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The honey bees are plotting: Superseding a queen

Our new colonies of honey bees aren't quite so new anymore - they've been at Arena Flowers for just over a month now. How time flies!

Four of our five hives are looking pretty well settled from our checks so far. We take a look inside the hives each week during their active period (late spring to early autumn) and there are a few things we look for.


Vital for any civilisation's survival. A successful looking hive will need good stores of food to get feed them during this busy active period, and also through the winter, and this means both honey and pollen stores. Honey is the carbohydrate source for bees, and pollen provides them with protein. 

The outer frames on each brood box will usually just consist of nectar/honey and pollen. This is because the edges tend to be a little bit colder - not a good place to raise babies. Frames with brood in them go closer to the centre.

Brood box: a simple structure on a domestic hive used to contain brood frames. Different to 'honey supers' which will be used exclusively for collecting honey, from which the queen is excluded to prevent her laying eggs there.

In the brood frame of a well-run hive (more on brood frames shortly), there will be a few easily visible layers. The top corners should have a small arc of nectar and honey. Nectar becomes honey through a fascinating process. Worker bees collect the nectar from flowers, which mixes with an enzyme secreted by a gland in their mouths, and passing honey between the honey stomach and their mouths exposes the nectar to the air and aiding evaporation of water. The nectar is placed into cells in the comb. When collected from the flowers, nectar has a higher water content but this reduces. Once the water content reaches around 17-18% (it only takes around 20 minutes) it is now honey and will be capped over to be used as food.

Photo of a frame of bee comb. In the top right corner of the comb are cells covered with pale yellow wax. Below that in an arc are cells filled with different coloured pollen which has been compacted in to the cells. Underneath that are cells with a more golden brown wax cap. Inside these cells are pupating larvae.A frame of comb filled with capped honey in the top right hand corner, with stored pollen underneath, and capped brood underneath that. You can also see some larvae in a few of the uncapped cells too.

Underneath the honey and nectar you'll find lots of colourful cells of a thicker, harder substance. This is compacted pollen. It's different colours because each flower's pollen is different from another species. You might see reds and browns, pale yellow to sunflower gold, and even some grey pollen too.

The final layer in the frame will be cells of eggs, larvae and capped pupae, all three together is known as...


This means 'brood all stages' and refers to what we see in the brood frame. Being able to tick off each stage increases the likelihood that your colony is hiving and thriving. 

Eggs appear at the bottom of the cells and a good Queen will lay each egg almost directly in the centre of it. Her long body makes her laying more accurate, and you can spot an egg because it looks like a tiny grain of rice.

After three days, the eggs will hatch and the larvae are then attended to by the colony. They're fed by nurse bees (workers) using the stores of honey and pollen around them on the frame, plus a little bit of a substance commonly known as royal jelly - now you can see the reason for the layout of a brood frame.

 Picture of a brood frame with comb. Three sections have been enlarged to show a tiny rice grain-like egg in the bottom left, a cell with a large larva in the top left, and a capped cell in the top right.A brood frame. This laying pattern is quite untidy, with pollen in among the brood. We've pulled out and enlarged different stages of brood. Clockwise from the bottom left: a miniscule egg that looks like a grain of rice in the bottom of the cell; a few larvae in their cells, surrounded by pollen stores; capped brood cells containing pupating larvae.

The larval stage lasts around 5 days, at which point the cell will be capped over with wax and the larvae will pupate. This final part of the process takes around 13 days for a worker (female) and 15 days for a drone (male), after which the new baby bees will eat their way through the capped brood cell to emerge and join the colony.

Royal Jelly: A high protein substance secreted from the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands inside the throat of a nurse bee. 

The making of a new queen

As we said at the start, four of our five hives are looking strong and healthy. We've seen eggs, larvae and capped brood in all of them, so that's 4 x BAS. Excellent. In our fifth hive however, there's a mutiny in the making.

Unfortunately, when inspecting the hive we struggled to find any eggs. Nada. Zilch. This is our first sign that all is not quite right with the queen. Our second indication that a new one may be imminent is the presence of multiple queen cells.

Queen cells are built-out cells that look like little pods attached to the comb. When a new queen is needed, bees will take royal jelly and place it in the cell. They will then place an egg into the cell if there isn't one there already. When it hatches, this larva will feed on more royal jelly than a typical worker, and it's this high-protein substance that affects her physiology, priming her to become a queen. 

Two images side by side. On the left is a frame of honey bee comb covered in bees. You can see a group of cells built in the shape of a pod sticking out from the comb. The image on the right is another frame of comb with a similar pod-like cell, but the bottom of it has a hole.
On the left is a frame of honey bee comb covered in bees. You can see a group of cells built in the shape of a pod sticking out from the comb, this is a capped queen cell. The image on the right is another frame of comb with a similar pod-like cell, but the bottom of it has a hole in it. This shows us that the queen has emerged. A worker bee has climbed into the empty cell to clean it.

The queen-making process has a slightly different timeline to a worker or drone too. From larva to emerging, a queen bee pupates for only eight days, in comparison to the 13 and 15 days for workers and drones.

Due to the presence of queen cells, and the absence of new eggs in the brood frames, we suspect that the original queen is no longer around or even alive. There are a number of reasons this could happen, but our strongest clue lies in the laying pattern she has left behind. We noticed on many of the frames there are quite a few empty cells surrounded by either other larvae, or capped brood. Usually, a queen lays concentrically, and will miss only a few cells if any. This queen was leaving several, and that's not the sign of a strong queen. 

It seems that this patchy and inconsistent laying pattern has not gone unnoticed, and like a true democracy the hive has decided to supersede their their queen.

Supersedure: the process of replacing something that has been deemed unacceptable.

There is another reason queen cells may be created, and that's swarming. However, in the case of swarming, the old queen is usually present because she will lay eggs right up to the point of leaving the hive and will abscond with workers. A swarm would not usually take place without a queen to lay eggs in the new location.

So now we have several closed queen cells, meaning a few potential new monarchs for the hive. We can see a couple of them are slightly older, indicated by more golden brown cell caps, and these are likely to hatch first. "But if there are a number of queen cells, who will take over when they hatch?" we hear you ask, and we have the answer.

Whichever queen hatches first will explore the comb and find any remaining queen cells. To prevent a swift second supersedure, the new queen will open the cells and sting whatever is inside, whether it's a larva or a pupating queen. A queen has a retractable sting, and so can use it several times and won't perish like a normal worker.

As we're expecting a supersedure to take place, we will briefly inspect the hive to see whether a queen has emerged. She will be readying for her mating flight (or have already done it) and will need time to start laying new eggs so we'll then leave the hive for a couple of weeks to allow her to mate.  

By Beth Cox