Queencells and Queencups
From the middle of April onwards you will start to see queen cups in your hive. These are acorn-cup shaped wax cups which might develop into a queen cell in time. Sometimes they are called play cups. They are usually situated around the edge of the brood nest – either just inside the wooden frame sides or on/near the bottom bars. There is nothing to worry about with these play cups and are entirely normal. However there is some opinion that they are an indication of congestion and you need to consider if there is enough room in the hive for the bees you have - remember that if you are inspecting the hive during the day-time when workers are foraging, there will be a lot more at night when they have all returned. Do check inside them; usually they are empty. If any of them contain a dry egg it is quite possible that the egg will be removed by the worker bees in any case. However if you see a larva in there and it is in a milky-white fluid (royal jelly) then it is likely that the larva will continue to be fed with large quantities of royal jelly and the wax will be drawn out to form a queencell. Once the queencell is capped over your existing queen may well fly – a swarm will issue. Therefore a queencell with royal jelly in it means that you have to consider swarm control. You need to do something if you want to stop swarming! And cutting out queencells is not an option I would recommend although it can buy you a few days in order to decide what to do or to get hold of the extra equipment you need.
If you see queencells.
Don't automatically cut them out! First check to see if there is a queen present in the hive or if there are eggs. If there are no eggs or very young larvae and you cut all the queencells out, then you will render the colony hopelessly queenless - i.e. they will not be able to produce their own queen. If there are eggs, then the colony has the ability to make a new queen.
If you think the colony has swarmed.
Check for eggs and the queen. If there are eggs, then the queen was present within the last 3 days. It may be difficult to determine if the colony has swarmed as bee numbers can increase in the height of the season rather quickly as the workers emerge from sealed brood. If you have sealed queencells and the weather is good, then there is a good chance that the queen has gone. Identify one good open queencell, (lots of royal jelly with a larva in it) mark the frame above it with a drawing pin so you don't forget where it is and remove all the others. After 5 or 6 days later check again at which time the cell will be sealed. Then check again 3 or 4 days later and ensure that you have just one queencell. Don't knock or touch it but remove any others you might see. The queen will emerge 8 days after sealing. Some books say leave the colony for 3 weeks before inspecting again. You can check sooner but not when the queen might be flying. More details will follow later.
Types of queencell.
Queencells can generally be categorized into three types.
As the colony develops and queencups develop into queencells, these are almost always swarm cells. The will usually (but not always) be situated on the edge of the brood area - the frame bottom bars, the side of the frame or the top bar. Occasionally they will be found on a frame of stores next to a brood frame. If the colony is large or congested and it's the height of summer, this is when you are likely to get swarmcells. They typically number 8 - 20.
They can actually look the same as a swarm cell - but there will usually be less of them; just 2 or 3 maybe - sometimes just one. They are peanut-shaped and dimpled but will often (but not always) be positioned within the brood area with comb removed from around them. These usually seem to occur late in the year or in Spring and are often as a result of something not being right with the queen. If you see a large amount of drone brood appearing where you would usually expect to see worker brood, this could be a sign of the queen running out of sperm and the worker bees, sensing this, will want to replace the egg-layer - the queen. With the supercedure impulse, it is not uncommon for the virgin queen and the mother to remain in the hive at the same time. This is the only time when you will see two queens in a hive. In the height of summer a colony may swarm on supercedure. Clipping the queen is the answer for this. If you remove the queen during supercedure thinking that you might save her from an untimely death, the colony may be bounced into usual behaviour and will produce emergency queencells if there are eggs and larvae in the hive and then swarm too - ensuring that you lose the supercedure queen and you are left with what is probably an inferior emergency queen.
Supercedure queens are well-fed and can be excellent to head-up a colony.
These are made out of worker cells and they stick out from the brood comb, sometimes not by much as you can see in the accompanying picture. They are usually as a result of the colony suddenly becoming queenless - maybe by poor manipulation by the beekeeper or deliberate removal of the queen. They can also occur after a swarm has left the hive which it is necessary to check for these once you have selected your queencell from which the queen inside will take over the colony. Emergency queens can be started later in the development of the larvae and consequently may be smaller than swarm or supercedure queens and are not ideal but will get the colony (and you) out of trouble.