A colony of honey bees that has had the queen removed for whatever reason will turn worker larvae into queen cells if there are larvae young enough to do it. These are called “emergency cells” and in the wild, honey bees rarely have to resort to building them. I think bees included the process of making emergency cells during millions of years of evolution because they knew beekeepers were going to get involved at some stage and they were going to need it! This is in jest of course, but I think a large number of colonies would be hopelessly queenless if the bees hadn’t found a way out of a situation some beekeeper had put them into!
It is my view that much of what is written and spoken about emergency cells shows a lack of understanding of them and the situation within the hive when they are built. This leads to their poor reputation, simply because what is written or spoken is repeated by others. If you think about it, some of the standard methods of raising queen cells are no more than emergency cells e.g. Miller and Alley methods, that have been used with great success for 100 years or more. I accept that more care has to be taken in selecting the final queen cell, but I have had some very good queens from emergency cells.
The following are my observations and theories of what happens in a colony when it is made queenless.
The bees are aware of the absence of their queen within an hour. They become a little agitated and after a couple of hours there is a definite change, with bees appearing to search for their queen and the distinctive “queenless roar” of a queenless colony. It is not my experience that queenless bees are always aggressive. If they would be aggressive when queenright I would expect them to be so when queenless, but not if they were normally docile.
Between about 8-24 hours after the removal of the queen, the bees start to construct emergency cells on existing worker larvae. In my experience the timing varies quite a lot. Emergency cells can be built anywhere on the comb, with the edges of the comb or holes/gaps being particular favourites, presumably because it is easier to build them there. If the bees choose a larvae on the face of a comb, they remove some of the larvae under and around the selected larvae (or perhaps they choose one without larvae underneath). They chew the comb away and extend the cell firstly outwards, then downwards.
Bees much prefer to build emergency cells on new comb than old, presumably because it is easier to chew away the existing cocoons to make room for more royal jelly under the larvae. It is my theory this is the case, so they are presumably better fed. This is particularly noticeable if one comb has recently been inserted in the colony, as it is this newer comb that is likely to have more emergency cells on than the older combs. They are presumably able to chew the cells under the chosen larvae quicker, so the initial building out horizontally is less, with the resulting cell being closer to the midrib of the comb. This usually results in better cells and better queens being produced on newer comb than tough older ones.
Emergency cells are frowned upon by many beekeepers as a means of producing queens, because they think bees use larvae that are too old, so the resulting queen doesn’t receive as much royal jelly as she should and is undernourished. There are times when this is possible and I will explain later why I think this might be the case.
For the first two days as a larvae both queens and workers receive the same feeding, so any larvae that are younger than 5 days from the egg will be O.K. It is my experience and observation that bees start building emergency cells over a period of around 3-4 days, not all at one time as is thought by many. If you check on a daily basis you will see that the first cells to be built will have small larvae and 3-4 days later these will be sealed, or close to it. There will be others that have just been started that will also have tiny larvae. I think it is this staggering that makes some people think they are started at different ages. I think the bees know what they are doing and my experience is the first wave of emergency cells are built on larvae of the right age.
If there is no interference by the beekeeper I find the bees will build emergency cells up to about the Peak Queencell Number (PQN) of the colony. If any are removed the bees will build more, providing there are larvae young enough, back up to the PQN, or thereabouts. It is my observation this second batch are usually built together, often on larvae that are older, and these I term “panic” cells, because that’s what I think they are. I believe it is these that have helped to give emergency cells a bad reputation.
I have seen the account of a study where it is suggested that the “strongest” patriline in a hive will make sure that emergency cells are built on larvae of that patriline, presumably the theory being they are propagating their own genes. This sounds sensible, but in a colony where the workers are very mixed colours I have observed emerging queens also of mixed colours, so I’m not convinced on that one.
So, to get good queens from emergency cells, get the bees to build them on new comb, preferably on an edge. Don’t remove any cells for at least 7 days, but if you do, only use those from the first wave. That’s why the Miller method works so well. Of course, the colony needs to be strong in bees and well fed too.