Queen cells usually only appear in your beehive once a year. So sometimes one forgets what one should be looking for.
If the bees are thinking of dividing then at some point you will find a small C shaped larva in one of the Queen cups. My bees seem to enjoy tormenting me and the presence of queen cups is their way of saying "we may be going or we may not be going, it's up to you to find out ".
So you need to be able to recognise when a queen cup is starting to be used. You should be able to recognise a young larva and a greasy white substance in the bottom of a queen cup, which indicates that a queen cell is being started. The larva may only be a very small C shape. If you wear reading glasses, then you definitely need to be wearing them when you look inside this queen cup. It doesn't matter if you slightly (but I do mean slightly) damage the edge of the queen cup in order to get a better look. In fact it would not even matter if you slightly damaged the edge of an open queen cell about to be sealed. Bees will usually repair any damage that you do to the outer edge of a queen cell. So be brave and have a good look.
If the sides of the queen cup have not been drawn down to any extent, then the larva is probably only two days old. If you were to go back in three days’ time, however, the bees would have drawn out that queen cup into a queen cell and it would be sealed. The sides of the cell would be much longer. If the tip of the cell is becoming pointed, then the next day that cell will be sealed The process is an extremely rapid one. If you see a charged Queen cell then you probably need to divide the box today and not tomorrow.
If you artificially divide your box, then the queen cells will be slightly different in that they will be emergency cells. A box that has been artificially divided will have sealed queen cells in two days. I always recommend that you go in three days after you have artificially divided a box and cut out all sealed Queens cells. At this moment you need to mark a chosen open queen cell with a drawing pin on top of the frame. You will then have to go back in another five days’ time and cut out all but your chosen cell. If your chosen cell is no longer there, then you need to choose what looks like a good sealed queen cell. That is to say a peanut shaped medium sized cell, preferably in the middle of a frame where there is no danger of it being crushed when you put the frames back together again. I would never choose a cell that was on its own on a frame. If there are three or four cells on a frame, then the chances are that all cells have been regularly fed by young bees. And that is what you want! Remember a queen cell is visited by young bees possibly 100 times an hour. It is this constant feeding of the larva which changes it from being an ordinary worker into being a queen larva.
A word of warning. Beekeepers do not seem to understand about Queen cells. Before capping they are fairly robust. Two or three days before hatching they are also fairly robust. However in the two days after they have been sealed it is very easy to damage them. The reason for this is that initially once the Queen cell has been sealed the larva continues to feed off the royal jelly at the top of the cell. Then at some point during those two days the larva turns round in the cell and spins its cocoon. The slightest jolt will cause a queen larva to detach from the royal jelly at the top of the cell and that causes it's death. If you follow my recommended timings above, the manipulation when you destroy queen cells should be taking place when your chosen larva has already spun its cocoon and is now a pupa. This means it will be more resistant if you do anything to jolt the frame on which it is situated.
Lesley had this happen to her bees. The day chosen for selecting Queen cells was only two days after they had been capped by the bees. The new frames in that box were shiny and slippy and the frame with her chosen queen cell slipped slightly. Initially I did not think anything of this. However as I always try and calculate when a queen cell is about to hatch we went back and looked on the 16th and then the 17th day (in fact it was more rapid than that because the bees choose a two day old larva so it was only 11 days after we had artificially split them). I was worried because the queen cells looked perfect and there was no discolouring of the tip. The bees of course were interested in them and were clustering over the cell even though the contents were dead.
When a queen cell is about to hatch it turns a darker brown at the tip. This was not happening. So alarm bells started to ring and I decided to cut open the queen cell. There was a dead larva inside.
Annoying and frustrating. What are the choices? We could have combined our old queen, who was in a nucleus box, back into the hive. We knew the bees could not possibly make another queen cell because there were no eggs or larvae young enough to be converted into Queens.
However not much time had passed (we had lost about two weeks) and so this is what we did. With a round pastry cutter we cut out a section of hatching brood from the now queenless box. This we got rid of. We then went into the nucleus box were the old queen was laying and we found a small area of eggs. With the aforementioned pastry cutter we then cut out those eggs. These were then placed into the queenless box in the exact position where we had removed a section of hatching brood. The bees will then make more queen cells and we will have to go back and choose one next weekend.
Beginners please take note. It is so important to have two hives because when a scenario like this occurs you can rectify your error. The earlier you rectify the error the better. If this box of bees were to be left queenless for six weeks or more without brood, then they would refuse to make Queen cells. Always check if a queen cell has hatched, and to do that you need to carefully calculate when a queen is about to emerge.
People lament and tell me that the bees have torn down the Queen cell that they ( the beekeeper) left them. I think it is highly probable that the Queen cell in question was dead and the bees realised and so just removed it. This does not happen for a while. Hence the importance of checking on the 16th and 17th day. Hope the above helps and doesn't cause more confusion.
Malcolm Wilkie 8th June 2017