What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ’emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

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30 thoughts on “What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

    • You are too hard on yourself in your post Emily! We have a lot to do on Saturday’s now and I’ve seen even the very experienced beekeepers at our apiary have the occasional mishap with the bees 🙂

  1. Good luck to you both on Monday night. Relax and stay calm and you’ll find the queen and all will go smoothly. Also you will probably be more relax as and when you move to your own apiaries as I always feel at home alone in the fields! No one to watch and no pressure. The only thinkg I miss reading both your blogs is the tea and cake!

    • You were right, it was much easier on Monday night to stay calm and get on with what we needed to do, although the bees were mightily angry to be disturbed at the end of the day, we got everything done. And tea and cake first weekend of August!

      • That’s good to hear. Don’t assume it was the time of day affecting the bees, I also decided to check one colony last night after work and besides it being a warm sunny evening they were a real handful. Possibly the coming change in weather that they could sense but I couldn’t see!
        Last year I did ‘after work’ inspections and was often in the fields until the sunset and I couldn’t see eggs anymore with no real big problems with the bees.

      • The air pressure was low, and it was hot, humid and close, before an almighty storm last night. So maybe the bees sensed this. I always think my ladies are less accommodating about being disturbed in the evening because they are at home after a long day’s work trying to chill out 🙂

        I’ve checked our bees before in the evening and, as you say, no real problems, but yesterday the same hive was really maddened again. Perhaps they hadn’t forgiven us for Saturday…

    • Queen bees don’t like the light so they tend to hide and run away from it when you are checking frames, which can make them difficult to spot (aside from the fact she looks similar to all the other bees and there can be 300 bees on just one side of a frame when you are trying to find her!). Once caught, if they escape they may tend to run straight for the bottom of the hive and stay on the bottom of the floor until all the commotion is over and we’ve gone away. Very sensible if you ask me, although not helpful for beekeepers 🙂

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  3. This may seem like a naive question from a non-beekeeper, but what happens if bees do make their own decisions and perhaps decide to swarm? Does that mean that you lose a colony?

    • Good question – and the crucial reason you are checking a colony during ‘the swarming season’, which can last all spring and summer. When the bees make queen cells if they want to swarm, they starve the current queen so she is light enough to fly and usually before they cap the new queen cells, the old queen is coerced to fly away from the hive by her workers, half of whom follow her with half the colony’s honey in their bellies. The swarm finds a new home and builds a new colony while the virgins hatch to mate and fight for the rulership of the old colony.

      • Forgot to add – so beekeepers lose half the bees and half the honey. If I were living in the country, somewhere nice and remote, I may let my bees swarm but in the city it is a bit of a nuisance. Also bees seem to swarm nowadays when it is not advantageous for them to do so, ie the colony is too small and both new colonies will be very weak and unlikely to survive, or the weather is bad and the new swarm may not survive. I don’t yet know why bees swarm when the odds aren’t in their favour.

  4. I know what you mean about every beekeeper having a different opinion. I’m still trying to chart my own path, but then I don’t have anybody looking over my shoulder to express an opinion. Footnote…I’ve never seen my queen, nor have I ever looked for her. My two log hives are surviving on their own with no ‘help’ from me. After swarming 6 times during April and May, Bee Beard log hive is doing very well. Bee-atrice, the other log hive, was started from a small cast swarm and is building slowly (very slowly). She is on her own and will have to sort it out without me. (Tough love)
    Good luck in your quest to find a new hive location…but won’t you miss the tea and cakes? 🙂

    • I have seen footage of your bees and they look very happy. As for not seeing the queen, an experienced beekeeper at our apiary once told me that he went through five hives in one morning and never spotted a single queen. Other signs suggest the queen is present such as eggs in the cells (showing the queen must have been present to have laid around 1–2 days ago), or young larvae (she must have been there 3 days ago), bees being calmly walking and working across frames rather than running all over it (suggesting queen pheromones are helping to keep the colony working as a whole), and bees bringing in pollen to nurse new brood. I do love the names of your hives Bee Beard and Bee-atrice 🙂

      Even if I do find a site closer to home, I would still go the apiary around 3pm when the tea is being poured and the cake sliced…

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  7. Hi, I am a beekeeper here in Australia and read your web site and throught that you
    may be able to help me, in two of my
    colonies i am seeing queen
    cells on bottom of frames
    and halfway up the frame only
    a small number say 4 cells in total
    What do you think this could be?
    Thanks victor

    • Hi Victor, it’s difficult to say without looking at the hives. Usually for swarming the bees make 8 or more queen cells, quite a high number, though there’s no hard and fast rule. Fewer cells may mean supersedure of the queen or emergency cells if the queen had died suddenly. Is the queen still in the hive? Is she still laying eggs? Next time you inspect try to find the queen and cage her, then look to see if she is laying well. Also is the brood nest too full, do the bees need more space to swarm? If the queen is there and you’re not sure whether they are trying to swarm try taking down a couple of the queen cells and leave the best 2-3 intact so the best new queen will emerge. Good luck!

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