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Queen cups: cut them or leave them?

Like nearly everything else in beekeeping, how you handle queen cups depends on a number of factors. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish and whether you are a commercial beekeeper or a hobbyist. It is also influenced by your general attitude toward messing with nature. Oddly enough, it also changes with time: one year it may be “fashionable” to cut cell cups and another year not. The thing to remember is the bees don’t change—just the beekeepers.

For the most part, I ignore the occasional queen cup found on the sides of frames. Bees often build these, take them apart, and rebuild them. If we want to ascribe human thinking to bees, we can say they are building them “just in case” they need to perform an emergency supersedure. The number of queen cups built in this way has been found to vary by subspecies—a fact that indicates there is a genetic component to cell building.

Cell cups being built on the bottom edge of frames are usually precursors to swarming and should be handled differently. As to whether I cut them or leave them, my answer is “neither.” When I find an active swarm cell—one where the bees are tending it—I simply remove that frame from the hive and put it in a nuc. During swarm season I keep a number of these “starter” hives and use them for different purposes as the season progresses.

My reasons for this practice are many:

  • Your bees may swarm even if you cut the cells. This leaves your original hive queenless and you’ve destroyed your queen-to-be.
  • You can sometimes forestall swarming by removing some of the bees—and the swarm cells—and giving the old hive some new frames to work on. In essence you are splitting the hive.
  • If one queen fails—in either the hive or the nuc—you can recombine them later and still have a queen.

Personally, I always try to prevent swarming. There are many who think that we should allow bees to swarm so they can populate the wild places, and because it’s a natural thing for bees to do. However, the world they swarm into is no longer “natural.” In this time of so many perils to bees—including ordinances against bees, pesticides, diseases, lack of suitable habitat, mites and other parasites—there is very little chance of a colony surviving in the “wild.” It’s almost cruel to let them go.

An almost foolproof method of preventing swarming once you have swarm cells that are capped or nearly capped is to take the old queen along with some capped brood, newly hatched workers, and some honey and put her in a new hive. In other words, make a split by putting the old queen in a new location and allowing the old hive to keep the swarm cells. This “artificial swarm” has a similar configuration to a natural swarm in that the old queen leaves and the new queen stays.

Although there are many ways to keep your bees from swarming, once you destroy your replacement queen by cutting the cell you’ve seriously compromised your options. When you see a swarm cell, look at it as an opportunity to experiment.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Alex
Reply

My bees did kill the purchased queen so I made my next move. I got a frame with eggs from my other hive 3 days ago. Today I checked the frame and they have one sealed queen cell and 3 open cups. How fast do they normally seal the cups? This was from an egg. It just seems fast. This hive also had/has a laying worker. Does this mean I am re queening the hive correctly or no? I did took the box away and got all bees off it all. I need help. This I my first year keeping bees. I hope I can save them give me any advice u can.

Rusty
Reply

Alex,

Queen cells are capped about 4.5 days after the egg is laid. If you have laying workers, you should read “How to fix a laying worker hive.” It’s hard to do and you have to add open-brood pheromone repeatedly to suppress the worker ovaries. Are you sure you have laying workers? It makes all the difference when it comes to requeening.

Alex
Reply

Ok so they can kill the queen? Still? Even if it grew up in their box? The eggs have hatched so now they have some open brood I will add another frame from my other hive in a few days

Rusty
Reply

Alex,

As long as you have laying workers they will attempt to kill any queen you introduce. The only way to deal with them is to slowly reverse ovary development with open-brood pheromone. In my opinion, it is usually not worth the effort.

Alex
Reply

I did took a frame the laying worker had eggs on before I placed the other frame in with fertile eggs.

Kari
Reply

Is there a way to tell if the queen cell has been used? There are 5 in one of my 2 deeps hives. I waited a week and also fed them. I’ve just checked for eggs and can’t see any yet. Both boxes were completely empty of any stage of babies last week. The edges of the queen cups look jagged. Is there a way to tell if queens have hatched out of them? Or do I just need to keep checking for larvae? I plan to check in another week again. I only looked at a few frames in the top box today. I figured I shouldn’t check every frame in both boxes (like I did last week) each week or they might get sick of me. Lol

Rusty
Reply

Kari,

When a queen emerges, she cuts a perfectly round circle from the bottom of the cell. Sometimes the flap hangs on, so the opening may look a little like a hinged man-hole cover. If the cell is slit on the side, it means the inhabitant was killed by a bee. See “When will a newly-emerged queen begin to lay? for the timing of emerging/mating/laying.

Russ
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m fairly new to this and learning as much as possible, which your site has been tremendously helpful with. When simulating a swarm by putting the old queen in a new box with worker bees I’ve read that you shouldn’t put brood in there. If they swarmed to a tree in the forest somewhere they would need to build comb first before the queen could start laying. Is this just a preference thing? It sounds like your method might move the colony along faster given there is already capped brood. Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Russ,

I think you are confusing an artificial swarm with a split. For ways and methods of splitting, see Splits.

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