Bees Backfilling and Created Swarm Cells

My hive started as a 5-frame nuc just 2 weeks ago. I didn’t see the queen when I transferred the bees into the 10-frame deep. I still didn’t see her at the 1-week inspection, nor could I or a beekeeper that came by to lend a second set of eyes, find her at the 2-week inspection. I’d like some input on what I’m seeing in the new hive/colony and what I should do about it.

I added 5 foundationless frames to the 5-frame nuc. The bees have only drawn out one frame, a bit more than half way (straight and beautifully drawn).

I’m not seeing new eggs or larva (frames are thick with bees), but there could possibly be some in the empty brood cells where bees have hatched and I’m not seeing them, because of all the bees on the frames.

A lot of the empty cell areas are being filled with nectar, so that might be limiting the queen’s space to lay. That is, if there’s still a queen in there. One beekeeper said if there was a queen the bees wouldn’t be backfilling cells with nectar. I don’t know about that, as I’ve read that they will do that and stop laying for awhile until there is space available. I’m new, so I have no personal experience to draw on, just what I’ve read about.

Yesterday I found two uncapped swarm cells, with white matter in them, on one of the brood frames. I’m concerned that they are wanting to swarm possibly due to the bees backfilling open cells with nectar.

I’m concerned if I actually have a queen and whether I do or not, what should my next steps be? Any help would be appreciated. @Dawn_SD I know you always have something awesome to say :slight_smile:

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If you found uncapped queen cells, you had a queen in there 3 to 8 days ago. The bees need a larva which hatched 0-3 days before they decided to make her into a queen. Bees are eggs for 3 days before hatching to become a larva. You might want to study the life cycle of bees to see what I mean:

The cells you describe may be supercedure cells rather than queen cells. Here is another article to help you tell what you have:

It is quite difficult for me to know what you are seeing without photos. I know that photos are hard when you are beginning, and particularly so when you are solo, but if you can take any, that will help us to help you. Another suggestion is that with the nucleus frames, you can shake the bees off into the brood box (don’t do this if you know the queen is on the frame, because you might lose or injure her). That makes it much easier to see whether you have eggs, uncapped larvae or more queen cells underneath. @JeffH has a very nice video on YouTube, I believe, on how to shake bees off a frame.

The other thing that you can do is balance the lower corner of a frame on the top bar of a frame in the brood box, and very gently smoke the frame from top to bottom. The bees will usually run down into the hive, giving you a clearer view of what was underneath them.

Sorry this doesn’t fully answer your question, but I think that we need more information. :blush:


Hi Dawn, I should have specified that the queen cells are on the very bottom of the frame where one would typically see swarm cells. I have the excellent Flow beekeeping course (one of many), so I’m fairly familiar with the lifecycle of bees, but I do need to study that topic further for sure. I just read the pdf you attached and it’s got a lot of valuable info.

I was more wondering if she maybe recently disappeared because I wasn’t seeing any fresh eggs, but according to that booklet, and looking at the contents of the cells, they are probably only about 4 days old. I’ll take another look and see if they’ve created more queen cells. That should tell us more about which type they actually are. I’m thinking, more than likely, the queen is just a master at hiding from us pesky humans. One of the issues I’m facing is that my hive is too small to do a split to try to prevent a swarm. I’ve only had the nuc for 2 weeks.

I’ll try to get more information today. I hate to open it up again so soon, but this seems like one of those times it’s the right thing to do. I need to read the comb as best I can.


Hi Carol & thank you @Dawn_SD . This is the only video I can find that matches your description.

Anyway, after reading the dilemma, it appears that the colony could be queenless & those queen cells are possibly emergency queens.

There’s one thing to bare in mind, which is beautifully illustrated in the video “City of Bees”, that is that queens always work hand in glove with the colony, not independently of the colony. If a colony is backfilling brood with honey, with no eggs being laid, with no queen in sight, chances are that there is no queen. Emergency queens will always confirm that for me.

The queen could have died for some reason, so therefore the colony will replace her with emergency queens. Emergency queens are born out of cells from within the brood, not adjacent to the brood, if that makes any sense. In other words, emergency queen cells are worker cells that are reconstructed to form queen cells, which look different to swarm cells that are slightly away from brood.

Hi Jeff - thank you for chiming in! I watched City of Bees about a week ago when I saw that you recommended it. It’s a beautiful story. I’ll go back and re-watch it. I intended to anyway.

The 2 new queen cells I discovered yesterday were at the bottom hanging down from the brood frame. They weren’t up in the middle of the brood. Those 2 cells had white matter, possibly royal jelly in them. I didn’t specifically see larva, but it could’ve been a tiny larva with royal jelly over it. I did see a smaller third cell that was in the brood nest. It didn’t have anything in it. Perhaps a ‘practice’ queen cell?

It was 94F here today, so I didn’t open the hive. Tomorrow will be a little cooler, so I’ll open it and use Dawn’s suggestion to clear the bees away and look for any fresh eggs or larva and see if they’ve added any more queen cells and note where they are located. That might tell us more.


Hi Carol, you’re welcome. The part in that video I’m talking about is the part where they show how the queen lays eggs according to how much food she is fed. It’s the colony that dictates how many eggs the queen is to lay. While doing so, they are preparing cells for her to lay in. The bees wont put food in cells that they have previously allocated for her to lay in.

I often see emergency queens on the bottom row. The bees can only use worker eggs or up to 3 day old larvae to make queens out of. Therefore it must be remembered that they can only use what’s available, depending on where on the frame they are located.

Swarm cells will normally be attached to “play cups”, which are normally situated on the sides or bottoms of frames. However they are usually separate from brood. Whereas emergency queen cells will be developed from within the brood. It’s easy to see how worker cells have been reconstructed to form queen cells…

A bit of useful information I recently acquired is that it takes 200 nurse bees to make one queen. Therefore the stronger a queenless colony is in nurse bees, the more emergency queens it can produce, as long as resources are available.

PS, I noticed that I didn’t shake any bees in that video. If you click on “Mix - Jeff Heriot”, especially on a rainy day, you can watch my videos until you get sick of watching them. A lot of things have changed since we made those videos. For starters: Bees emerge, not “hatch”. I no longer extract 420kgs of honey in one day, being in my 76th year.

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Hi Jeff, you’re such a wealth of information! I always appreciate reading your posts.
The nuc I started with was three full frames of capped brood and two frames of honey. There wasn’t much room left to lay. To that I added five foundationless frames and the bees are busy building out comb in one of the frames. That makes me wonder if the queen is there, but she’s waiting on the bees to draw out that foundationless frame enough to give her a place to lay eggs. Could that be?

From what you described earlier, it sounds like the colony has gone queenless. Queen bees can get accidentally killed or the bees can “ball” & kill them.

I would imagine that there could be places on the honey frames for the queen to lay eggs. Otherwise she could lay eggs after the brood emerges. However that is being replaced with honey, with no eggs, no queen sighted, as well as what I think sounds like emergency queens.

Where I am, I don’t see a colony going queenless to be a problem, on account that they’ll make a new one. Plus the local drones are from placid, good performing hives. The issue that you may have is if your new queen mates with Africanized drones, if that applies. Locals would confirm one way or the other.

Generally when queens lay in new comb while it is being built, she will lay in the cells basically while it is being built. She will lay eggs in comb that is only half depth. The bees will finish building comb around the eggs. A piece of comb might only be 2 or 3 inches long, & it will already contain eggs.

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I think that Solano County is just north of the Africanized area, although it is changing all the time. If you need a queen in a hurry have very nice queens and very helpful staff. They could ship you one, or you could even drive - it looks like a trip of about 120 miles in each direction for you. I have bought many queens from them, and they are always lovely. :wink:


As far as I know, we haven’t had any issues with Africanized bees up this way. Yikes, I surely don’t need that issue added to my current hive problems.

The company that I purchased my bees from is close by. I could buy another one from them if need be. They breed and specialize in “disease resistant, varroa sensitive, hygienic bees”. That’s why I’m hanging on to every hope my Italian-hybrid queen is still alive and well. That nuc was expensive at $250, but I paid that because I wanted to start out with great genetics.

I’m going to open the hive again a little later this morning. I’ll have my hubby take pictures.

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@Dawn_SD @JeffH The hive has that unfriendliness to it again today…like I’ve read when they are queen-less. This morning I’m seeing several (emergency?) queen cells within the brood area and one is already capped. The queen cells I mentioned that were at the bottom of the frame, those are also within brood cells, just not in more towards the middle. The new foundationless frame that’s being drawn out doesn’t have any eggs or larva in it. I think you’re right…queen must be gone. I’ve attached pictures of some of the queen cells. Looks like they are trying to replace the missing queen.
Sorry, I thought my hubby was taking pictures so you could see inside of the queen cells, but I guess I wasn’t clear enough about what I needed. If these pictures don’t tell us what we need I’ll go back in and get pictures of the insides of the cells, however there is one that is capped and there was white matter in the ones on the bottom of the frame when I looked yesterday.

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Oh, I think I see larva in some of those smaller queen cells.
Edit: Ok, so Eva schooled me on those cells…they are uncapped drone cells.

Wow @carol08 what a fantastic job you did with the inspection and photos! I agree with @JeffH, your colony is most likely queenless. There are quite a number of drone cells in there too. Either wait for them to make a queen, or (my preference) buy one from a reputable source and requeen. Ask if you need advice on doing that, but if you are buying a queen, you will need to destroy those capped queen cells very soon = 1-2 days, otherwise the colony may switch to supporting a virgin queen that they have made, and your purchased queen will be killed off as an imposter! Bees are tricky things, as Winnie-the-Pooh would say!


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@Dawn_SD thank you Dawn! Can you tell me where you are seeing the drone cells? Is it uncapped brood, which I might be mistaking for newly started queen cells, or is it larger empty cells?

Hey Carol, these five large open cells with fat larvae are drone cells.

It feels dicey to have your colony go queenless but I think you will do a great job putting it back in order :blush::+1:


Yes! Those are the cells I was asking about. So those are drones and not the beginning of queen cells. Ok. This new nuc/hive experience, though not what I had expected, has been valuable in that I’m learning so much first hand. I’m so grateful to have you forum friends giving me guidance. It makes all the difference in the world! Thank you!

So that means those drone cells are less than 10 days old. That also means I had a laying queen after putting the nuc into my flow hive April 29th. So something went wrong after she was in the hive :frowning: Not a pleasant thought. I kinda mourn not meeting her…


Aw, I know the feeling :confused: - about losing the queen…but also the happier one from being a forum member :+1:


So, here’s my question…since I started the hive on April 29th and I already have a capped (emergency?) queen cell, which means it’s over 8 days old, why did the bees start the process of replacing their queen so soon? If she dies from an un-natural event (like rolling or something like that), doesn’t it take a while for the bees to realize she’s gone…like when her pheromones start wearing off in the hive? I’m just thinking out loud here, but since they started replacing her right away, could that mean they balled her? They obviously knew she was gone right away. Maybe I’m just over thinking it.

It’s a good question. I am certain they know on sight and probably change in smell pretty quickly that another bee is dead, so maybe they saw her.

Hi Carol, I love that you’re thinking things through, also that you were able to recognize queen cells from within brood. That’s a great question you ask. It took me ages & many observations to figure it out.

The answer is simple: First of all, if we remove a split, minus the queen, or if we simply remove the queen, that takes around 3 days for the queen’s pheromones to die off. Then the bees will commence emergency queens. In that case there would need to have been fertile eggs present at the time of removing the queen. After 3 days, any eggs would have hatched & the grubs will be fed royal jelly. They are the only ones that can be turned into queens. As far as I know, it’s too late to turn a grub into a queen once it has been fed on bee bread.

In the case of a queen getting balled or accidentally killed, the bees will discover the queen’s body, before disposing of it. However in doing so, they will communicate to the whole hive that “the queen is dead”. In that case they will commence emergency queens immediately. When that happens, the colony has a larger range of options with which to make a new queen. For example: Any fertile eggs, as well as any worker grubs that have only been fed royal jelly.

The main thing to bare in mind is that grubs after 3 days, or better still, that have been fed on bee bread can’t be turned into a queen.