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A Swarm, Supersedure, or Emergency Queen Cell?

Most beekeeping books explain that swarm cells (queens being raised in preparation for half the bees and the old queen to swarm away) and supersedure cells (queens being raised to replace a failing queen) are easy to spot. Swarm cells are typically located along the bottoms and sides of frames, and supersedure cells are located in the middle of frames. While that is often true, I’ve seen the contrary plenty of times.

About this photo: In this short article, I describe the different types of cells bees will build for the reasons described. All of them refer to where the cell is built on the frame "in comb." This photo submitted by Hickory Hill Bees of Waverly, Virginia, clearly shows the bees making their own rules! The only thing we can be certain of on this frame is that these are indeed queen cells. As to whether or not they are swarm, supersedure, or emergency cells, who knows! This proves, once again, that bees continue to keep us on our toes.

Swarm Cells

Swarm cells are typically located along the bottoms and sides of frames. Here are a few additional ways to tell the difference:

  • Often located along the bottom and sides of a frame on the outer row of cells with larvae.
  • Found in overcrowded hives, where every box is more than 80% full of bees.
  • 90% of the time found in spring or very early summer.
  • Hive appears generally healthy, is full of bees and brood, and has a good brood pattern.
  • Often 5–20 queen cells present.




Supersedure Cells

  • Often located in the middle of frames (center of the brood nest). 
  • Typically found in weakening or dwindling hives that aren’t full of bees.
  • Found at all times of the year.
  • Hive often appears weak, with a poor brood pattern (see How to Tell When a Hive Needs to Be Requeened to see what these hives often look like).
  • Often only a few queen cells.
  • Well formed and larger than an emergency queen cell.

Emergency Queen Cells

When a queen is killed or hurt, the colony must react by rearing a new queen as quickly as they can. These cells are different from supersedure or swarm cells in that the workers select a larva already existing in a regular worker cell to raise as a queen. This new cell must be modified and the feeding schedule altered so as to reengineer a worker that is fed bee bread into a queen that is fed only royal jelly. The cell is extended to accommodate her soon-to-be large size. They are usually located wherever eggs and larvae are present. These queen cells tend not to be well formed and are smaller than swarm or supersedure cells due to the fact that the bees are in a hurry to grab the youngest larva they can find, which is often two or three days old.

In a nutshell, swarm cells are found in healthy, overcrowded hives preparing to swarm. Supersedure cells are usually in weakening hives that need a new queen, so the bees are preparing to requeen themselves. Emergency cells are formed when the queen has been severely injured or killed, forcing the bees to generate a new queen to save the colony.

For more information, see My Hive Has Queen Cells & a Laying Queen. Now What? or A Hive Preparing to Swarm.

Both of these images are good examples of emergency queen cells. Notice how many there are, and in a lot of cases they are a bit smaller because the bees are in a mad rush to find the youngest larva possible to create a new queen.


This is swarm season! Now is the time to utilize those management skills you've learned to prevent swarms from even getting started. Watch as James and Chari go into great detail on indicators and what you should do to prevent and stop swarming from your colonies.

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