Monday, May 10, 2010

Can swarm cells turn into supersedure cells? (Cue "Twilight Zone" music)

So it had been a week since I moved the four swarm cells from my first colony to an empty hive. As you recall, I found them during a routine inspection, scattered on the bottoms of four different frames in the upper deep. Following the advice of several longtime beekeepeers, I moved the cells with some capped brood, eggs and larvae and pollen and nectar to an empty hive, along with a generous sprinking of bees, and closed everything up. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was extremely quiet and very little coming and going was happening at the new hive -- so little that I became concerned that something was very wrong.

But when Thursday rolled around, I found a lot of flying in and out and I could see some orientation flights underway too. This made me feel better but I knew that I wouldn't truly feel better until I took a good look under the lid to see what was going on inside.

Without using smoke, I opened the hive and as I was doing an inspection, I found two of the four swarm cells almost gone. I had the frames with the swarm cells placed where I could easily find them, and the precious cells were practically gone. Truthfully I thought I picked the wrong frames out, but then on closer examination, I realized I had the right ones after all. It was obvious that the bees had torn the cells down, I knew it wasn't me because I'd been extremely careful about moving the frames as to not tear the cells. And a third swarm cell was completely empty. I didn't even look at the fourth, because after all of that disappointment, I closed up the hive. When I got in the house, I started calling around to try to find a queen without delay. The queen I have on order in Chapel Hill is still a week or more away and no one else I called in the immediate area had any ready to sell. One had them but the waiting list was at least three weeks. With all these disappointments, I knew I was headed for trouble. I kept thinking that if I don't do something soon, I am going to find myself with a laying worker and then everything will be a total mess. Needless to say, I called everywhere and no luck was in the cards. 

Looking to buy some time, I spoke to a local beekeeper who told me to take more eggs from the mother hive and put them in the new hive and the bees should take them and start making new queen cells again. And since the queen I have is a laying machine, I knew I should be able to find more donor eggs. So the plan of action for Sunday would be to move some eggs over and keep my fingers crossed.

So Sunday rolled around and I opened the mother hive to look for eggs. Taking my time, I found a frame with some eggs scattered around, but since this is honey flow time here, I also noticed that the hive was scattered with lots of nectar and pollen and becoming honey-bound. So I grabbed up a shallow super to put on top of the hive so they can move the honey up and give the queen room to lay. And then I opened the new hive to find a frame to swap out -- but I found something that perplexed me totally. It was something new, something I never saw before in the past week, and something that has me totally confused. I found two new queen cells -- two supersedure cells.

The supersedure cells were in the middle of two different frames situated next to one another. In all my examinations of these frames, I never, ever saw these supersedure cells...and I honestly believe they are new and created in the last week. No eggs were in the new hive, so there should be no other queens there, at least not a mated queen anyway. And since I found eggs in the mother hive, it is obvious that a queen is there and working. So I don't quite understand why the bees in the new hive tore down the swarm cells and moved up the frame and made supersedure cells instead.

Is it because they realized that they had no reigning queen and created emergency cells? Is it because they have changed plans to swarm (since they're not in a crowded hive box anymore) and decided to create a different queen instead? And why did I not see these cells when I've examined the frames on two occasions in the past week?

I carefully closed up the new hive and took great care to not bump or rub the supersedure cells. And after adding a honey super to the mother hive, I closed it up as well and don't plan to disturb them again for a week or two. They've been stressed enough this past week so now I'm going to give them time to get back to being bees.

Without a doubt, I plan to keep an eye on the new hive to see what is going on there. If all goes to plan (at least the bees plan anyway) -- a new queen should emerge soon. But I'm not so sure that I should leave an emergency queen there or go ahead and replace her. I have read that emergency queens (by supesedure) are sometimes inferior to mated queens from a dealer. Maybe these are just the stories that some dealers tell just so beekeepers will buy their products, or maybe there is some ring of truth to it. I plan to mull it over in the meantime and do some research.

Anyone with experience with this kind of situation or your ideas on what you think is happening are more than welcome to offer comments. I would love to hear what you think is going on.

ADDENDUM: Beekeeping expert, Richard Underhill at the Peace Bee Farm, just sent me a note about my swarm cells turning into supersedure cells: "The swarm cells being replaced by supersedure cells is an interesting occurrence, but I think there is a simple explanation. You moved in a frame with swarm cells. The first one to emerge killed the others inside their cells, and the workers chewed out the sides of those cells. Now you find supersedure cells on the sides of frames. These may have been started as emergency queen cells by the workers when you started this new hive. The first day the new hive would have detected that it was queen-less. If there were eggs on one of the frames that you brought in, the bees would build emergency queen cells by extending worker cells and turning them downward. You did not see them on your previous inspection, because it only takes four days for them to build and cap a queen cell."

As always, thanks Richard! So if I understand this, there exists the possibility that my new hive could be queenright after all. Richard's scenario is that one of the queens in the swarm cells may have hatched and killed her sisters. The frames that now hold supersedure cells were a result of the bees realizing they were queenless and so they panicked and started building. Makes sense. I've always read that a queen-less colony is hard to work with, moody and irritable. But I've noticed that in the times I've been in this hive this past week, I never used smoke and they were really gentle -- so maybe the colony really is queenright. Now the search begins pretty soon to see if I can find a queen or eggs in the the new hive. 


  1. Hi Mark,
    I really enjoy reading your blog. I just started beekeeping last summer. I happened to be reading a great old book about queen rearing at Michael Bush's page If I'm remembering right, Doolittle found that the supersedure queens only lived one season I think. Not sure if I'm right about that - that's the extent of my knowledge.

    All the best,

  2. How are you sure that the queens didn't eclose? The bees will tear down a queen cell after the queen has left it - and maybe the queen cell was older than you thought?


  3. It's difficult to know isn't it? To me the first photo looked like 4 drone cells and 1 queen cell. That last photo looks like a nice big queen cell. I hope this turns out okay. Keep us posted Mark.

  4. Mark:

    Very cool and informational piece. I have been gone for a while and just catching up on your swarm/queen adventures. I wish I had space for more hives but I am pressing the limits with two.



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