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Emergency queen cells exist because honeybees will make a new queen without notice. These small creatures have been naturally wired to do this, and you will certainly have little control over it. The making of queen cells portrays two things. Firstly, it means you have a strong honeybee colony and you only need to manage them well for a few months to get a new healthy queen. Secondly, this may mean the colony expansion rate has surpassed the available space and it needs to split. You therefore need to have a plan on how to handle this, otherwise you might end up losing half of your honeybees or a swarm might hurt people within the locality.
Fortunately, you can interrupt colony development and honey production as a strategy of combating swarming. Honeybees will build emergency queen cells for a number of reasons, perhaps within or beyond your control. Join us as we find out more about these queen cells.
What Defines a Queen Cell?
Queen cells are easy to spot since they have a vertical orientation. These cells can be found almost on any part of the frame, but almost every time on edges of the comb. This can be on the sides of the comb or on the bottom of the combs.
Queen cells can be differentiated based on their location. This helps identify a queen cell as emergency, swarm, or supersedure. The worker bees make cup-shaped cells (sometimes referred to as play cups), and these will be present even if the colony has no intention of swarming.
The queen bee will lay an egg into the cup-shaped cell which will then be fed by the worker bees. The cell is continuously extended and expanded, transforming it into a queen cell. Such cells demand plenty of attention from the workers and will be fed purely on royal jelly. In fact, the larva will be floating on thick bed of royal jelly inside this cell.
The queen cell is sealed as the larva moves to the next stage in its development. The pupa stage of the queen bee follows the larva stage, with the worker bees enclosing the cell with a dark brown ring at the tip of capped cell.
A queen bee will take 16 days to develop from the egg stage to final stage of a young virgin queen. It will take 3 days for the fertilized egg to hatch. This larva will be fed on royal jelly for the next 8 days after which the cell is sealed off. 7 days after this, the virgin queen bee will emerge. In total it will take 16 days for the queen to emerge from the day the egg is laid. Various experiments show the queen cell is sealed or capped on the 9th day and the queen bee emerges a week after that.
At What Point does an Existing Queen Leave the Hive?
Well, it is almost impossible to have a capped queen cell and existing queen at the same time. A colony usually splits and swarms once the queen cell has been sealed. This will mean the existing queen will move out with about 75% of the worker bees.
Environmental factors may delay swarming, for instance, rain. Nevertheless, honeybees are rarely derailed by a downfall. Restraining the queen might also delay swarming, however it cannot stop swarming.
What are Emergency Queen Cells
Unlike swarm and supersedure queen cells, where everything is planned upfront, emergency queen cells, as suggested by the name, are unplanned. The worker bees will resort to making these cells when an unanticipated event occurred which lead to the untimely loss of their queen.
Preceding factors to emergency queen cell creation include:
- An old queen dies unexpectedly.
- The queen is suddenly ill and can no longer reproduce.
- Failure on the part of the beekeeper leading to unexpected death of the queen bee.
Any of these factors will lead to the demise of the queen. The ultimate effect is the lack of the pheromone chemical produced by the queen. Without this, the colony falls apart and thus when this happens the worker bees instinctively congregate and begin to build emergency queen cells. Brood cells will be immediately converted to supersedure cells that will nurture the future queen.
The Making of Emergency Queen Cells
It all begins with the loss of the queen bee for whatever reason. The worker bees will then turn any available larva into the queen bee. Interestingly, feral bees rarely resort to building emergency queen cells. It is man’s domestication that has led to an increased tendency for honeybee colonies to build emergency queen cells.
The following occurs once the hive has been unexpectedly rendered queenless:
- The worker bees will detect the queen bee is absent within an hour. The queen pheromone, that is, her chemical, is lost when she dies. This is what keeps the colony together. Its absence leads to some confusion all over the colony.
- Chaos occurs with the worker bees appearing to be searching for their queen. Unfamiliar buzz can be heard all over the colony and docile bees portray some aggressive behavior.
- Worker bees congregate and begin to build emergency queen cells within 8 to 24 hours from the time the queen was lost. They will make use of already existing worker larvae cells.
- The emergency queen cells will be built almost anywhere on the honeycomb with bias to edges of the combs, within holes or gaps on combs, face of combs, and preferably on new combs. The honeybees prefer to build emergency queen cells on gaps or holes existing on brood combs. If this happens, any larvae around or under this region are removed. The combs are chewed away and the emergency queen cell extended outwards and downwards.
- Worker bees love to use new combs when building emergency queen cells instead of older combs. This can be attributed to the fact that new combs are easier to work on or rather chew. Thus the work of eliminating nearby cocoons becomes much easier when newly combs are used. This is also avails an abundant supply of royal jelly from these cells making the work of feeding the emergency queen hassle free.
- The worker bees also tend to build more emergency queen cells within an area where an emergency queen cell is already in existence. They will therefore chew out the neighboring cells and build better emergency queen cells on this new comb.
- Once the emergency cell is ready, she will be fed just like any other brood. All brood younger than 5 days are provided with the same nutrition by the nurse bees.
The Making of the Emergency Queen Bee
All adult honeybees begin their life identical to the queen. In fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish which is which during the first 5 days of their life. All worker bees being females, have exact genes as those of the queen. That means they all have the potential of becoming a queen bee. The only difference comes due to the special diet that a queen bee receives throughout her lifetime.
Worker bees can lay unfertilized eggs. Remember, 1% of the worker bees within the colony have fully developed ovaries that can produce eggs. In some exceptional cases when a hive is rendered queenless, laying workers will be developed. These will however lay unfertilized eggs since they did not mate with a male bee, meaning these eggs will only birth drones or male bees.
Here is how the queen bee is developed in an emergency cell:
- The queen bee on her routine laying job, will move around the honeycombs filling up her eggs into empty cells.
- When she lands on an empty cell, she sticks her head into the cell and evaluates the size of the cell using her antennae.
- If she ascertains a cell to be bigger, she will deposit unfertilized egg that will lead to the development of a drone bee. Any unfertilized egg possesses a single set of genetics from the queen. If the cell is smaller, she will deposit a fertilized egg that will lead to the formation of a worker bee. This egg is made up of two sets of genes emanating from the drone and the queen bee.
- It will take between 2 to 3 days for the eggs to hatch. This larva will then be fed on nutritious royal jelly by the nursing bees. This will be the main food for the first three days for all brood larvae irrespective of whether it is a worker, drone, or queen bee. They will then be fed on bee bread except for a future queen that will continue to feed on the royal jelly.
- While considering making an emergency queen, the worker bees will choose a worker larva that is 3 days old. This means this worker bee has been feeding solely on royal jelly. She will continue to consume royal jelly after the three days have lapsed.
- The worker bee larva grows rapidly than a usual worker bee. Crucial organs begin to develop such as the reproductive organ. She will grow faster than usual virgin queen given the urgency of the situation.
- The fully grown virgin queen emerges from the emergency queen cell. At this point she has smaller abdomen since she is yet to mate with the male bee.
- Newly emerged queen looks around for any potential rival queens, chews into their cells and kills them using her stinger. You can call this savage elimination.
- The virgin queen stays for some days within the hive before flying away from the hive to mate with drones. This is what we call a mating flight. She usually flies for about a mile from the hive in the company of a few worker bees. This behavior is instinctive to avoid mating with her close relatives.
- She will be busily engaged in these mating flights for several days until her abdomen, or the spermatheca is full of semen. At that point, her mating life is done and any drone that mates with her dies after the action.
- The fully loaded queen bee returns to her home. She will never leave the colony again unless she will be forced to move out during swarming. Her main work will be to lay eggs inside the colony. She will live for about 5 to 6 years. A healthy queen will lay on average 3000 eggs within a day during peak seasons. She will lay about 730,000 eggs annually adding up to about 4,380,000 in a lifetime, assuming she will live for 6 years. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that her productivity declines with age.
A Final Word
It is never unusual to find an emergency queen cell in your beehive. You might come across two or more sealed queen cells in your hive, and this should never be something to worry about. A proper understanding of the phenomenon will ensure you make informed decisions. Novice beekeepers may panic at the sight of emergency queen cells then resort to eliminating all of these cells. Later to their shock they will realize the existing queen already moved out and there is no queen that will replace her. This will mean the future of the colony is at stake and he or she has to intervene. This might mean introducing a frame with eggs from another colony.
If you find queen cells, then the best approach is to evaluate if the existing queen is performing as expected. By this I mean ensure the eggs are laid at the required rate. If that is okay, then it will mean imposing swarm control methods such as artificial swarm or vertical splits. You will have to destroy all charged queen cells at this point as well.