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A New Queen: Supersedure Cells vs. Swarm Cells, Part 2

A New Queen: Supersedure Cells vs. Swarm Cells, Part 2

In our last blog post, we began a discussion of queen cells and found that there were two different types — supersedure cells and swarm cells. Although both produce new queens, the queens are created for distinctly different reasons. In that post, we went into more detail on what a swarm cell is and why it’s created.

Today, we will move on to supersedure cells and then compare the two, as well as comparing them to drone cells.

Supersedure Cells: Queen Cells to Replace a Queen

When the current queen (if one exists) is no longer producing sufficient eggs/brood to ensure the survival of the hive (i.e. more bees are dying than are hatching, hence hive numbers are falling), the worker bees decide to take things into their own hands and create a new queen. This can happen because the queen has:

  • Slowed down due to age
  • Become ill
  • Run out of genetic material required to fertilize eggs
  • Died

When any of the above occurs, the worker bees generate queen cells to produce a new queen. These cells are called supersedure cells because the new queen is intended to supersede or replace the existing queen or a queen that has died.

Bees often decide to create a supersedure cell from an egg that has already been laid; therefore, the cell is typically located somewhere in the middle of the comb. Once a supersedure cell has been selected, the bees begin to feed royal jelly to the larva. Without the royal jelly, the larva would develop into a regular worker bee, not a queen. They also expand the cell around the larva causing the cell to protrude from the comb and hang down from the face of the comb.

To boost their chances of producing a healthy queen, more than one supersedure cell is often created. Honeybees generally produce between one and three supersedure cells. Any more than three queen cells generally indicate that the cells are swarm cells instead of supersedure cells. Typically, the first queen to emerge from the supersedure cells will become the new queen who is to supersede the old queen.

It takes approximately 16 days for a larva to develop and emerge from a queen cell. The emerging queen requires assistance to eat through the wax that encloses her cell. When she is ready to emerge, she makes a pipping sound which alerts the worker bees that she needs help to emerge and that they should begin to eat through the wax to free her.

Interestingly enough, when the existing queen hears the pipping sound, she too begins to pip as a way to confuse the worker bees by calling for their assistance as well. She knows a new queen is preparing to enter the fray. When the new queen hatches, one of three scenarios will occur:

  • The bees will swarm (when the cell was a swarm cell)
  • If the existing queen doesn’t kill the emerging queen, they may coexist in the hive for a short period of time with the new queen picking up the slack for the older queen.
  • If both queens are in good condition, they will fight to the death.

On very rare occasions, more than one queen may exist in a hive. This is the exception rather than the rule., however.

Drone Cells vs. Queen Cells

When looking at the honeycomb, worker cells and honey/pollen storage cells are flat. However, queen cells and drone cells both protrude above the surface of the comb. Let’s talk about the differences between the two. Drone cells typically appear in groups of cells (can number in the 100s) in the comb typically along the edge of the frame; whereas, queen cells appear anywhere on the comb and/or on the frame.

Drone cells are larger than worker cells but not as large as queen cells which can be an inch in length running horizontally on top of the comb. The slightly rounded protrusion beyond the comb made by drone cells is often described as being bullet-shaped. The surface of a group of drone cells can look sort of “pebbly” due to the rounded protrusion of each drone cell.

Supersedure Cells vs. Swarm Cells

Now to the big question ... how do you tell the difference between supersedure cells and swarm cells? Location is key, although, there are no hard and fast rules. While the two cells look identical, the main difference between the two is the location the cells usually appear on the frame. A supersedure cell, sometimes referred to as an “emergency” queen cell, will usually be found hanging from the face of the comb (in the middle area of the comb). A swarm cell, on the other hand, will usually be found hanging from the bottom or margins of the comb. “Usually” is the key word in both instances.

In truth, the bees don’t always follow the rules and sometimes build the queen cells in locations that give us the wrong signals. If two brood boxes are used, swarm cells will generally be found hanging from the lower edges of the upper brood box frames, hanging down between the two boxes.

Swarm cells are produced to create an additional queen, whereas supersedure cells are created to replace a dead or failing queen.

Join us next time when we talk about why you may want to choose Carniolan bees. Until then, time to get ready for spring. It’s just around the corner.

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