I freaked out a bit when I first saw a queen cup because I didn’t know what it was. I thought my bees were about swarm and that perhaps I should destroy the queen cups. But if a colony is about to swarm or replace its failing queen (two good reasons to create new queens), destroying the queen cups won’t make much difference. It could even make things worse.
A queen cup is the first stage of a queen cell, a big fat peanut-looking cell specifically designed for raising a new queen. The cell points down instead of sideways. Most honey bee colonies build queen cups just in case they need to create a new queen. But most of the time, at least if the beekeeper is paying attention, nothing happens. The cups are left unused.
I don’t destroy queen cups because they provide the easiest place to check for possible swarming. Here’s a quick video where I blab on about that.
The obvious clue is royal jelly or brood in the queen cups. But I’ve also noticed that the bees seem to clean and polish the insides of the queen cups in preparation for the current queen to lay in it, not unlike what they do with regular brood cells. Whenever I add a frame of drawn comb to a hive, the first thing the worker bees do is clean out every cell because the queen won’t lay in a dirty cell. Anyone who has ever observed a laying queen will have noticed that she sticks her head deep into every cell and inspects it carefully before she deposits the egg. If the surface of the cell isn’t shiny and clean, she moves on. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the bees shining up the insides of the queen cups before a swarm, but I’ve seen it enough times to say, yup, that seems to be thing.
SHORT VERSION: I heard what I believe is the sound of a new queen piping, but I was unable to spot the queen because, most likely, she hasn’t been inseminated by drones yet, and thus probably looks like every other bee in the hive (she doesn’t get big until she mates and begins laying). If a queen bee doesn’t mate within about 20 days, then it’s game over. Tomorrow is Day 20 for this queen. Bloody great.
LONG VERSION: Well, here comes another learning experience.
I checked on a hive yesterday that was queenless and in the process of capping a supersedure queen cell a month ago. I didn’t touch the hive until today when I discovered no signs of brood and no queen that I could see — but I did hear a high pitched piping squeak from one frame that sounded similar to something I recorded back in 2011 (see Piping From Inside The Hive):
I followed the sound of the piping on the frame for five minutes but couldn’t spot the queen. It was maddening. So I carefully put the frame and everything else back the way I found it so I could ponder over what might be happening in that hive. So let us ponder… …
So-called natural beekeepers like to think they can just “let the bees be bees” and they’ll reproduce by creating their own queen cells when they need them. I’ve had my bees reproduce naturally several times and it’s great. But as with most things in natural beekeeping, it’s an ideal that often doesn’t correspond with reality. Here are some things I’ve learned the hard way by letting the bees make their own queens whenever they feel like it: 1) Unless the virgin queen can mate with drones from another bee yard, it’s likely she will mate with her own siblings and produce inbred and ill-tempered bees. My queens mated well only when there were about a dozen other hives in the area. 2) Swarms that happen later in the summer can result in two weakened colonies instead of one strong colony (assuming the swarm is caught and re-hived). While swarm colonies typically expand quickly after a swarm, they can only grow so much once the weather turns cold and are often too weak to survive the oncoming winter. 3) Whether through supersedure or swarming, the natural process of requeening usually results in a 2-4 week period of reduced or even zero brood reduction, which again weakens the colony no matter when it happens. A weakened colony can be propped up with brood from a stronger colony, but not all hobbyist beekeepers, especially starting out, have that luxury. That being said…
The following video demonstrates my method of installing a mated queen and checking on her to make sure she’s been released from her cage and then checking on her again to make sure she’s laying. I don’t have years and years of experience installing mated queens, but I’ve followed this exact method about a dozen times since 2010 for myself and friends, requeening and starting up new colonies from splits, and it works.
I added a caged mated queen to three splits last weekend. I checked on them today and found supersedure cells in all three hives. Here’s a sample (if you click the image to enlarge it, you can easily see the larvae swimming in royal jelly):
Here’s what I found in…
Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly.
Split #3: The new queen M.I.A. (possibly dead) and several capped supersedure cells.
I have video of the whole bloody affair which I might post once I’ve determined what happened and what I’m going to do next. I’ll provide more details at that time, but feel free to speculate while I pour myself a drink…
P.S.: I say supersedure cell, but I suppose the more accurate term is “emergency queen cell.” Supersedure cells are created when the queen is failing but not yet dead, whereas emergency queen cells are created when the queen is suddenly dead. I think. Maybe. The difference seems so minimal to me, I always say supersedure. Furthermore, the presence of swarm cells means the bees are going to fly away, but presence of supersedure cells means they’re simply replacing a failing or dead queen. That’s how I sort it all out anyway.
JULY 23/15: I did a quick inspection of Split #2 and found a few frames of fresh eggs. Woo-hoo! The supersedure cell full of royal jelly is gone too. Way to go bees! All of this will be revealed in detail with a video and photos that are in the works.