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Do honey bees move eggs from cell to cell?

The question of whether honey bees move eggs from cell to cell has been a hot topic on forums, blogs, and websites for about three weeks now. The assertion seems to be that honey bee workers will move eggs to where a larva is needed, such as into a queen cup. I don’t know where the discussion began, but I’m getting plenty of questions about it.

Personally, I have no clue whether honey bees strategically move eggs, but I have some thoughts. Unfortunately, that’s all I can offer for now.

Do bees carry?

One of the arguments in support of egg redistribution is that someone has seen bees “carrying eggs the way an ant carries pupae.” This is not at all surprising. Various textbooks and papers give us good clues to this behavior.

  1. It is known that honey bees will reduce the number of eggs in a nest if the queen has produced more than the workers can care for. Some books claim that the eggs are “re-absorbed.” I assume that means eaten. Even in a colony of vegetarians, re-absorption makes sense because conservation of nutrients and energy is extremely important for survival. Nutrients are not wasted, but simply reused. Re-absorption can also occur after a large loss of field bees, which can reduce the flow of nutrients into the hive.
  2. It is also known that even healthy queen-right colonies have a background level of laying workers. These workers deposit their eggs in cells whenever they can. But the eggs are soon discovered by other workers (by pheromones, I assume) and are either consumed or removed from the hive.

Given these behaviors, it does not surprise me that eggs appear where no queen has been, such as above an excluder, or that someone has seen bees with eggs in their mandibles.

If the eggs were discarded, how else would the bees move them? They don’t have rucksacks. And eating requires mandibles as well. So, yes, I believe these situations may cause a bee to carry an egg in its “teeth.”

But carrying does not imply strategic placement. Possession and intent-to-distribute are two different things, just ask your lawyer.

Is intent even possible?

Based on what I know about honey bees, I think strategic relocation of eggs is clearly within their capabilities. In other words, I can easily imagine them being programed to do it. Honey bees are survivors. I can almost hear them conspiring among themselves, “We need an egg in this queen cup. Let’s bring one in from over there. No one will know.”

But, at this point, no one has proven it to me. When someone proves it—possibly by raising workers from the relocated eggs—I’m ready to believe. But I won’t believe just because it’s a good idea.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Do bees move eggs?
Honey bee eggs in drone comb. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Catherine Dempsey
Reply

Good answer, Rusty. Except I don’t think bees have teeth!

Rusty
Reply

Catherine,

Yes. I agree. Too bad.

Gene
Reply

I guess you’d have to wonder if it’s easier for the bees to relocate an egg to a cup or build a cell around an egg without moving it. I suspect the bees would just create a cell around an egg without going through the trouble of moving it.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

That’s a very good point.

Debbie Newby
Reply

“Possession and intent-to-distribute are two different things,”
Very good! You’re not just a pretty face.

Rusty
Reply

Blush, blush.

DJ
Reply

Rusty,

I will have to do some research on my part. A hypothesis of, can you graft an egg or a larva from one cell to another cell within the same frame or colony, with the intent of raising a worker bee or a drone bee. If this has been done to your knowledge can you share? Thank you!

DJ

Rusty
Reply

DJ,

Not sure what you mean. Are you saying graft a drone egg to a different drone cell and a worker egg to a different worker cell?

IanMichaelTee
Reply

DJ that particular example wouldn’t change the worker into a drone or vice versa since the genetics are totally off. One is fertilized by sperm and the other isn’t, so they’re not interchangeable based on the size of the cell alone…

DJ
Reply

Rusty,

Yes. I cannot think of a practical reason why one would do this other than to answer the question can you. It would make sense if I can graft so can they. The next step is can you graft from colony to colony. Another experiment would be to graft an egg or larva in to a queen cup made by them. I would assume it would be feasible, but I do not like to assume anything. I can’t imagine this has not been reviewed in the past by bug people who wear white lab coats.

DJ

Sharon Klemm
Reply

If, let’s pretend, bees can discern the difference between possession and intent to distribute as an active thought process then they are one whole heck of a lot smarter than we are giving then credit for. They move from genetically programed beings to beings with free will. That’s a thought and a half.

Steve
Reply

Recently I removed a queen in advance of installing a new one, but the new one was delayed. It was about 5 days until I installed the new one. At that point the bees had made more than a dozen queen cells hanging on edges of comb. If the bees don’t move eggs, then how do the eggs or tiny larva get into the new queen cells?

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

The bees know within about 15 minutes that they are queenless. At that time, there were still plenty of eggs and young larvae to choose from and they built queen cells around those that they choose. They prefer those at the edges of the comb.

Hamish Scotland
Reply

Hi Rusty. It’s a yes from me, have suspected for some time this happened, especially when you find a queen cell hidden in a very odd place, good work, Regards Hamish

Boyd young
Reply

Rusty

When I read your post I filed it away as interesting until I got into my bees this morning. Above the queen excluder I found a single solitary capped drone cell. Now if the queen had been there I fully would have expected half of the honey super to be full of brood, not a single cell.

Between your post and this experience something flipped a switch in what’s left of my grey cells that still function. I remember a few years back while inspecting my queen castle, I found a capped queen cell laying on my bottom board. Maybe the word “laying” doesn’t paint an adequate picture in your mind’s eye. One may conclude that it had been dislodged from a frame while doing the inspection. Not so, it was built in place. Firmly and solidly waxed to the floor. Because I had multiple other cells on the frame I removed this one with my hive tool. On inspection the bottom of the pupa was fully exposed. My conclusion was that an egg or young larva had fallen to the floor. The house bees not knowing what to do just finished off the queen where she lay. That’s my story and with my wife as a witness I’m sticking to it.

Boyd

Rusty
Reply

Boyd,

My guess would be a laying worker left the egg above the excluder. There are some in every hive. But on the second one, I agree with you that an egg (or larva) dropped down and the bees built a cell around it. Also a guess.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Rusty,

Here’s my bit: three years ago I tried to make a split from one of 2 colonies I looked after at a nearby Nature preserve. Like everything else I tried there – it was a woodland location with poor forage, but the owners were dead set on having beehives – it failed. When I first checked it, not only had all the adult bees left, but the very nice frame of eggs was completely empty. So the bees either moved them or ate them. The frames of honey were empty too: a very clear message that the time or place or both, were just wrong.
(Last summer I brought the 1 surviving colony back here to the farm, where it’s become quite strong.)

There are supposedly herbivorous mammal species that are known to consume their own young under stress or dearth. Why not insects, as well? Cool to speculate, anyway.

Nan
Corinth, KY

“Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and has a longer memory and a stronger sense of justice, than ours”
– Wendell Berry

Jeremy
Reply

I’ve always wanted to believe this to be true. The ‘sticking point’ for me, is that eggs laid by the queen have an adhesive substance that sticks the egg upright to the bottom of the cell. If a work moves an egg, how does she deal with this substance?

Rusty
Reply

Jeremy,

But eggs only stay upright for a short time and then they lay over on their side. Maybe the stickiness dissipates by itself?

Jeremy
Reply

If I’m correct, eggs stay upright for a day, begin to ‘lean’ on day 2, and are horizontal by day 3. If the stickiness dissipated, which is very possible, this would mean that bees tend to move eggs that are older rather than younger …

Rusty
Reply

Jeremy,

I don’t know that. I just think the stickiness is not much, if any, of a deterrent to the workers. Bees are huge in comparison to the egg, so I can’t imagine them being unable to move an egg, sticky or not.

Jeremy
Reply

As I said originally, I’m really hoping this to be correct. Th either question is HOW they move eggs. You wrote “… these situations may cause a bee to carry an egg in its teeth.” Could you possibly elaborate?

Rusty
Reply

Jeremy,

I was joking about teeth; bees carry things in their mandibles. For example, they carry dead bees, pieces of litter like newspaper strips, and dead insects like moths, beetles, and wasps. If they can carry their dead sisters out of the hive, certainly they can certainly carry an egg.

Jeremy
Reply

Oops – I didn’t t get the joke, Rusty! “Rare as hen’s’ teeth” I’ve heard of, but bees?

My casual observations suggest that dead bees, litter, etc. are carried out by bees using their legs. I’ve watched with amazement as ‘undertaker bees’ struggle with their dead companions in an observation hive, stumbling along using legs and wings. I’ll look more closely to see how their mandibles become involved.

Unlike many of your prior posts, this one does not seem to be stimulating as much debate. Perhaps I should back out.

Jeff, bottom of NZ
Reply

I have no doubt they are capable of, but I have never witnessed it, nor have I seen evidence (internet video) of it happening. I do doubt it is normal or guaranteed behavior, otherwise there would be no need to graft.

If bees moved eggs as a guaranteed behavior you could just make a three frame nuc with a frame of stores, frame of eggs and a frame of artificial queen cup bars, add plenty of young bees and let them fill the queen cups themselves to save the hassle of grafting.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

“Otherwise there would be no need to graft.” Commercial outfits graft thousands upon thousands of cells, not onesies and twosies. I’m sure grafting would still be necessary.

Jelena BB
Reply

Hi Rasty,

I was reading your posts for some time. Thank you for sharing your beekeeper’s experience with us. Btw. I never think about this subject, but the idea that bees caring that eggs in its teeth are brilliant.

Rusty
Reply

Jelena,

Just remember that “teeth” are actually mandibles.

Kevin
Reply

Hi Rusty,

A little story for you – true story:)

11 days ago, I grafted 17 larvae onto a cell bar into plastic cell cups, the next day I check how I did and only 9 took, I guess I’m still learning…today when I went to move the 9 queen cells I noticed 5 other cells being drawn down from my failed grafts. Now someone may be thinking, “it’s very common for the bees to put a thin rim of wax around a failed cup” very true – but this was not a thin rim of wax. On further inspection, the cups had royal jelly and small larvae in them!
This is how I found this blog post searching the net! This was the same cell bar as there’s only one in the cell builder hive. Anyway, for any non believers out there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes today!

I may see if I can get them to repeat this with my next graft.

Thanks for a great blog, I’ve read many others in the past.

Rusty
Reply

Kevin,

That is awesome! Now you need to see if the bee-grafted larvae mature into queens. If so, that eliminates the possibility that a laying worker put them in the cups.

peter l borst
Reply

> That is awesome! Now you need to see if the bee-grafted larvae mature into queens. If so, that eliminates the possibility that a laying worker put them in the cups.

Not necessarily. Very rarely, worker eggs will form viable queens. In order to prove workers move eggs, rather simply lay them, we need a photograph of the bee carrying the egg in its mandibles. Such photos exist for ants, so bees are capable of it. Whether they do it, is another matter. I read that someone observed a worker scavenging eggs from a queen cage (queens often release eggs when confined) but there is no photograph. Currently, I have an observation hive with the queen confined to a small patch of comb by a queen excluder. Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience to stare at it until a worker comes out carrying an egg in her mandibles. But it could happen. The queen has already laid multiple eggs in each cell so they have spares

PLB

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Since A.m. capensis exhibits thelytoky, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like it surface on rare occasions in our honey bees, but certainly viable queen eggs in multiple cups would be rare, no? But I agree, a photo would be the best bet.

peter l borst
Reply

Right. I am still working on it. So far, the queen has been in an excluder cage for about a month and no eggs have appeared of any kind outside the cage. We’ll see.

greg
Reply

I googled “bees carting eggs from hive” and this was the first thing that came up. The reason for my google search was that I observed my bees packing eggs – in their mouth – to the entrance and tossing them over the side. First time in 5 years on Vancouver Island that I’ve seen this. It’s November and turned cold (-1c) so maybe the workers figured to shut down the nursery for the winter… Just never seen this before and it surprised me.

Rusty
Reply

Greg,

It surprises me too because I’ve always heard the bees eat the eggs if too many are laid. I’ve never heard of them being tossed out. Very interesting.

Peter Borst
Reply

Hi all

I got involved in a long discussion about this, earlier this year. Clearly, bees could move eggs, although I have never seen a photo of one holding an egg in the mandibles, whereas I have seen pictures of ants doing this. Ants move all sorts of stuff, of course.

Anyway, I set up an experiment. I placed several queens in separate custom built queen cages where instead of a screen, I installed a piece of queen excluder. It is known that queens sometimes lay eggs in cages, so I reasoned the bees could pick them up and move them to the comb.

This, they did not do, even though they had all summer to do it. Then I designed a cage with comb inside where she could lay, which she did. The bees still did not move any of the eggs out of the cage. So, this does not prove they couldn’t but — they didn’t.

Also, I read of experiments where dozens of queens were banked in cages with a couple square inches of comb. These researchers never reported any eggs being moved out of the cages. It could happen, but as we say, it would be vanishingly rare.

Pete 🐝

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