Our queens come in eights

Last week Emma and I split our hive into two. Today we returned to check the progress of the two colonies – luckily the rain storms of Friday had subsided and beautiful sun ruled the skies.

At the time we split the hive we had only found two queen cells, so we had separated off the queen and put her into a nucleus, leaving the two queen cells behind. The bees obviously like the idea of swarming, because today we found… six more queen cells! Some capped and some uncapped, some on the bottom of frames and others built half way up. They really had been busy.

Queen cells

One cell was attached not to comb but to the wooden side of a frame. It was uncapped but contained a larvae with royal jelly. Given that we didn’t see this cell last week before we removed the queen, did the workers construct it the next day and move a young egg or larvae into the cell? I’ve heard of eggs being moved up through queen excluders before.

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The bees usually coat the sides of the queen cells, tending to the developing queen and keeping her warm. Sometimes they can completely obscure the cells, so you have to gently brush them out of the way to see what lies beneath. Try not to shake the bees off frames containing queen cells, as this can dislodge the queen larvae and harm them.

Walnut and honey cake

We were inspecting in the morning as Emma needed to leave early. I returned later in the day to see if any of the other beekeepers wanted some queen cells, precious objects that they are when you have no queen.

I also took time to eat a bite of cake. Above is a walnut and honey cake that I made. It looks unremarkable, but the best thing about it is the overwhelming aroma of honey you get as the cake gets close to your nose. It’s really moist – I poured a mixture of water boiled up with honey over it this morning. If anyone wants the recipe, it’s a Hummingbird bakery one, and has conveniently been put online on The Extraordinary Art of Cake blog.

Claire's chocolate cake

I also sampled this very tasty chocolately marbled sponge cake, made by Claire. In the background you can see a Victoria sponge cake. Actually there were four cakes to try today! So I was quite restrained by only eating two.

Stan said he’d like some queen cells, so he removed a frame containing two cells. That still left six cells remaining in total. We asked around and John Chapple said he’d like a cell. He advised me to keep nice long cells along the bottom of frames but located in the middle, as the bees can keep those warm more easily.

Finding a penknife in his pocket, he quickly cut out a cell on the edge of the frame, taking a portion of the surrounding cells with it. He said the developing queen would be put in a new hive quickly to keep her warm. As Stan had taken two cells and John one, that still left us with five cells.

So John removed a capped one along the side of a frame. Opening it up for us, he gleefully informed the ladies watching that a taste of the royal jelly within would make us “rampant”! People pay a lot of money for fancy royal jelly products in shops, but none of us really fancied dipping our fingers into the goo. It’s actually a very rich substance, full of sugar and nutrients and possessing powerful antibacterial properties. The workers produce it from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands, both of which are located in their heads. Can you see the curled up queen larvae floating within?

L1050523

We now have two hives and two nucleuses down at the apiary and a tired out Emily. Please no more queen cells next week!

The split colonies should have a better chance of surviving than if they had swarmed off elsewhere. In his fascinating book Honeybee Democracy (2010) Thomas D. Seeley says

“In the mid-1970s, for three years I followed the fates of several dozen feral honeybee colonies living in trees and houses around Ithaca, and I found that less than 25 percent of the “founder” colonies (ones newly started by swarms) would be alive the following spring. In contrast, almost 80 percent of the “established” colonies (ones already in residence for at least a year) would survive winter, no doubt because they hadn’t had to start from scratch the previous summer.”

– and that was pre-varroa. It does mean that the colonies remain in the same location, which is not so good from a hive spacing point of view. But perhaps we can move one hive off to our new church location, or combine two colonies back together, or even sell a colony to a keen new beekeeper. Lots of options – having plenty of bees is a nice problem to have.

If you find a hive bursting with queen cells when you next inspect, and want to know how to choose which ones to keep (never destroy them all), here is some advice from Clive de Bruyn, author of the classic book Practical Beekeeping (1997):

“Cells should be chosen that are in a good position in the middle of the comb surrounded by worker brood. If possible, avoid those on the periphery of the nest or positioned amongst drone brood. If the cell is not yet sealed pick one with plenty of royal jelly and a large juicy fat larva. Queen cells vary in size. Generally the bigger the better but beware of excessively long cells, they sometimes contain larvae that have been separated from their food in the base of the cell…. The final criterion to use is the sculpturing of small pits on the surface of the cell. Pick the cell with the more pronounced pattern. A smooth cell may reflect a lack of attenton during construction.”

See my hive partner Emma’s post for more queen cell photos!: This could get out of hand.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
This entry was posted in Queens, Swarms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Our queens come in eights

  1. karcuri13 says:

    I don’t think I’d be interested in sticking my finger in the royal jelly goo either. I like the photo though. I’ve never cut open a queen cell to see a larvae floating in jelly.

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  2. beenurse says:

    Interesting post Emily! Your cake looks yummy. Are you willing to share the recipe?

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  3. Mei says:

    I love how your apiary meetings invariably include cake eating – most civilised! We too have been splitting colonies and giving queen cells away. It’s looking far more promising this year compared to our first year.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Yes, most of the people who turn up at the apiary each Saturday aren’t there to do any beekeeping! It does seem to be going much better this year, less failing queens.

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  4. hencorner says:

    I thought I had 8 queen cells when I checked on Wednesday, then when I went back to choose the best on Thursday I found even more…
    As I killed a queen post swarm last year, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy too many so I left 3 (I may regret this…)
    I didn’t think to offer the spare queen cells to others, since it’s in a nucleus I couldn’t give a whole frame away, so I just cut off the cells and left them for the chickens, maybe they’ll appreciate the Royal Jelly Goo!

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  5. You guys are so generous with each other – sharing cakes, queens and advice. If any apiary deserves to thrive, yours does. I can’t wait to hear how many queens/hives/swarms you end up with when the bees have finished doing what it is they want to do (whether in spite of or in aid of you – only time will tell).

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I enjoy how sociable it all is, it feels like there’s always someone around to help you out. I’m a bit nervous about whether all the splits will survive – the weather is so up and down all the time, sometimes sunny, sometimes hail storms!

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  6. Peter Detchon says:

    Hey Emily, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your posts. You and your fellow bee-addicts are having so much fun, and even the weather is part of it! I run more than a thousand or so hives and nucs in Western Australia, but I now realise one essential part is missing….the cakes!!! I must do something about that!
    PeterD

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Peter – wow, a thousand hives! Do you make your money from honey production or pollination, or perhaps queen rearing? Cakes are so important – a slice of cake and a cup of tea after an afternoon’s beekeeping works wonders!

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      • Peter Detchon says:

        Yes Emily I do earn my living from bees….packing and selling the honey, pollen, honeycomb and wax direct to consumers, as well as exporting queenbees and package bees and renting hives for pollination. It makes life interesting and always challenging!
        But now the new challenge….cake making! My mother was very good at it, rest her soul, although somehow she never felt it necessary to pass on the tips to her son. Having improved my cooking repertoire in recent years on the savoury side, it is now time for the sweeter side. I agree with you, a cup of tea (Earl Grey of course) and a nice cake to go with it, is a wonderful incentive to stop for morning tea.

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        • Emily Heath says:

          Brilliant, you’re doing it all with your bees! Australia sounds like the best place to be for beekeepers, with both sunshine and no varroa. If you like Earl Grey, perhaps an Earl Grey flavoured cake?

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  7. Interesting from the first word to the last, including the cake. At our monthly beekeepers meetings (Hughenden Manor volunteer bee group, with bees at Hughenden Manor, it is usually Olwyn who makes the cakes. They are so hard to resist despite the fact I am on a ‘clean eating’ regime’. Thank goodness a little honey is allowed!
    Tricia

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Does ‘clean eating’ mean eating only non-processed foods? I think homemade cakes must be better for you than shop-bought, cos they have less preservatives and probably a lot less sugar.

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  8. This was an interesting post. I did not know all that on royal jelly, never really thought about it, like you said it is expensive. I kept the cake recipe. I always like the cakes at your bee gatherings. I can see why you get exhausted too.

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  9. These posts are always interesting and informative but the cake adds a special charm.

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  10. To quote my favourite computer game, “…there will be cake…”! Loved that post Emily, and I long to join you all for an afternoon of beekeeping, cake and swashes of tea. How delightful! And how fortunate to find all those lovely queen cells. You have bee wealth!

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Bee wealth – that is a good way of putting it. I’m certainly not making any money wealth from all my beekeeping! If you ever visit London you would be very welcome to join us down at the apiary.

      Like

  11. Lynda says:

    That is lovely, Emily, all of it! Thank you for the recipe too. 🙂
    Q: Out of curiosity… have you ever heard of a hive splitting twice? 😯

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  12. I wonder whether they do move eggs. Only yesterday I found 2 open queen cells with young larvae in a part of the hive to which the queen had not had access for 10 days.

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  13. Such an interesting post! The photograph of the opened queen cell is great, I had no idea what she would look like inside it. I had imagined the royal jelly to be like honey.

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  14. willowbatel says:

    My my! Your bees are weeks ahead of mine! I hope yours don’t swarm, even with all your attentiveness.
    The cakes look lovely. I’ll have to try the recipe. One can never have enough cake.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      It has surprised me how quickly the bees have expanded following a cold spring – maybe yours will suddenly spring into action too. Let me know how it goes if you do try the cake!

      Like

      • willowbatel says:

        Its been raining and windy for several days now, so I haven’t been able to open the hive, but today there was a moment of respite from the elements and the bees came pouring out of the hive all at once. If I hadn’t known better I would’ve thought they were swarming, haha. Its supposed to rain all week, but they have plenty of room to expand upwards, with lots of honey tucked away still. I’m hoping they fill that top box in quickly so I can split the hive easily. I’d love to have 4 hives started right now like you two’ve got, haha.

        Like

        • Emily Heath says:

          The bees must have been so relieved to get out for a few minutes! Poor you having all that rain. We’ve got a few days of rain predicted here too, British weather tends to alternate between sunshine and rain in the summer.

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          • willowbatel says:

            that’s about how we are too. We’ll have a random day of sun and then several of rain. Except in late July and most of August. Then its just miserably hot. Its supposed to be up in the 70s next week. I’m hoping its nice tomorrow or sunday so I can open the hive up and see how things are progressing.

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  15. Completely fascinating bee activity. Cake. It’s all there. Really enjoyed that. RH

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  16. I do love bees, a thriving hive is something to behold! We never destroy any Queen cells. Most are used to make splits, as we’re trying to encourage our more varroa resistant colonies to multiply. We always leave at least 2 queen cells in each hive (an heir, and a spare so to speak). Depending on the colony, and how robust it is, even splits won’t stop swarming, and as we’ve had a couple of weak queens in the last twelve months, we’ve decided that other than splits, we’re not going to prevent swarming in our apiary. If they’re making queen or swarm cells, I figure there’s a good reason for it. We do now maintain at least a couple of nucs through the season though, and last year we were glad we did, as we managed to recombine and rescue some hives that proved themselves to have weak/poorly mated queens at the end of the season. Of course, all this reminds me that it’s time to check our hives again! 🙂

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    • Emily Heath says:

      That’s great that you save all the queen cells. I’ve been leaving two cells in too, although some of my bee books recommend one. But two seems to work. In London we have lots of neighbours to consider, otherwise I’d be more relaxed about swarming. I like this time of the bee year – busy but satisfying!

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  17. solarbeez says:

    Great pictures, great cakes, great post!

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  18. Bean Karen says:

    Wonderful post – I’m just interested if you all, having consumed royal jelly suddenly stood represented on one hind foot with your forefeet in the air (typically in profile, facing the dexter (left) side, with right hind foot and tail raised – that is what you meant by rampant, yes?

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  19. Alex Jones says:

    The cakes look mouth watering.

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