Honey bees have incredible resilience. One such aspect of this is queen supersedure. Queen supersedure is when the single queen in the hive is replaced while she is still living and laying. This could be due to age, lack of pheromone production, or various other situations where the queen is simply not living up to the hives’ expectations. Supersedure is very similar in appearance to swarm preparation but has some clear differences, which we will get to later.
What’s amazing about queen supersedure is that in most cases, the queen will start the supersedure preparations herself. In research efforts to observe this procedure, it is very clear that there is no clear ‘pushing’ to have her lay an egg that will replace her; she willingly lays the egg in one or more queen cups ( which are normally present during the season) in which will produce a future queen for her replacement.
It’s a beautiful expression of self-sacrifice for the better of the colony – quite literally.
The can see near the bottom of this frame an elongated cell. This is called a queen cell; a “queen cup” is an empty queen cell.
This process is how honey bees raise their own queen. They will do this for many reasons, which have already been mentioned. Generally, the location they build the cell will tell whether they have a queen and they want to replace her, a “supersedure”, or in case their queen dies unexpectedly, which is called an emergency cell. Just because you see a queen cup, that does not mean they will replace her or swarm. In most cases, colonies will have one or two queen cups during the flow season just ‘in case’.
When they want to split the hive, they will build many, usually over ten queen cells around the edges of the main brood frames.
With a split, the queen will lay willingly inside these cells in order to create a daughter queen; this is also the case with supersedure. So the only difference in swarm cells and supersedure (usually) is the number of queen cells present, season, and colony congestion.
The queen is feed “Royal Jelly” her whole life. It’s generally regarded that the size of the cup and the food the queen eats all her life is what creates the biological effect of a fertilized egg developing into a queen. The difference is the caste of the queen bee and worker bee is food and cell size.
When a queen replaces herself, as in the case with supersedure, the ending for her is death. The daughter queen normally does not kill the mother (as is the case with her sisters), but in some cases will live alongside her until she dies, or in some cases, is killed.
As with most honey bee biology or aspects of what we see in nature, more study is needed to understand what is happening fully. Unfortunately, we know relatively very little about nature and its incredible secrets, which is what is so amazing about studying its design.
- Queen Rearing Essentials Second Edition: Page 19
- The Beekeepers Handbook 5th Edition: Page 201
- Honey Bee Biology: Pages 117-119