Unpolished Queen Cups Are Okay

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.

3 thoughts on “Unpolished Queen Cups Are Okay

  1. In my top bar hives, they are always building queen cups on the edges of the combs. I used to freak out about it, but now I just figure (just like you) – “that’s what they do!”

    Nice catch on the frame!

    • I’m getting good at catching those frames.

      I know some experienced beekeepers who always destroy queen cups, possibly because that’s what they’ve always done, but I like queen cups because they provide one of the easiest hints of an impending swarm — not the presence of the queen cups but the condition of them.

      If the insides have a dull and almost dirty appearance, the bees are not preparing to swarm. But if they’re clean and shiny — and I mean glistening — the bees are getting ready to swarm or supersede their queen.

  2. Nice catch! Whew!

    Good observation about the bees polishing cups. Another thing I’ve noticed is the size of the queen cups. My bees make cups all the time, but if the queen cups are small, not quite flat with the surrounding comb, but not protruding too much either, then they’re just practice cups. Once they get a little bigger like the ones you showed (and they’re polishing the cells), then that’s a sign that they’re about to turn those cups into queen cells.

    Thanks for sharing this observation!

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