The Perils of Late Supersedure

For those that do not know, which probably means all non-beekeepers, supersedure is what happens in a beehive when the bees make a new queen to ultimately replace the existing queen. The other way of doing this is by swarming. In supersedure, the bees do not swarm, theoretically, so the beekeeper does not lose large numbers of bees. In effect, it saves the beekeeper a job, because the bees decide that it’s time for a change and they just get on with it; no beekeeper input required.

As ever in beekeeping, not everybody agrees. Some people think that supersedure is a beautiful thing – the bees know best, but others are less keen on letting the bees have such freedom, particularly if it is spotted late in the season when the weather may not be favourable for mating and the number of drones has fallen considerably.

It is generally accepted that if the bees are replacing their queen, they must have good reason to do so. If the queen is old, such as one going into her third season, then she could be running out of sperm stored in her spermatheca, which would ultimately lead to the death of the colony (unfertilised eggs become drones, so there could be no workers nor a replacement queen). It may also be the case that the worker bees decide that things are not going as well as they should be and it’s her Majesty’s fault, so it’s time for a change. Many beekeepers have reported that supersedures are more common in recent years, post the arrival of varroa mites, than back in the old days. Perhaps there are factors involved to do with parasites, disease, or things in the environment such as pesticides or changing flora, or changing climate…who knows?

R.O.B Manley
R.O.B Manley – my favourite bee author from the past

R.O.B Manley, whose books I love, wrote about supersedure in “Honey Farming”:

“A really successful supersedure should take place at or soon after the close of the honey flow, and what happens is this: while the old queen (she need not necessarily be very old, or even worn out, for I have known quite young queens to be superseded) is still laying well, and she is showing no signs of decrepitude, a queen cell, or more often two or three queen cells, are built and from one of these a virgin emerges, mates, and commences to lay eggs while the old queen is still present. That is supersedure par excellence. The young queens so bred are generally good, and the requeening is done without any bother at all.”

However:

“But supersedure does not always come off quite so nicely as that. Bees often postpone it until their queen is laying practically all drone-producing eggs, or until the season has advanced so far that the young queen fails to mate. They very frequently omit it altogether, and then, if the old queen dies during the Winter when no brood is in the hive, we have a “dud” stock in the Spring. Good queens can only be reared in favourable circumstances…and unless supersedure should take place when the conditions are favourable, poor queens will be the inevitable result.”

When you look at commercial beekeepers, who often raise many queens in the Summer, for sale to other beekeepers, and to requeen their hives, they have a relatively small time window in which to get the queen rearing done. Too early or late and mature drones will not be about, plus lower temperatures, overcast days and high winds can mean virgin queens don’t take their mating flights. Queen rearing is best done when the weather is mild, and pollen is abundant in the hive and a good honey flow on. That is often also the time when bees will swarm, which is how bees naturally reproduce.

One of the best articles I have seen on the controversy in beekeeping circles surrounding supersedure is by Mary Montaut of the County Dublin Beekeepers Association, which appeared in October 2017. It’s well worth a read.

Most of the commercial beekeepers I have spoken to will replace queens that are old or underperforming with a newly mated queen that they have carefully bred under ideal conditions according to rigorous selection criteria. If during inspections they find that the old queen has been superseded they will judge the new queen on her merits, and she’ll often be left to get on with her job.

What is the beekeeper to do if they find supersedure cells in their hive late in the season, such as now? On the one hand, the bees must have a reason for wanting to upgrade their queen, and often there are days of mild weather in September, and presumably, some drones are still about. Based on that, the answer could well be to let them get on with it and hope for Manley’s supersedure par excellence. Alternatively, in my area at least, most of the drones have been kicked out of the hives by the workers as they prepare for Winter, and I’d hardly call the conditions “ideal.” The queen needs to be getting on with laying eggs which will become the bees which get the colony through the Winter. If the old queen disappears as a result of a less than perfect supersedure, there is going to be a period when no eggs are laid at this critical time, and if the virgin gets lost on her mating flight or poorly mated the colony is doomed anyway. It’s a tough one.

Perhaps the safest solution is to remove the cells and the current queen and replace her with a young laying queen. No doubt plenty of beekeepers will disagree; that’s how it always is, we like our arguments!

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