During a routine visit to the hive, I encountered one of the great jewels of the beekeeping world, a queen cell. As I looked at the pearly little peanut-like growth, I got a warm fuzzy feeling. Here in front of me was the very heart of a colony, in it’s delicate first stage, a little creature that could grow to produce a whole colony of bees. If it was still Spring, I would have happily split the colony and rejoice in this tiny, amazing gift. But it’s late August, and I’m a novice beekeeper, and a queen cell is not necessarily what I want to see.
A quick lesson for those who need it: Any fertilized egg can grow into either a queen or a worker bee, depending on what it is fed in it’s larval stage. Nurse bees feed larva “Brood Food” which is sort of like milk and saliva in one, but for bees, not people. The brood food is secreted from the adult bee’s hypopharyngeal glands, and placed in droplets inside the cell for the larva to eat. When a nurse bee is feeding a queen larva, she will produce a slightly different variation of the brood food. You’ve heard of royal jelly, I’m sure. It’s packed with nutritious stuff to help the queens ovaries develop, and sugars to keep her appetite high. How exactly they secrete the correct food for the each larva is a bit of a mystery, so I’ll just call it Bee Voodoo for now.
Because the queen grows to be significantly larger than a worker bee, the cell she develops in needs to be extra big too. When workers have time to prepare,for example if they are getting ready to swarm, they will make “queen cups” – slightly enlarged cell bases, all ready to become queen cells after the queen has deposited an egg in it. After the egg has been laid, the workers add wax to the cell to make a big peanut looking shape. These are called swarm cells, and are usually found neatly lined up at the bottom of the frame.
When the bees need a new queen in a hurry, either because the old queen has died or she is not performing well and they want to stage a coup (bee life is dramatic!), the workers will make use of any eggs they have that are the appropriate age. Since these eggs have already been deposited in a regular sized cell, some adaptations have to be made to build a proper queen cell, and they often turn out a bit wonky looking, and are, generally, not nicely aligned on the bottom of the frame. This is called a supersedure cell.
So all this means that you can tell a lot about what’s going to happen based on the location of the queen cell, but sadly, it’s not always as clear cut as one would hope. For example, the queen cell that I’ve found was pretty neatly arranged near the middle of the frame and off to the side, just enough that it’s really quite difficult to tell. Furthermore, as it’s a new, fairly small colony and we’re in the peak of the summer dearth here in Eastern Pennsylvania, a swarm is quite unlikely. I had also been under the impression that my queen was quite strong and doing well, she is not even year old and her laying patterns have been satisfactory to me, so I would be surprised by a supersedure.
The wild card here, is that I had been feeding my bees sugar water to compensate for the dearth and help them build up their stores for winter (as this will be their first cold northern winter, I am extremely concerned about their well being.) When I brought this story to my mentor, Beekeeper Yoda, he suggested that the influx of sugary syrup into the hive could have tricked the bees into thinking that the peak of the season was still upon us and it would be a lovely time to swarm. Eeek!!!
So what to do? Not much. I considered adding a super but decided against it because of some issues I’d been having with small hive beetles. I stopped feeding them, put out a few swarm traps around town for just in case, kept all my neighbors on alert for large swarms of bees, and then sat on my hands until enough time had passed to peek back in and see what was going on.
And that’s what I’m about to do. The next update is coming soon!