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Should I destroy extra queen cells?

When beekeepers make splits they frequently destroy all the queen cells except one. Other beekeepers routinely remove queen cells to prevent swarming. Others simply excise queen cells whenever they see one.

To me, a queen cell is a valuable thing—something to covet—and the thought of destroying one gives me the willies. If you have 10 one hundred dollar bills, and you spend only one at the market, do you discard the rest knowing full well you might need them later? Who hasn’t said, “My kingdom for a queen cell!” especially when you find yourself suddenly queenless and there isn’t a queen bee to be found at any price?

Think before you pinch

I’m not saying you should never destroy a queen cell, only that you should think about it first. If you have hundreds of hives, it’s not much of an issue because you have hundreds of chances to find another queen should you need one. But if you have only a hive or two, it may be worth conserving the cells you have, or at least being cautious.

Conventional wisdom tell us that multiple virgins in a hive will fight to the death and leave you queenless. I have never seen this happen. However, I have seen beekeepers destroy all the queen cells but one, and then have the colony go queenless. Why?

Not all queens are created equal

Sometimes it was a supersedure cell they destroyed, which left them with nothing. Sometimes, they simply picked the wrong cell to keep, one that produced an inferior queen.

Simply put, not all queen cells produce healthy viable queens. Some may have birth defects, some may not be good fliers, some may have weak pheromones, and the list goes on. So if you systematically destroy all the cells but one, how do you know which one to keep? Perhaps you chose the biggest or most perfectly-shaped peanut? But the virgin queen didn’t build that gorgeous cell, the workers did. The cell appearance tells us more about the worker genetics than it does the virgin queen’s genetics.

The colony knows better than you how to raise a new queen for itself. Colonies would not produce multiple queen cells if it were not the best thing for long-term survival. In nature, anything that is energy expensive is carefully vetted by the selection process. Since honey bees were producing multiple queen cells millennia before human beings started messing with them, you can bet it is done for a good reason. Trust your bees.

Queen cells and the urge to swarm

Cutting of queen cells may delay the release of a swarm, but it doesn’t reduce the urge to swarm, so the bees simply build more cells. If you miss one cell in a large and teeming hive, which is easy to do, the swarm will eventually get out the door. It’s much better to make a split, checkerboard above the brood, try the Demaree method, or use some other management technique that actually reduces the swarm impulse rather than cutting cells, which does not.

As for splitting, I usually leave the queen cells in the original hive and put the old queen in the split. Or sometimes I make several splits and put a few queen cells in each. At other times I split up the queen cells and put them in nucs. But regardless of what I do, if the original hive fails to produce a mated queen, I have options, something to fall back on. If all goes well, at least some of those queens will be mated and ready to go. All that is required in a simple introduction.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Queen-cells-Rusty-Burlew
Perfect peanuts. I put these three cells in a split. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

AramF
Reply

I don’t think I’ll ever look at the queen cell the same way after the hexagon was a circle article. Almost perfectly round in the queen chamber, and even the wax decorations around it look rather roundish, if not irregular.

Herb
Reply

I pretty much agree Rusty.
If there are several queen cells I would carefully cut a few out and transplant them in another frame that has eggs, larva and enough nurse bees to start another colony. But I would never take all the queen cells, leaving only one. Like you say, there needs to be a “queen fight” to decide which is the best. Nature has taught us that survival of the fittest is the best system. The strongest genes are preserved and hopefully the best genetics will help overcome disease and produce strong bees.
I would always leave 3 cells.
If you work with a few mini hives, you can keep the cluster small. This will NOT be used for producing lots of honey. It’s purpose would be to produce and “store” extra queens. Say you have 4 or 5 of these tiny hives started in late summer. They will stay small and easy to move into a garage or barn as the weather gets cold. Because they are light, move them outside on warmer days in the winter and back in at night. Now you will always have extra mated queens to sell or use when needed. They are premium in the early spring before fresh mating can occur. ~

Andrew
Reply

Hi Rusty,
I wish you had written this peace 3 years ago. As a begining beekeeper I had a stressful two months 3 years ago when after I made a split and was waiting for the virgin queen, which I could no longer find, to begin laying eggs. I had broken all but one queen cell, as I was taught.

In the split I found multiple eggs per cell so I thought that hive was basically lost (i found the queen later, no clue what happened there).

Thinking I only had the single viable hive as I though the split was a last cause. I thought this first hive was lost also as it no longer had frames with eggs for new queen cells. I finally got a frame with eggs two weeks later on which the workers didn’t build a queen cell which gave me some calm.I found new eggs not long after, I was just to impatient thinking that two weeks was enough for a virgin queen to start laying eggs.

I think now I would make a split and keep a few queen cells and perhaps even put one or two in a apidea mating hive…

Michelle
Reply

Makes so much sense Rusty. I also trust that mother nature knows better than I do for the most part.

Donal
Reply

Good note/reminder. If I have the opportunity this season . . . I will definitely follow your recommendation. ??

Anna
Reply

I never get rid of a queen cell unless I have a very good reason for it–I’ve only done it a couple of times after deliberating my options. We don’t teach that in our short course, though some other groups do and there are plenty of old references that tell unsuspecting newbies to do so. When my mentees ask about this, I ask them how they know which queen cell will result in a good queen?
Great post Rusty.

Blaine Nay
Reply

I learned 50 years ago that destroying queen cells is a good way to end up with a queenless colony.

If they’re raising new queens in preparation for swarming, it’s probably too late to prevent swarming. The old queen will leave, taking half your bees with her. Now, you’re left with half the colony and no queen. The best option is to, like you suggest, split the hive putting the queen and half the bees in one hive, and all the queen cells with the other half. Move the queen-right split a couple of miles away for a few days.

If they’re raising new queens to replace the current (or dead) queen, they probably have a very good reason for doing so. Killing those cells seems to invariably result having nothing more than a failing or dead queen and a rapidly-declining colony.

Dru Pritchard
Reply

I love this blog so keep up the good work! Now my question, some of our hives that made it through the mild winter we had has quite a bit of honey still on the hive. The hives are building up quickly so what should I do with all of the honey on my over-wintered hives?

Rusty
Reply

Personally, I would leave it right where it is. That way the bees won’t have to replace it before they begin collecting surplus honey that you can harvest.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

You mention having not seen queen battles and wonder if battle to the death is overstated, especially pre-flight? Survival wise it makes much more sense for queens to successfully mate and return to the nest, and for battles over the hives to be waged by mated queens. Likewise for the beekeeper, it makes more sense to protect the most unique and valuable members of the colony, and to encourage new colonies from local raised stock.

In annual social insects such as wasps and bumble bees, where only queens overwinter, the more queens the better; for example it is common to find an aggregation of yellow jacket queens overwintering, presumedly sister queens. Bumble queens seem to overwinter individually, but in some species virgin queens contribute to the nests as workers before leaving on their natal flight.

So I wonder if there might be some erroneous conventional wisdom when it come to death fights.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I’ve always wondered about that. Why would the colony eliminate all virgins but one before the mating flight? Seems like poor risk management to me. I don’t know the answer.

Göran
Reply

Is there not a risk you promote swarming tendencies if you produce new colonies on swarming behavior every year?

Rusty
Reply

It’s not really a risk, it’s just a fact of bee life.

Adam
Reply

Great post rusty, very informative. However I have an off topic for you. I have just finished reading your blog. I found your site about 6 months ago and decided to read your entire blog from the start. It’s been a journey, and I look forward to the rest of the year, and I know that my 2 new hives would thank you for all of the insight and information that you have shown me. May your bees fly often, and may you have to buy more frames for their honey.

Muzafar
Reply

To merge two weak hives what to do with queens, should i kill one?

Rusty
Reply

Unless you have another place to put or save her, then killing her is your option.

PJ
Reply

Hey Rusty, I am wanting to make a split to populate an observation hive – could a 4×2 observation hive act as a nuc for the split or should I use a conventional hive? BTW if I have a top entrance to the 4×2 hive should I place the brood at the top near the entrance or at the bottom as per a conventional config?

In any case I guess I should wait for spring as it is coming on to winter right now in the bottom of Australia.

Skip
Reply

Spring!!! 40’s to sometimes high 60’s in zone 6, but nights still in the low 30’s, sometimes 20!!!!

What is the best strategy to be sure the girls survive this pre-flow period!!!

Skip

Rusty
Reply

Skip,

Two things to watch for in that kind of weather. 1) Make sure they have food, either honey or syrup and 2) make sure condensation is not dripping down on the cluster. Fluctuating temperatures can lead to lots of condensation.

Skip
Reply

After making a split, MUST the new colony be moves at least two miles away?

I saw a video where the hive entrances were partially blocked with leaf and twig material and the bees, upon exiting, reoriented themselves and returned to their new home and old home, respectively, even as colonies were only several feet apart!!

Does that really work!!

Thanks,

Skip

Rusty
Reply

Skip,

Absolutely not. I never move a split more than a few feet. Sometimes it’s within six inches of the parent hive. Moving a split two miles is nonsense. The foragers will return to the original hive and the nurse bees and newly hatched brood will stay with split. Within a few days you will develop a foraging force in the split.

Jason
Reply

Starting with my first hive this spring. I have been reading all I can. What I have not figured out is how to prevent swarming without adding more hives/colonies? What if a person only wants to manage 2 hives, how do you keep those 2 hives strong after splitting and what does one do with the bees that you have to split out to prevent swarming? I hope this question makes sense…..

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

You can always recombine the splits back into the original colonies. The major part of swarm season only lasts about six weeks, then it’s easy to recombine.

Jason
Reply

Ok, i would not have thought of that. With so many different ways to split what would you say is the best one to use if you plan to recombine after swarm season?

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

It doesn’t matter how you split them. Just remember to use standard procedures when recombining: remove one queen and use newspaper.

kevin
Reply

hi rusty-

I just bought a new 10 frame med nuc and doped in the hive this morning, looks like i have queen cells on some frames, in witch they released a new queen into the nuc from the plastic cage was left behind, should i cut off the remainder cell’s or should i let the new queen take care of them, then remove. I was not able to see the queen at the time of the transfer, due to the rain and bad weather were having in mi
thanks..

Rusty
Reply

Kevin,

Are they queen cups or queen cells? Are they placed more like supersedure cells or swarm cells? Queen cups don’t mean much and are often built and dismantled frequently. If they are cups, don’t bother with them. If they are queen cells, you can try to prevent a swarm by splitting. If they look more like supersedure cells, you might just let them supersede because maybe the bees don’t think the queen is acceptable.

Steven Pollock
Reply

Looking for advice from the Queen Bee. Three weeks ago I caught a swarm and boxed it in a deep with inner feeder. Today, there is brood everywhere and the queen is present so I added another box. The interesting thing is that on one of the frames with brand new white comb was the start of a half dozen queen cells.

That seems really quick and the queen is there, so any idea whats going on? Is it possible that in three weeks that they are already feeling cramped and want to swarm again?

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Steven,

Are they just cups or do they contain larvae? Some bees like to build cups “just in case” and sometimes they build and destroy, build and destroy. If they are not used, I wouldn’t worry about them.

If they are raising queens they may be replacing the old queen they swarmed with. Often the old queen is replaced shortly after the swarm has settled in. In that case, let them replace her but check periodically to make sure the supersedure was successful and the new queen gets mated.

David Hawthorne
Reply

I’m going to be a new beekeeper. The queen cells I find confusing. What if you want to control your hives to one or two. Do It seems like creating splits creates more hives. What if two hives is all you can manage, what do you do? Sorry for my inexperience and lack of knowledge.

Rusty
Reply

David,

You don’t have to split your hives, and you don’t need to do anything with your queen cells. You can just let your bees swarm, especially if you live in a rural area where the swarm won’t bother the neighbors. Or, if you catch your own swarm, you can recombine them. You don’t have to make more colonies.

Michele
Reply

Thanks for the previous answers, and I hope I am not repeating a question here. I had two swarms last year, and then ended up queenless. I thought the bees would create a new queen, but they apparently didn’t after the second swarm.

If I want to do a split before they swarm this year, how do you know WHEN to do the split, and do I put the frames with the swarm cells in the new hive or do I find the original queen and transfer her into the new hive, leaving the swarm cells behind? And how many other brood frames do you take out and transfer?

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Michele,

See Splits, which includes a list of different types.

Michele
Reply

Thank you!

Alison
Reply

Previous paragraph didn’t post, so I’ll attempt again.

Today on my biweekly hive inspection, I found 2 queen cells (like peanuts) on one frame in the center. My hive is booming, we just had a mass of worker bees hatch from our new package and currently there are several frames with capped worker brood at the center too.

I was advised if I saw any queen cells to destroy them. So I did… and then read this blog. This is my first season doing inspections myself, it’s slow going knowing what you’re looking at and what to do, I spend much time pouring over blogs such as yours.

I can’t remember if I saw queen cups, and I don’t believe there were cells hanging from the sides or bottoms of frames. However, my eyes are inexperienced.

In your opinion have I made a massive blunder? And should I inspect again soon? I can’t tell if they want to swarm, but I was told that’s what queen cells mean. And to nix them. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t.

Another question. A month ago I saw my queen, I was very proud I had found her. But there’s so many bees now, I spent an hour staring at my two supers of frames looking for my queen and went cross eyed from trying to locate her…. I just couldn’t see her, my frames were covered in bees. I always worry I’ve squashed her unawares or maybe she got knocked off during inspection. Do you spot your queen every time you inspect?

Thanks in advance. There’s so much you can do wrong it’s overwhelming.

Rusty
Reply

Alison,

Queen cells can signal swarming, or they can signal the queen needs to be replaced. If you destroy cells meant to replace a queen, you can end up queenless. Swarm cells are usually found along the bottom or side of a comb, but not always. I’m always amazed that so many beekeepers have crystal balls and can tell what every queen cell was designed for.

Many times I can’t find my queen, so I look for eggs or young larvae that signal she was around in the recent past. You say you checked your supers, but I would expect to find the queen down in the brood boxes instead.

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