One Week with a Queenless Hive

Day 6 of a queenless nuc: sealed queen cells amidst risk-taking bees.

Over a week ago, I brought a nuc into my back yard. Twelve days have passed, so there should be an emerged virgin queen inspecting the neighbourhood, looking for boys. My little nuc was intentionally built as a queenless hive. When my son (left, now a confirmed beekeeper) and I dug through the deeper chasms of the little hive, we found the cluster of queen cells captured in the image above.

I was surprised by the fragility of this nuc’s effort to guarantee its future. Although this nuc had about 400 potential larvae of the ‘right’ age, the bees chose just three candidates, plus one suspended from bottom of the same frame. The bees could have built their new queen cells in other places among the three frames of brood and the hundreds of larvae, yet they picked this tiny number of tightly clustered incubating royals. The cells are vulnerably contiguous. They represent a tiny wager towards the entire colony’s future survival.

There is so much we don’t know about bees. Why so few cells? Evolution dictates the balance between a large number of well-fed queen cells and a risky slim number. Honey bees have survived for millions of years. Obviously, a small number is the right number. There is a cost to a hive if it raises too many of cells. Many cells require a lot of royal jelly, create a burden for the colony, reduce the number of future workers (each becomes a queen, not a foraging worker), and ultimately result in a grand battle-to-the-death for all those emerging queens. Personally, I would have directed the creation of a few dozen cells. But I’m not a bee.

When I produced and sold queens, I used to place about sixty grafted cells into a starter, transfer them to the appropriate finisher hive the next day, then take them to the field hours before the queens were expected to emerge. When I began distributing queen cells to the mating nucs, it was just one cell per hive. That’s right – just one cell per hive. I was even more frugal than my little backyard nuc!  The result? I usually had 60 to 80% of those nucs with good laying queens two weeks later. (Better queen breeders regularly get 90%, but I was a relatively bad beekeeper.) I would have improved my odds a bit if I’d put two cells in each mating box, but it takes a lot of energy to raise twice as many queen cells. The ‘missing queens’ in the nucs were not usually due to damaged or unopened cells, but due to queens getting lost on their mating flights or eaten by hovering squadrons of dragonflies. Since only one of the cells results in a mature viable virgin, multiple cells don’t reduce airborne losses.

Magpie: our local bee-eater
Photo by Connor Mah

I’m writing this a few days after I saw that little cluster of queens cells. By now, at least one of those cells has opened (the others were probably destroyed by whichever hyper-competitive queen emerged first). The victor might already be making her first flights. But I don’t know for sure. There is a chance that all the cells failed or the new queen has already disappeared into the jaws of a western magpie – many of whom already squawked their gratitude at my nuc’s arrival in their playground.  In another week, I’ll sneak a quick peek and let you know what I see.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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17 Responses to One Week with a Queenless Hive

  1. Erik says:

    I wonder if the bees would ever keep two queens alive to hedge their bets. Send the first one to hatch out on a mating flight, and if she returns kill of the virgin. If not then another queen is available. Putting all their hopes in one queen does seem a bit risky.


    • Ron Miksha says:

      That’s a neat idea! I guess queen loss during mating isn’t frequent enough, or bees would have developed the Erik Maneuver by now. That would have given a survival edge and eventually the behaviour would have permeated the bee kingdom/queendom. I’m sure that you know that natural 2-queen hives occur, but usually only when a supercedure queen works alongside her mom for a few weeks. It probably never happens when all the queens are young.


  2. Pingback: One Week with a Queenless Hive | Beginner Beekeeper

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  4. When I began reading this I was thinking you were describing a hopelessly queenless hive—one with no eggs. What none of my teachers or readings revealed to me when I was a newer beek (now I’m 7 years in) was that bees without the proper resources will make fake queen cells, pulled up around a laying worker’s eggs, nutured and capped and all. These will cause the unknowing beek to thing magic has happened and the bees have got it together. One big reason for knowing your “Bee Math” table.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. api101 says:

    Hello Ron, very interesting article! It reminded me about Russian “primorsky” honeybees. Have you ever heard of them?
    I read that they create queen bee cells “just in case” during all the season. But let’s just say that even if it’s good for survival purposes, that seems like a nightmare for a beekeeper!


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for the Russian bees link! Primorsky (‘maritime’ in English) is the name of the coastal far east of Russia. That’s where this (mostly) Caucasian strain originated. They’ve traveled from the Caucus mountains to Kamchatka and now, because of their alleged varroa resistance, they are in North America. I’ve never worked with them, but some folks here in western Canada have tried them out. I’m told that here, at least, they are a bit aggressive and still don’t survive mites without chemical help. But that’s just what my friends have told me – they might be wrong.
      It’s not uncommon for other races to also have a supply of ‘queen cell plugs’ as we used to call them when I was a kid. And yes, you are right, they certainly can confuse a beekeeper!


      • api101 says:

        Thanks for the info Ron! Maybe the fact that varroa resistance doesn’t “work” when you move bees out of their habitat could have something to do with the aggressivity of the local varroa population rather than the bees genetic resistance. What do you think about this?


  6. Ron Miksha says:

    Beekeepers, can you answer the questions raised on this post?
    – What makes workers select a few particular larvae for upper management?
    – Why are so few queen cells produced when there are hundreds larvae that could become future queens?
    – Why are queen cells often clustered closely together?


    • Emily Scott says:

      Could the queen cells be clustered together because that makes the job of feeding and keeping them warm easier on the nurse bees? I think you provided some potential answers for why only a few cells are produced in your post, such as the amount of energy required to produce queens when ultimately the colony only needs one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Hi Emily,
        I hadn’t thought about the concentration of nurse bees and the convenience for them. Warmth might also be a factor. These probably all play a role.
        – thanks!


  7. I would compare the situation to the many, sometimes 30 or more, queen cells drawn prior to swarming when the colony is at full operational capacity. A queenless group is looking at constant attrition for at least a month, before —at the best of times—they can expect to have another laying queen. All that time the population is diminishing, and any brood the former queen laid needs tending as well. They can’t “afford” to make as many Qc’s as when swarming takes place.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A queenless colony has not anticipated the need to replace their queen, as well. This failure to get ahead of the process puts them at a time disadvantage. With swarming, the capping of the first QC is the typical time the swarm leaves. So that is about 9 days and they only have to wait 6 more for the first queen to emerge. A emergency queen is much more disadvantaged situation for the time needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part III | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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