Queen Bee Life Cycle

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From the very beginning of the life cycle of a queen bee the colony is investing a lot of hopes in her success. As the most important bee in the colony, you might think a queen lives a charmed life. Her existence has been romanticized-as a life of ease with only 1 job to do and thousands of workers to take care of her. But, from egg to adult bee and beyond – the queen bee represents the future of the colony.

Large dark adult queen bee in hive with workers image.

As she progresses through the same development stages that every bee goes through – colony survival is on the line. Egg laying will make her the mother of the colony. But, facts are – the queen does even more during her time in the hive.

Understanding the Queen Bee Life Cycle

As with any living thing, bees have a life cycle that consists of different stages. Every member of the colony begins as an egg -smaller than a grain of rice. This is true also for the most important member of the hive – the queen.

Is She Really in Charge?

It would be a great story if the life span of a queen honey bee covered many peaceful years of the good life. Alas, that is not usually the case.

As if to keep this “royal bee” humble, her rule and very existence depends on the work of many individual bees. She does not feed or even clean herself but depends on care from others.

Mated queen honey bee on comb in hive image.

Duties of the Queen Honey Bee

Unlike workers, the duties of the queen do not change as she ages. She is the only member of the colony that lays fertilized eggs.

Fertilized eggs develop into worker bees and the colony needs thousands. This sexually mature reproductive female is the mother of all the members of the hive.

In addition, her special pheromones tie the colony together as a social unit. If she is missing, the colony becomes aware very quickly.

What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?

Learning how to recognize the queen in a hive of thousands takes some practice. Over time, beekeepers become better at being able to find their queen. Knowing how to mark a queen is a useful skill too.

Her thorax (mid-section is a little larger). She is longer with a large abdomen. This large abdomen holds a lot of eggs and stored semen (after mating).

Marked queen in the brood nest of the hive surrounded by workers image.

Why Colonies Create New Queens

From time to time, the colony will need a new queen. There are several reasons to replace the current monarch.

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  • the old one has died
  • a current one is failing

Perhaps the old queen has died or she may be reaching the end of her reproductive life. As she grows older, egg laying slows. There are only a limited number of eggs stored in the abdomen. When they are gone-that’s it.

She may also run out of stored semen. When she becomes unable to lay fertilized eggs, she becomes a drone-layer. The colony will kill a failing queen.

However, fresh fertilized eggs or very young bee larva are needed to make a queen. If the colony waits too long, they may not have the materials needed to replace her.

Queen honey bee life cycle chart image.

Life Stages of Honey Bees

Honey bees have the same development stages as other insects and pass thru 4 stages. Egg, larva, pupa and adult are the same life stages for all honey bees in the colony. This process is called complete metamorphosis.

  1. egg
  2. larva
  3. pupa
  4. adult

Worker bees become adults in 21 days on average. Drones (male honey bee) require 24 days to mature.

However, a queen bee can be produced in only 16 days! She has the shortest development time of any bee in the colony.

How Bees Make a Queen

The colony can produce a queen bee from any fertilized egg or very young female larva. Queen rearing takes place under 2 situations.

  • routine queen replacement
  • emergency queen rearing

In a planned replacement, the current queen is encouraged to lay eggs in special cells. Perhaps the colony senses that she is failing.

Or, they may simply want to create a new queen for swarming purposes. Either way, she is still available and able to lay eggs for a bit.

If the colony is in an emergency situation, the queen may be dead or missing from the hive. If still present, she is not able to lay fertilized eggs or lacking in some fashion.

In this case, workers select suitable female larvae already in the comb. Then, the special cells are enlarged around them.

The process of making a queen bee begins early in the development process. In the beginning, any very young female larva (from a fertilized egg) has a chance to develop into a reproductive female. 

But, the window of opportunity closes quickly. Larva older than 2 days do not make the best queens. This is why timing is important to the colony.

Routine Queen Replacement:

It is common for a colony to keep a few special cells in place. These acorn shaped cups are no cause for alarm. It is normal for some colonies to keep some cups on hand year round. Seeing a cup in your hive – or several is no reason to panic.

A queen cup or queen cell with a honey bee larva inside image.

However, once a egg is laid in a cup – it is now called a queen cell. The queen bee life cycle has begun.

After 3 days, the egg hatches (it doesn’t really hatch like a chicken egg – the shell itself dissolves). It is now called a larva.

Larval Stage of Development

The larval stage of queen development is where the magic starts to happen. Nurse bees feed the larva a special solution produced from glands in their mouths.

Larva destined to become royalty (a queen), are fed an abundance of special food including royal jelly.

The type and quantity of this larval diet is different than regular brood food. The special diet is what makes the larva develop into a queen rather than a worker bee!

These special larvae grow much larger than regular worker bees. They will not fit into regular honeycomb cells.

Worker bees build a large peanut shaped cell for the growing larva. This is the easily recognizable cell that we watch for and it is normal to have more than one at a time.

Queen cells containing developing queens on a frame of honeycomb image.

Pupa Stage

Around day 7 ½ (from egg laying) the larva is finished feeding and ready to transform to the next stage. Worker bees cap the cells with wax. On day 8, the larva becomes a pupa.

Inside this capped queen cell, the final transformation takes place. The larva spins a cocoon and changes from larva to pupa.

Adult Stage

Around day 16 a new queen will emerge from her cell. She is fully formed though her abdomen is smaller than it will be after mating.

What is the first thing this she does? She searches out any possible rivals in the hive. When she finds them, she will chew into the cell and kill the virgin queen inside. Being royal is messy business.

Two queen cells on comb a queen bee has emerged from one cell image.

Queen Bee Mating

After emerging from her cell, the new virgin queen will mature for a few days. Then, she will leave the hive to mate in the air with drones. 

Accompanied by a few workers she may fly a mile or more away from the hive. This helps ensure that she does not mate with drones closely related to her. 🙂

She takes several mating flights over the next few days. Once the special organ that stores semen inside her abdomen (Spermatheca) is full, her mating days are over. 

After that time, she will never leave the colony again. (Unless the colony swarms). Her life cycle completes with her hard at work in the colony.

Emergency Queen Rearing

A colony does not always use a special cup. In an emergency situation, they will choose a fresh egg or young larva in a regular cell.

Perhaps the queen died quickly – or a beekeeper squished her? They must use a fresh larva that is already in place on the comb.

This is called emergency queen rearing and worker bees choose only the very youngest larva.  Older larva may not develop into a quality queen bee because the nutrition of the first few days is so important.

The size of a queen bee is affected by feeding during development. Those reared in emergency conditions are not always the best quality.

How Long Does the Queen Bee Live?

Though she has the capacity to live for 5-6 years or more, that rarely happens. She will likely fail before then.

In my colonies, I rarely have a queen bee that lasts in the hive more than 2 years. It is often a much shorter reign. Some colonies replace poor performing queens after only a few months. 

This is one of the challenges of beekeeping, to ensure that you have good queens in your hives. The quality of bees seems to be dropping in recent years with queen bee life spans growing shorter.

Final Thoughts

Our bee colonies have a remarkable ability to create a new reproductive female when needed. Given the right materials, a viable population and a little time, they can create a new queen when the life span of the current one comes to an end.

As beekeepers, it is our job to ensure that the colonies have a chance to continue.

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  1. Sarah Creighton says:

    I find this fascinating. I am reading a lot on raising honey bees. My son in law and I are looking into property we can build our garden and put in the hives

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Thats a great idea Sarah. They are so cool !

  3. As a pretty new beekeeper, I find it very difficult to identify my queens. (I have two hives.) They are not marked, but I know they are there because I can find freshly laid eggs. I did once spot the queen from one hive in a picture I took of a frame. There are just SO many bees and they move around on the frames so quickly….I worry about keeping the frames out of the hive too long so when I spot new eggs, I figure the queen is still around….

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yes, Linda. Most of the time you do not need to find the queen. Fresh eggs laid in a good pattern is good enough. Over time, you will get better and better at queen spotting. You may need to find her one day to replace her with a new queen etc. It gets easier with practice.

  5. The queen emerges on day sixteen. My question is when should I inspect the hive to look for eggs? I do not want to open the hive too early.

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    She usually spends a few days maturing, a couple of days mating (weather permitting) and may not lay for a day or 2. I look for larva 2 weeks after queen emerges. Maybe day 11 or 12.

  7. Thank you so much for all your great articles including this one. I’m in the middle of supersedure on both my hives right now. Bad time of the year to lose queens but glad there were eggs left to produce some queens. There are 3 capped queen cells in one of the hives. Do you suggest letting nature take its course or removing 2?

  8. Conrad Riffle says:

    hi there in the south. Just wondering how warm it has to be to start making new queens?

  9. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    For me queen rearing is more about length of day (or time of year) than daytime temps. But they do coincide somewhat. Once the bees begin to raise drones, I would start queen cells when the drones are at the purple eye stage. The bees decide when drones are needed.

  10. Lisa A Welch says:

    We recently caught 2 swarms, after about a week we looked and could not find a queen or eggs, we had another hive that had about 10 capped queen cells so we transferred these queen sell and capped brood to the swarm box, no all the queen cells are gone. Is this a sign the queen has emerged and that the remaining queen cells were cleaned up?

  11. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Possibly, I would give them another week and look again.

  12. Christine says:

    Does the new mated queen come back to the old hive?
    Does the old queen leave the hive with some of the bees?
    What is an after swarm?

  13. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yes, usually the old mated queen leaves with a swarm of bees. The new virgin queen will mate and return to the old hive. If a colony is very crowded, it might have more than 1 swarm at a time. In this case, the old queen leaves with the first swarm and in the next day or so another swarm leaves with the first virgin to hatch. Queen cells are left behind to become the new queen in the old hive.

  14. Scarlett M. says:

    I have a hive that produced some queen cells. The current queen was still in the hive (about 2-3 years old) but the hive seemed to have only a small amount of brood. I figured the hive was unhappy with the queen, thus prompting the queen cells. After 21 days, I went to recheck. All of the queen cells were gone, but I found the OLD queen, AND the frames were completely full of good looking brood. Is this normal? Is it possible that the old queen decided to pick up the pace somehow and start laying again??

  15. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    If it’s a small number of cells, the bees may recognize that she is failing and they are attempting to replace her. Sometimes, its best to trust them and let them – they know something we don’t.

  16. Does a mated queen come back as large as you see her in the hive or does her thorax become larger once she returns to the hive after mating. Thank you.

  17. Does a mated queen come back as large as you see her in the hive or does her thorax become larger once she returns to the hive after mating. Thank you.

  18. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Her thorax which is the middle section does not become larger. Her abdomen will enlarge once she begins to lay eggs but is not visibly bigger just after mating.

  19. Mirko Oplanic says:

    What is queens reproductive activity through the whole year but winter time especially.

  20. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Most queens take a break of laying in late Fall – very early Winter – at least for a few weeks. But, depending on the weather and genetics of the hive – I have had queens that laid a decent pattern all Winter long. Those are the ones I worry about because I am afraid they will eat all their food reserves.

  21. Patricia Woolf says:

    Thank you so much for your informative articles ! I have learned so much already. Yesterday we did an inspection and did not spot our queen, however we did have lots of uncapped brood with larvae in all stages. So I feel sure she’s still there. However, we also found a capped queen cell. Should I bee concerned they are planning to swarm (we found uncapped swarm cells too) or just getting prepared to replace the current queen ? Or do I need to be prepared to do a split ? All frames look great – full of capped brood, pollen, nectar and honey. And they have plenty of room to grown in the second deep we added, but they’ve decided to use that for honey instead. Just not sure what our next move should be. Thanks !

  22. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Good job. They are likely preparing to swarm. When you see a capped cell it is good to make sure a queen is still there before taking action. Sometimes a colony will have already swarmed but still look crowded.