As March has begun and beekeepers start to spring into action, we take a look at recognizing supersedure and double queen colonies.
In many species of social insect, including most ants, a colony in unable to replace the queen if she dies or starts to fail. However, in some species, including the honey bee, a colony can replace the queen. The queen in a honey bee colony is replaced under two sets of circumstances: 1) Emergency queen rearing. Here the queen is absent or dead. 2) Supesedure. Here the queen is still alive but is getting old or in some way is no longer up to the task of laying large numbers of eggs. Supersedure is a good thing for the queen, the worker bees, and the beekeeper as it ensures that the colony keeps going.
Supersedure is easy to recognize. In swarming, many queen cells are made most of which are at the bottom of combs. Swarming normally occurs in spring and in populous colonies. In supersedure, only a few queen cells, often just one, are reared and the cell is often in the middle of a comb. Supersedure can occur in spring and summer.
In both swarming and supersedure the queen cell is built from a queen cup into which the queen has laid an egg. In emergency queen rearing, a young larva in a worker cell is fed royal jelly and the cell is modified into a queen cell. If you carefully take apart and examine an emergency queen cell, at its base (which is actually the upper part) you will see that it started as a worker cell. In emergency queen rearing it is normal for a number of queen cells to be made. As there is no laying queen this also means that 3-4 days after losing the queen, the colony will have no eggs. Certainly, by the time any emergency queen cells are sealed, which will take 4-5 days, there will be no eggs. But when a queen is being superseded there are always eggs in cells as the mother queen is still alive.
Supersedure is normal and natural and it is generally a good idea to let it to proceed, as it means that the old queen is running out of steam and needs replacing anyway. So it is best not to remove any supersedure cells you see in your hives unless there is a reason why you want to keep the old queen. For example, if she is a breeder queen.
Another thing that can be done is to use supersedure as a chance to make increase. You can remove the existing queen and place her in a nucleus hive with worker bees and brood, or you can do the same with any ripe supersedure queen cells. If you remove the supersedure queen cell, or cells, the colony will usually make more within a few weeks, continuing the supply. Supersedure cells are well looked after by the bees, which would mean that the resulting queen would not be undersized. In addition, if you use supersedure queen cells you are not inadvertently selecting for swarming, as might be the case if you use queen cells produced during swarming. In fact, you would be selecting for a useful trait. (Note: It is not a good idea to rear queens from colonies that have undesirable characteristics, such as being highly defensive.)
Supersedure can often result in two-queen colonies, with the mother and daughter queens together heading the colony. Colin Butler in his book The World of the Honeybee (1954, p. 60) writes “Often a supersedure queen will live quite happily for some months with her mother whom she is destined to replace, the two queens together providing the eggs necessary for the maintenance of their colony.” LASI beekeeping technician Mr. Luciano Scandian tells me he saw a colony with 2 queens in October, and in March the following year it also had 2 queens, presumably the same 2.
I have seen 2 queens on a number of occasions, and have also placed them together without causing them to fight. Beekeepers will not usually be aware that a colony has two queens unless they very carefully inspect their hives. When you see one queen, you normally stop looking.
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© F. Ratnieks, February 2016