Sunday afternoon, as we noted bees visiting the borage and roses and thyme, we suited up for a visit to the hive. I readied our tools and supplies on a small table next to the hive so they’d be close at hand:
- · A hive tool, which is sort of like a combo scraper, pry tool, hook and handy earwig squasher-head-chopper-offer.
- · A bee brush, to help gently move the bees so they don’t get squashed.
- · Smoker, lit and ready, with holly wood shavings smoldering inside. I don’t really like to smoke the hive, but I like to have it handy just in case.
- · Phone, so I can take a photo
- · Notebook/pen, to make notes about each frame and what’s happening in the hive. This helps with comparisons from week to week.
We lift off the copper-topped lid, then gently remove a flat board called an inner cover. It keeps the bees from gluing the top lid down, and is easier to pry off if they do glue it down (they like to button things up tightly with a waxy glue called propolis).
Beneath the lid, looking straight down into the hive box, the first thing you see are eight slats of wood, which are the top bars of the frames that hold the comb, brood, foundation, and honey. Bees clammer over and around the bars as we peer at them. Everyone looks busy, and this time we locate the queen relatively easily, at work on frame 4 just about in the center of the hive.
She was just in the process of laying an egg, and our interruption caused her to pull out of the cell too early. We watch her, circled by attendants, as she moves to another cell.
When we lift frame 5, we see capped honey reserves just below the bar, then empty cells. But what catches our eye first is a “bump” over the cells—sort of like an open wax bubble. It is almost centered in the frame, an opening facing downward—instantly recognizable, even for us newbies, as a queen cup.
Bees are amazing creatures, and if they sense any problems with the queen, they’ll begin to build what are called “supercedure” queen cells. If a queen is missing, they may build an emergency queen cell, and if they are preparing to swarm because overcrowding in the hive, they’ll build swarm cells.
Swarm cells tend to be along the bottoms of the frames. And we know our hive is not even close to over-crowded. Since we just noted that Her Royal Highness is alive and well, we can assume it’s not an emergency cell.
So what does a supercedure cell mean? From what I’ve learned, it depends. In a fully operational, established colony it may mean that the queen is aging or not producing sufficiently, and in the natural order of things she is to be replaced. In a newly established colony, it might be that the queen isn’t up to speed in her new home, and the workers are hedging their bets—kind of a just-in-case scenario. One article I read suggested clipping off the queen cell in that case.
A queen has a life expectancy of about three to four years. She leaves the hive by herself only once in her life, on a mating flight, then returns to the hive to lay as many as 200,000 eggs in a year (totally puts our hens to shame, eh?). The only other time a queen would leave the hive is if the hive splits in a swarm—the old queen, surrounded by workers and drones, departs to establish a new colony, leaving her old home in the care of a new queen.
Typically, two to three new queens may be raised simultaneously by the workers. One will emerge first. The others will make a distinct sound as they emerge, which allows the first queen hatched the opportunity to find and kill them before they emerge. If she kills the others before they fully emerge, she can do so with far less risk of injury to herself. Otherwise, queen-to-queen combat could result in both queens dying and the colony suddenly becoming queenless.
In our case, since there is only one small cup started, we’re leaving the bees to take care of things. A fully developed queen cell is enclosed, and shaped a little like a small peanut, hanging vertically to the frame. We’ll see how things look when we pull the frames out next week. But for now, we put the frames back together, carefully move a few bees away from the lid so we can close it without crunching anyone beneath it. A pollen-laden worker is returning from foraging, and we leave them to get on with their steady work of gathering and building.