As a beekeeper, you will see queen cups in your hive. It’s one common concern I see or hear about often, especially in the spring and summer months when the bees are very active.
Many new beekeepers see queen cups and immediately worry that something is wrong. Some new beekeepers do not know what the queen cup is. Others may jump to the conclusion that the hive is queenless or trying to replace the queen.
Before jumping to conclusions, understand the basics of queen cups!
Queen Cups: Do Not Panic
Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells
The difference between queen cups and queen cells is simply that the former is just an empty cup while the latter is “charged,” which means it has an egg or larvae and is actively growing a queen.
Queen cups are simply empty cups. Some people call them play cups. The presence of queen cups is absolutely normal, so do not panic! It does not necessarily mean anything! The first thing you need to do is take a closer look at your colony.
You will find the queen cups built among the brood cells in your hive. I think these cups look like cute, little upside-down tea cups.
Worker bees will make queen cups for practice. Think of it as a fire drill. They need to practice regularly in case of an active fire. For honey bees, this means in case there is a need for a new queen. If something happens to the queen, they can quickly build a queen cup around an egg or larvae to make a new queen.
So when you see a queen cup, look to see if it is “charged,” which means there is an egg inside it. An empty cup may just be a normal practice cup.
When looking through cups, I do sometimes tear down the cup to get a better look, and I have found an egg that I couldn’t see before I opened it. This tells me that the bees are sensing something and think there may be a reason to replace the queen. Perhaps she isn’t well-mated, or she could be growing old.
If you feel stressed by the cups, you can squish them. Some beekeepers like to squish the cups if they see them. But keep in mind, the bees can easily have new queen cups built in a day. You can squish them every time you inspect them, and the girls will keep on making them!
I find that if the bees have it in their minds to make queen cups, they will do it. Just like if they decide to swarm, you aren’t going to change their minds by squishing charged cells. The bees have already made up their minds to swarm, so they will swarm. Honey bees have a plan, and they will carry it through.
Swarm and Supersedure Cells
Emergency Queen Cell
Now you could come across an emergency queen cell. If something unexpected happens to the queen, the worker bees will build out queen cells from existing cells with either eggs or young larvae.
Emergency queen cells could be something that happens because of a beekeeper. During an inspection, a queen could be inadvertently crushed. Or it may be from a split that the beekeeper is trying to make.
When the worker bees sense that the queen is gone, they will build queen cells around the existing eggs or larvae on the drawn comb. Building a queen cell from an egg is ideal so that the larvae will be raised with the proper diet of royal jelly. Depending on the situation, the bees may be forced to build queen cells around existing larvae, which means they have not had the royal jelly from the beginning. This can result in a smaller and less-than-ideal queen.
Sometimes, due to the nature of feeling the urgent need for a queen, they make an abundance of queen cells! With a charged queen cell, the honey bees will continue to build out the queen cell until it looks like a long cocoon on the comb. If you have a sealed queen cell, then the queen will soon emerge.
It takes 16 days from a new egg to hatching a virgin queen. Keep the timing in mind so you can check back as needed. It’s best if you leave them alone for the next few weeks to allow the queen to emerge and have her mating flight. You don’t want to inadvertently interrupt the process. Give it enough time so you can see if she is laying eggs when you do your next inspection. This will tell you that your colony has successfully made a new queen!
Now supersedure cells look the same as emergency queen cells, but the main difference is that the worker bees plot and plan to build the supersedure cells whereas emergency cells are built in reaction to an unexpected and urgent problem.
When worker bees build supersedure cells, they sense that there will be a need for a new queen. If you see supersedure cells, then take a look through the frames. How does the brood production look? Is the current queen slowing down as she is growing older or running out of sperm? Honey bees have high expectations for their queen! They need her to be at her best, especially when they are approaching their busy season because they need plenty of worker bees to grow the colony to capitalize on the pollen and nectar flow.
In some cases, supersedure cells can indicate that the bees have decided to reject their queen. This can often happen with packaged bees.
These cells will look the same as emergency queen cells, but there may not be as many cells since this is a plan for replacing a queen rather than a reaction to a missing queen.
When the new queen bee emerges, the colony could have two queens for a period of time. The mother and daughter queen can both be in the colony together until the bees are ready to dispatch the old queen.
Now swarm cells, which have a slightly different purpose than queen cells, also look like upside-down tea cups. However, these will usually be found at the bottom of the frame in the brood nest area. The bees build swarm cells when they sense that the hive is overcrowded. If the queen is running out of room to lay eggs, the worker bees may decide it is time to swarm. This means the existing queen and a contingent of bees will leave the hive to find a new home.
You will naturally find swarm cups at the bottom of the frames as practice cups. When you see them, look into them to see if they are “charged.” It may be hard to see if the worker bees are crowding over them. You can gently blow on the bees to get them to move out of the way so you can get a good look at the swarm cup.
If they are charged, the bees will build on those cells until they look like long cocoons at the bottom of the frame. The longer they are, the further along they are in growing the queen.
If you see a charged swarm cell, they’ve already got it in their heads to swarm, and you are not going to change their minds. Some beekeepers will panic and squish all of the swarm cells in an attempt to prevent them from swarming. Unfortunately, this will not make the bees pause and build the swarm cell again. They are already on a schedule and will swarm anyway!
An inexperienced beekeeper may panic and squish the swarm cells, but the bees can still swarm, and then the colony may not have what it needs to properly raise a new queen.
Instead of squishing the swarm cells, you can choose a method to split the colony to hopefully satisfy their need to swarm.
If you come across a charged swarm cell, check through all the frames for more swarm cells to see how far along they are. The bees will swarm shortly after the cells are capped. So if you find capped swarm cells, there is a very good chance that your bees have already left. See if you can find your old queen. Is there a noticeable drop in the population?
When bees are preparing to swarm, they will run the queen around to make her smaller to prepare her for flight. Keep this in mind because the queen could appear smaller and may be more difficult to spot than usual. If you do find her, then you will need to act quickly before they swarm!
Queen cups are a natural part of beekeeping. If you inspect your hives regularly, you should be able to find and address them if they are charged. Sometimes, it is best to let nature take its course in the case of supersedure cells. The honey bees may sense something that you don’t know.
Sometimes we just don’t understand why honey bees decide to replace their queen. I once took a queen that was going to be replaced and introduced her to a queenless colony that failed to successfully raise a new queen. This queen was accepted and laid an amazing pattern for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, she did not make it through the winter, and I had to paper combine the rest of the colony with another hive.
Remember, beekeeping is about experimenting and enjoying your bees. Try new things and see what works. Don’t panic over a few queen cups. You will see them!
We do love our queens. They are the most essential part of our colonies! I know finding queen cups or cells can cause some stress for beekeepers, but it’s natural, and it also means you have a strong colony that is working as it should. It’s an amazing way for honey bees to continue to grow and survive. Don’t let it stress you out, and enjoy your apiary!