Peak Queen cell number (PQN)

When a colony swarms it will build a number of queen cells over a period of perhaps 6-7 days. Different colonies will build different numbers, varying normally from around 6-30, although it can be very many more. I once heard of a beekeeper cut 119 queen cells out of a colony that had swarmed. Within a reasonable amount this number will stay the same i.e. if they build 8-10 they will build a similar number next time and the same if it is 25-30. This is a number the colony seems to be comfortable building and is taken at the point of swarming, not several days earlier when not all the queen cells are built. This is known as the Peak Queencell Number or PQN.

In my experience the above is usually the case and I don’t understand why it is not more widely known. It does have significance in other areas of beekeeping as indicated below.

Swarminess of a colony

I believe the swarminess of a colony is in direct relation to the PQN. The more queen cells a colony will build the more swarmy it is, the less they build the less swarmy it is. I use this knowledge when I’m selecting queen cells or worker larvae when raising queens. I am happy to use queen cells from a colony with a PQN of 10-12, over that and I will only use them if I have nothing else available.

Emergency cells.

When a queen is removed from a colony the bees will build emergency cells, starting them over a period of several days. The total number built is usually similar to the PQN of a colony. If more than a few queen cells are cut out the colony will usually build more emergency cells, back up to the PQN, if there are worker larvae young enough.

Raising queens

When raising queen cells artificially e.g.grafting or cell punch, the colony is usually reluctant to raise any more queens than their PQN, but this is not always understood by many queen raisers, especially amateurs. I have no problem with this, but if you are trying to reduce swarming, you won’t be able to raise the large numbers of queen cells that you often read about, or see pictures of in books. Numbers of around 60 are often shown, but these are probably in other countries and I suspect the colonies used for cell building are very swarmy.

2 thoughts on “Peak Queen cell number (PQN)

  1. Eric when a hive is building emergency cells where on the frame are they located ? Is there a way to tell them apart from swarm or supersedure cells?


    • Hey Joe,
      In order to tell what type of cells you have you not only need to know the number of cells you have you also need to look at the condition of the hive they are in. If for example you have an extremely populous colony, containing eggs, larva and sealed brood, the bees are not “roaring “ and aggressive when opening the hive up and you have found 8 cells. You most likely have swarm cells in the hive. If let’s say you found 3 cells, hive numbers are falling, you have some capped brood, a little larva and can see a few eggs, the laying pattern is thin. You most likely have Supersedure cells. Supersedure and swarm cells are started on cell cups and are built as queen cells from the start. They will probably look similar and the only way of telling what they are is by the numbers – 1-3 will probably be supersedure, any more will be swarm. Emergency cells are built on existing worker larvae and are constructed differently, but there will usually be a break in egg laying, so making it easy to spot. I guess what I am saying is you need to take all the info from the hive, what is the hive like on an average day when all is right. Then take the info you have when you notice the cells. Read all the information you are getting and then look at the cells, count them are see what makes the most sense. I hope that answers your question.


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