time.
  2. Any of the three methods mentioned earlier –  Pagden, a nucleus method or a vertical split – fit this general description.
  3. It’s very unusual for a colony to swarm without already containing a good number of drones.
  4. There are unlikely to be sealed queen cells as the colony would probably have already swarmed.
  5. Why they do this is an interesting point as it probably generates casts with a very low potential to survive.
  6. Some can be as small as an orange.
  7. Reciprocal of 0.75 x 0.25 vs. reciprocal of 0.252. In reality, cast survival is appreciably lower than prime swarm survival for two reasons – size and the need to get the virgin queen mated.
  8. The argument here is slightly artificial as I’m mixing feral/wild colony survival rates with managed colony sizes. In reality wild colonies may never get to be anything like as big and strong as managed colonies. If they did they might generate several casts. Some do. Nevertheless, they would not evolve a mechanism that was inherently more risky than one in which the original colony probably survived. Our managed colonies’ behaviour results from millions of years of evolution as wild honey bees.
  9. And much more heavy lifting.
  10. There shouldn’t be if you have performed the manipulations in the right way.
  11. Read my previous post Who’s the daddy? about egg selection under the emergency response … the workers are very selective about which eggs they choose.
  12. A male larva will not develop into a very good queen.
  13. Always more deceptive on the face of the comb as the cell goes some way into the comb as well.
  14. I’m doing this the day this post appears online, so am unlikely to be able to update the photographs.
  15. If you’re reading this and are in the market for a nuc then, of course, all my bees are like this … the tetchy colony described below belongs to a ‘friend’.
  16. 2903 words already … I have no time to describe this, I will in the future.

30 thoughts on “Queen cells … quantity and quality

  1. Janet Wilson

    A most interesting post, thankyou! I usually cull the queen cells down to the two best, following an experience I had a few years ago. I opened a colony that I had not culled the cells in after taking away the old queen. I wanted to make sure it was not going to cast a bunch of virgin swarms etc. I found a nice big virgin queen, very black in colour, on the combs. She was trying to reach a really gorgeous queen cell that was still sealed. As I watched, she was foiled in her attempts to reach that cell by a crowd of worker bees, who were defending the cell. I closed up the hive….and two weeks later found a lovely and very large butterscotch coloured queen in firm command of the colony.

    I concluded that the workers are capable of tilting the board in favour of a queen they deem superior. So I now leave two cells, hoping that gives my queen quality at tiny push upwards as the bees must choose between two nice queens and one hopes choose the better of the two.

    I now put two ripe queen cells in each mating nuc I make as well. Not very scientific as I may put my two best queens-in-the-cell in one mating nuc. But by and large I hope it allows the bees to make a discriminating choice.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Janet

      I wonder how the workers “knew” the quality of the yet-to-emerge queen? They are clearly selective in their choice of eggs (though this might actually be larval competition at work) but I can’t think of a straightforward mechanism by which they can judge the queen within the cell.

      Pheromones perhaps, like most other things!

      I suppose an alternative interpretation is that the pale queen emerged and won the battle, defeating the even better quality dark queen.

      I know when uniting two colonies, one of which contains a poor quality queen that you cannot find, that Sod’s Law dictates it’s the less good queen that prevails 😉

      I know others who put two cells into mating nucs. It would be interesting to be a bee on the wall and watch exactly how things play out … do the workers contribute at all? Does the first to emerge always prevail, slaughtering the latecomer in the cell?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Paul Lindstrom

    Very instructive. I’ve managed to do this a couple of times in the last 2 years, but felt it was more luck than real knowledge. This was a very clear instruction how to go about, and I’ll follow this next time (might be within weeks actually).

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Paul

      It’s worth the effort as a colony that has ‘swarmed out’ and is now too small to survive without a lot of TLC is a bit distressing. We all overlook queen cells sometimes. Most times it might not cause a problem, but when you have 15 queens emerge in a strong double brood colony things can get a bit manic.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Paul Lindstrom

        Just as I thought – when inspecting our colony this morning we found 7-8 queen cells in different stages, at least one capped. From none last Saturday! My intention was to inspect in the middle of the week, but got distracted with an incoming swarm that I caught. Your article was perfectly timed to help us choose which queen cells to save. A complication was that we have never seen the queen, despite looking very carefully, so wasn’t marked. We decided to split the colony and leave one queen cell in each hive, plus split the brood frames and frames with stores. We will probably loose one part of a colony when the old queen leaves, but couldn’t figure out a better way in the circumstances. Always exciting, trying to figure out what the bees are doing.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Paul

          Are you sure the old queen hasn’t already left? She usually has if there are sealed cells present unless a) the weather has been very bad, or b) she has a clipped wing. Check both parts of the split in 3 days. If there are no eggs then I’m afraid she’s scarpered!

          Good luck
          David

          Reply
          1. Paul Lindstrom

            No David,, I’m not entirely sure that the queen is still there. We might have missed a swarm, but I don’t think so. That is probably the only good thing about this lock-down, we spend all our time at home, and in the garden. I’ll have a look tomorrow and see how the queen cells have developed.

  3. David Ferguson

    Excellent article David, as always, just as we were discussing the same issue yesterday evening in our association Zoom meeting, of whether to leave one initially or remove them all to raise new ones.
    Regards, David
    (from Peebles)

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello David

      I think the important thing to remember is why leaving more than one is risky. There are so many variables in beekeeping it’s not possible to be right all the time. Once the basics are grasped it’s possible to investigate alternative approaches. Certainly knocking everything back and letting them new ones is a strategy, but you still have to limit the number allowed to emerge or all hell breaks loose … 😉 An advantage of doing it that was is you should know precisely when the queen will emerge … assuming they chose a day old lava of course.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Kevin Barron

    Hi David,
    Another very informative blog, especially for us novices, thank you.
    Slightly off topic but queen related.
    I hear people talk about holding a queen back, perhaps “hatched” in an incubator. Surely this is a time restricted thing to do as the virgin needs to mate within a specific time frame?
    Kevin

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      “Slightly” … 😉

      Queens have an ‘expiry date’ beyond which they do not mate successfully. When you hatch them in an incubator you usually then place them into a mating nuc soon afterwards (<48 hours, in my experience they rapidly lose condition without access to bees). You can also 'bank' them in cages with lots of nurse bees. These are generally commercial queen rearing tricks, so outside the scope of most of the posts here.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. fred

    that is such a useful guide to queen cell selection, thanks, as ever!
    also enjoy the ‘interminable wait ‘ for queen to mate and begin laying.Its an existential angst lasting 4 weeks which i use trying to resist completely fatuous reasons to have a quick peek (surely it can’t hurt?) and then if i do look i have to spend the remainder anxious I’ve spooked the queen. i can’t win….unless, of course……i wait.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fred

      Generally of course it doesn’t hurt to have a quick peek.

      Until it does, and then it’s not a good thing 🙁

      Rescuable if you have other colonies or queens waiting in the wings, but a problem if you haven’t. So why do we risk it?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Calum Grigor

    Hi David,
    I always leave an hier and a spare. So long as their distance apart is good, one will hatch early enough to kill the other. That way I only check them once, and if I damage one putting the frame back in, or while killing the other cells, it’s not a gamechanger.
    As ever an excellent article !

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum

      Many thanks. Good to hear from you. I’ve often done exactly that as well but generally think it’s not really necessary and wanted to keep an already too long post from getting ridiculous. The key thing with leaving a sealed cell and an unsealed cell is you need to be sure the latter would emerge late enough. This means you need to be certain that it wasn’t started from an older larva. Explaining all this would have made a long blog post into a book chapter 😉

      I did all my swarm control at the end of last week. It was a case of practicing what I preach as I did exactly what I described in the post. I’ll be checking them all in about 3 weeks and am hoping the weather improves for queen mating – we’ve had 80kph winds and torrential rain here for the last couple of days. Not great conditions to find the drone congregation areas 🙁

      Having checked all the hives for QC’s I then checked all the nuc boxes to make sure they had sufficient space and stores. They all did. One had enough space to make a great big queen cell 🙁

      For reasons I’ll write about later in the season it’s turning out to be a challenging beekeeping year.

      Hope things are going well for you.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Mark

    Hi David,

    A great article, thank you. I have a very strong colony and did a nucleus split (removing old queen) but clearly missed some queen cells as they are producing cast swarms – lesson learnt for next year! As this is my main honey producer, I’m keen to try and rectify the situation if I can. Is there anything I can now do to stop the colony from swarming itself out?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Mark

      Other than knocking back all the unsealed and sealed cells and leaving just one virgin in the hive there’s probably little you can do. It can get a bit frantic going through a strong hive with a dozen or so virgin queens merging in front of you – everywhere you look there’s one scurrying away around the other side of the frame.

      Good luck … you might need it.
      David

      Reply
      1. Mark

        Hi David,

        Thank you for your reply. I suspected that might be my only option so I went down to the apiary yesterday and destroyed any queen cells (they were all sealed by this point) – in fact there were a couple where the bees were corralling fully developed virgin queen inside – no doubt waiting to create even more cast swarms. I’ve no idea how many virgin queens are in the hive at the moment, but I’ll just have to wait and observe. I’ll also don’t want to disturb them too much more in case the ‘true’ queen hasn’t mated yet – there were no signs of any laying yet.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Mark

          Usually they sort themselves out under these circumstances. I’d give them a fortnight at least – ideally a bit longer – and then go back and check. If the weather is good everything should be OK by the end of June.

          Fingers crossed 😉
          David

          Reply
          1. Mark Nolan

            Thanks for your great advice, David. I’ll give them some breathing space to do what they need to do.

  8. sean

    David,
    I had an open queen cell and lots of sealed ones.
    I moved a few frames with sealed cells into nucs with frames of capped brood, nurse bees and stores.
    They have not emerged…or rather one has partially emerged but looks dead….my assistance with a twig didn’t help.

    Is it probable that the emerged queen will have dispatched all the sealed cells before I moved them?
    Regards Sean

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Sean

      It’s usual for the emerged queen to do away with her half-sister queens before or as they emerge. Often the queen will go in through the side wall of the queen cell to attack the developing pupa. Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey has a diagram if I remember correctly.

      Another possibility is that there were insufficient bees in the nucs to keep the queen cells warm enough perhaps. There’s a stage a day or two prior to emergence that they are very susceptible to damage.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  9. Simon Smith

    Dear David,
    Many thanks for an enlightening post – when faced with umpteen QCs I’ll feel more confident in selecting those for destruction …

    A question – do swarming bees always leave a QC (sealed or otherwise) behind when they go ?

    One colony, after a slow start, built up fast. Removed two and a half supers of mainly rape honey in mid May; very hard to clear the supers – possibly, as it turned out, there was just such an enormous population they couldn’t fit in the commercial brood box. Checked the brood, couldn’t see the marked Q, but eggs, brood etc. Re-assembled with two empty supers to give space. No QCs (I know, but this time I don’t think I missed anything !).

    Three days later, big beard of bees until late at the entrance. Decide to split the following morning. On my way down at 11am … they swarmed. Collected the swarm, and put it in a clean box of foundation with one drawn comb and put it on the original floor, with supers over, a Snelgrove board over and the original brood box on top, while I decided what to do next. Checked the original brood box – still no QCs or any sign of QCs, sealed, open or vacated. Some sealed brood and older larvae.

    Moved the original box a few days later for uniting with another colony and checked the bottom box with the swarm – a beautiful, long, leather yellow Q busy laying on the drawn comb. Clearly they had replaced the marked Q some time in April (warm even here at 800′ on an exposed site in the Cotswolds).

    I am assuming they swarmed with their new young queen simply because they were so crowded (despite the supers) BUT they didn’t leave any QCs behind. Is this common ?

    Yours

    Simon

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Simon

      Apologies, I missed this when you submitted it and things have been a bit manic recently.

      In my view a swarm is when the colony is reproducing, splitting itself in ‘half’ (actually more like 70:30). To do so without leaving a well-developed queen cell is very risky. I’m not saying they won’t/don’t, just that from an evolutionary viewpoint (and, as Dobzhansky wrote “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”) it’s a less sensible option than waiting another few days and leaving once a larva has been chosen, fed copiously and the cell capped.

      What bees do sometimes is abscond. You sometimes see this with swarms hived onto foundation. They leave en masse within 24 hours or so. All of them. I hive very few swarms (most of mine choose the bait hives I set out and don’t move on again) so have never experienced this, but I have had it happen with overcrowded mini-mating nucs for queens. One day they’re OK, the next they’re gone. If you’re fortunate you can sometimes see a 400-800 bee ‘swarm’ about a metre or metre and half across disappearing over the apiary fence.

      A bit late, but I hope it’s still helpful.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  10. David Jones

    Thanks for very helpful photos and tips. I also did a six-day cull, like the one you describe in your addendum, this year. Exactly ten days later I was putting on my suit when I saw them swarming #:-/ “D**n, missed a queen cell”, I thought, but it wasn’t that. When I opened the hive, they had actually reared eight or ten very small and unsatisfactory looking queen cells from what must have been three-day-old larvae. (Maybe my 6 days were actually 5.75?!)

    The story ends happily because – with huge luck, ineptness and a measure of silent-film comedy – I ended up “chasing” the swarm back into the hive. I removed all the queen cells and the virgin stayed, mated and is now laying well

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi David

      … luck, ineptness and a measure of silent film comedy …

      It’s notable that, when re-reading some of the posts here, everything seems pretty calm and controlled. I am usually more-or-less in control of the situation, but periodically things go haywire through stupidity (usually), inattentiveness (sometimes) or simple bad luck (rarely). I’m going to write about one or two of these in the future – some of which involve … luck, ineptness and a measure of silent film comedy ….

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  11. Tim

    Thanks, useful and informative.
    Having removed 54 queen cells in one hive last week to leave one good one and 56 today in another hive to do the same I wish I had found this earlier. I left one large sculpted sealed cell each time but this was 8 days after knocking everything back and taking the Queen nuc out.
    Should be fine … 🤞

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Fingers crossed!

      That’s a heck of a lot of queen cells … it might be worth trying to source some less swarmy stock. It certainly makes inspections and swarm control a bit easier 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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