Emergency, Swarm, and Supercedure Cells, Oh My!

How Do Bees Make a Queen?

Emergency, Swarm, and Supercedure Cells, Oh My!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Josh Vaisman – I remember seeing the queen in our first ever hive and thinking to myself, “I’ll never find supercedure cells since I’m going to do all I can to keep her alive forever.” Of course, that’s not the reality of beekeeping.

Even into our fifth year keeping honeybees we still feel giddy when, upon inspecting a thriving colony, we locate the queen bee. It’s like we’ve won the lottery, completed a treasure hunt, and found ourselves in the presence of royalty, all in the same moment!

For a variety of reasons, a colony of bees will eventually need to make or replace their queen honey bee.

In this article, I’ll share with you a few of those reasons and explain the basic answer to the question, “How do bees make a queen?”

 Common Reasons Bees Make a Queen

1) Swarming: We tend to think of bees as a group of 50,000 or so individuals going about their business. A queen bee (or two!) spending her days laying eggs, some drones bumbling about, and many worker bees hustling and bustling to keep the colony going. Rather than so many individuals, I encourage you to think of the colony as a singular organism. A swarm is the result of reproduction on the colony level.

Swarm cell. Photo by Beth Conrey.
Swarm cell. Photo by Beth Conrey.

When conditions are ripe, the colony is strong, and resources abundant, the natural inclination of the bees is to swarm to spread their genetics and propagate. One key preparatory step is to create swarm cells in which new virgin queens will be raised. In a Langstroth beehive, these are typically found toward the bottom of the brood frames. When these cells are capped for the pupating larvae, the current queen leaves the hive with roughly half the workers to go find a place to make a new home. A growing bee in one of the swarm cells will become the new queen bee. When it all goes well, one colony becomes two.

Beekeepers seeking to increase the size of their honey bee farm enjoy catching swarms to place into empty hives or creating “splits” to increase their colony numbers. Splits are essentially artificial swarms, a topic for another article.

Small swarm. Photo by Josh Vaisman.

2) Supercedure: I find it interesting we use the word “queen” to label the largest bee in the hive, as if she sits upon her throne ruling over the colony. The truth is quite the opposite — as the ultimate democracy, it’s the workers who rule the hive!

The queen emits a special pheromone, the queen pheromone, which lets all the workers know she is present, healthy, and doing her job laying eggs. If she is injured, becomes ill, or simply ages enough, the pheromone will weaken. When this happens, the workers know it’s time for a new queen and they create supercedure cells.

Supercedure cells. Photo by Beth Conrey.

Supercedure cells tend to be found in the center of brood frames in a Langstroth beehive. The workers will decide where to place them and how many to make. The first virgin queen bee to emerge from one of these supercedure cells will likely become the new queen as she and some of the workers will seek to eliminate the remaining growing queens … and the current, older queen.

Photo by Josh Vaisman.

3) Emergency! Sometimes, due to age, illness, or often the clumsiness of the beekeeper (not that I would ever be clumsy … ha!) the queen dies. What happens when the queen bee dies? In short order, due to the absence of her queen pheromone, the entire colony knows there is no queen and they quickly call 911. Well, their version of 911 — some nurse bees.

The nurse bees will quickly convert some brood cells to queen supercedure cells to raise a new queen. This assumes the proper brood cells exist. More on that below.

How Do Bees Make a New Queen?

A fascinating fact about honey bees is that every single worker began life identical to a queen bee. It’s true! It’s also a critical fact to the survival of the colony. I’ll explain.

As the queen moves about the wax comb, she settles on a cell to lay her next egg. She first sticks her head into the cell and, using her antennae, measures the size of the cell. If it’s a larger cell she lays an egg meant to become a drone. This will be an unfertilized egg possessing one set of genetics from her. If the cell is of the smaller variety she’ll lay an egg meant to become a worker. This will be a fertilized egg possessing two sets of genes; one from her and one from a drone she mated with.

The eggs will take 2.5-3 days to hatch. Upon hatching the tiny larvae will be fed a nutrition-dense product of the hive called royal jelly. Nurse bees will feed the young larvae royal jelly for the first three days of their life, after which they will switch to feeding them something called bee bread. Unless they want this worker larvae to become a new queen.

When the workers decide to raise a new queen they choose cells containing larvae younger than three days old — that is, larvae that have only ever been fed royal jelly. They then continue to feed these larvae royal jelly even beyond the typical three days. This results in the larvae growing much larger than a typical worker as they develop fully functional reproductive organs. This also accelerates the larva’s growth, reducing the amount of time it takes the fully formed virgin queen to emerge. Given what you know about when the bees make a new queen bee, why do you think this accelerated growth is advantageous?

Kind of changes our perspective on our 50,000-plus worker bees when we realize any one of them could have been “royalty” had they just been fed the nectar of the gods a little bit longer.

What might be some ways a beekeeper could actively take advantage of the bees’ ability to make a new queen bee in their own apiary?

Find the queen is like winning the lottery, completing a treasure hunt, and finding ourselves in the presence of royalty, all in the same moment!

– Josh Vaisman

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