Queen Cells

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Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells

Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive.  When bees are working on frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of honeycomb cells: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees.  Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.

Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees.  This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees.  A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees.  In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb cells than drone-sized comb cells.

What about the queen though?

Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup.  A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup.  It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell.  It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen.  As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population.  Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible.  The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.

Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time.  If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell.  The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen.  Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier for the bees.

However, when a beekeeper discovers an actual live queen cell inside a colony, it is almost always a cause for concern.  Honeybees do not build queen cells unless they have an immediate and specific reason – unlike queen cups which bees will build just for their own sake. If honeybees are constructing queen cells it is likely due to one of several reasons.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of these reasons are good.

A few of the most common reasons bees that bees construct queen cells include:

  1. The hive is preparing to swarm
  2. The colony is without a queen and is in the process of raising an emergency replacement.
  3. The colony has decided that the current queen is of poor quality and needs to be replaced.

Swarming vs. Supercedure Queen Cells

An unmanaged colony of honeybees in nature has only two ways of reproducing itself for the next generation:  Either it divides itself by swarming, or it stays put as a single colony and supercedes its queen.  In both cases, the original queen is replaced.  In the case of swarming, the original queen leaves with the swarm, leaving a set of queen cells that are called “swarm cells.”  In the case of when a colony supercedes, the original queen either dies of natural causes or is killed, and is then replaced by the colony.  In this case, the colony will raise a set of “supercedure cells.”  Both types of queen cells are raised by the colony to hatch out the next generation queen.

An experienced and astute beekeeper will notice that swarm cells are usually formed at the bottom of frames, whereas supercedure cells are formed in the middle of frames.  Swarm cells are nearly always of higher quality than supercedure cells.  This is because swarm cells, by definition, are constructed during the peak swarming season, which is the ideal time of year for raising well-fed and high-quality queen cells.  During the swarming season, pollen is typically readily available, and the colony is able to take advantage of prime conditions for raising the highest-quality queen cells.

Supercedure cells, on the other hand, may be constructed throughout the year.  The timing of supercedure cells is not dictated by the season, but rather by the condition of the existing queen.  This means that supercedure cells could be formed when conditions are downright poor for raising queens, such as during drought.  Sometimes supercedure cells are constructed on an emergency basis (for example, when a queen is accidentally killed by a beekeeper or otherwise dies unexpectedly for other reasons).  In its stress and urgency to raise a new queen, a colony may or may not select ideally aged larvae for raising the next generation queen, also possibly resulting in the production of a sub-par queen.

Thus, based on all of the above, it would seem that swarm cells are superior to supercedure cells.  But wait . . . not so fast!

While it is true that swarm cells, and therefore the subsequent queens, are often of high quality, however, from the point of view of a beekeeper this is all backwards.  From the point of view of the beekeeper, swarming is always an undesirable behavior.  No beekeeper would ever be enthusiastic about a queen that was produced as the result of a swarming episode.  The queen from a swarm cell, by definition, is a queen from a genetic line that has already proven itself eager to swarm.  And no beekeeper wants swarming genetics in their stock.

Actually, for a beekeeper who is managing a domestic colony of bees, neither of the naturally produced queen replacement options that the beehives themselves offer are particularly attractive.  The swarm cell contains the wrong kind of genetics, and the supercedure cell can be of lower quality.  This perhaps explains why commercial queen production is a necessary and valuable service to beekeepers around the world.

The commercial queen breeder takes the best of both worlds and produces a superior queen.  The selection of the stock is taken from colonies that have little or no interest in swarming, thus minimizing the genetic swarming tendency in future generations.  The queen producer then raises the carefully selected queen cells in conditions that are designed to mimic the swarming season, thus ensuring the highest quality of the production of the queen herself.  Even though a commercial queen is raised in a simulated swarm setting, the genetics of the queen are first carefully selected from a breeding regimen that specifically selects for many desirable characteristics, of which swarming is not one of them!

The Queen Bee Grafting Tool

Imagine a tool that is designed to be as flimsy as possible.  If you went to The Home Depot and asked their staff for their flimsiest tools, they would laugh at you.  Who wants flimsy tools?  The answer is the queen producer, that’s who.

Although, historically, beekeepers have utilized a number of different kinds of tools for grafting (grafting is the act of transferring larvae from breeder colonies to queen cell production cups), most beekeepers nowadays have settled on the “Chinese grafting tool” (shown above), as their preferred queen bee grafting tool of choice.

The Chinese grafting tool is a simple pencil-like object made of plastic that contains a thin plastic reed, or spatula, at the end.  The reed is what picks up the delicate larvae.  The grafting tool also features a spring-loaded plunger that the beekeeper uses to gently push the larva off of the reed and into the cup, thus allowing the beekeeper to precisely transfer an individual bee larva to a queen cell cup.

As soon as someone begins to graft larvae in quantity and as a serious endeavor, it immediately becomes obvious that the reed tip needs to be as flimsy as possible.  A stiff reed does not give easily, making grafting more of a challenge than it needs to be.

Eventually a beekeeper will break in his or her favorite grafting tool and get used to the flimsy feel of that particular tool, to the point where it becomes like an old friend, something similar to the way a well broken-in baseball mitt feels to a nimble shortstop, or the way a priceless violin feels to a concert violinist.  The main difference, of course, is that a grafting tool only costs about $3, and an unassuming beekeeper performs not in front of a cheering crowd, but alone and in peace among the humble bee larvae and future queens.

The Queen Cell Builder

The workhorses of any queen rearing operation are the cell building colonies.  These are special bee colonies that are established with the specific purpose of raising queen cells.  Queen cells are larvae that are grafted from high quality breeder stock, and developed by the cell building colony to become queen bees.

How does the queen cell builder know to raise a queen bee, rather than a worker bee?  First, the cell building colony typically is queenless from the outset, so it has a natural desire to raise new queens.  The positioning of the queen cells is also important.  Rows of grafted larvae are placed in the center of the colony, hanging upside down in the same manner that a colony would naturally hang its own queen cells.  This makes the larvae recognizable to the colony as potential queen stock rather than worker stock.  Secondly, a cell building colony is packed full of young nurse bees, almost to the point of being overcrowded.  Young nurse bees are the best producers of royal jelly – the larvae’s food – and a good queen cell building colony should never be lacking for royal jelly production.  The beekeeper continuously feeds the cell building colonies, so that the nurse bees are never lacking for food themselves.  Lastly, the slight overcrowding of the colony tends to produce a swarming instinct, which in itself causes the colony to want to produce extra queens in anticipation of a possible swarming event.

The queenlessness, the larvae hanging upside down, the heavy population of nurse bees, the feeding, and the slight overcrowding – all create a potent brew of incentives for the cell building colony to produce a quality set of queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, when constructing our queen cell building colonies, we strive to create all of the these conditions.

Handling Queen Cells

Queen cells are very fragile, and an errant poke of a beekeeper’s finger into a queen cell can kill it, causing sadness for the queen breeder, and undoing hundreds of hours of hard work by the nurse bees.

Virgin queen bees typically hatch out of their queen cells on the twelfth day after grafting.  Many queen breeders, however, pull their queen cells from the cell building colonies on the ninth or tenth day, and store the queen cells inside an incubator for the remaining two or three days.   This early harvest frees up space in the cell building colony and reduces the chance of an early virgin queen bee hatching, running amok and destroying the rest of the cells.

When a mature queen cell is ready to be placed inside a queenless colony or inside a mating nuc, it needs to be transported from the queen-rearing apiary to the mating yard.  This is where the queen cell protector does its work.  The mature queen cells are placed into cell protectors and stacked into trays for transporting.  The protectors keep the queen cells from being accidentally damaged by the beekeeper during handling.  They also protect the queen cells from falling over or colliding into each other should the transporting vehicle hit a bump or should the driver need to stop suddenly.

Once the cells have arrived at the mating yard and begin their first step on becoming mated queen bees, the cell protectors can either be placed in the colony with the queen cell inside it; or the queen cell can be placed into the colony without the protector, and the protector saved for the next batch of queen cells.  Some beekeepers think that keeping the queen cells inside cell protectors within the bee hive aids in protecting the queen cell from being destroyed by the worker bees; but this is not really true.  If the bees want to remove a queen cell from a colony they are going to do it with or without the queen cell protector.