Life Cycle of the Queen Honey Bee
The life of a queen bee has been romanticized as a life of luxury. She is large and in charge of thousands of worker bees. All may not be as good as it sounds in the Queen Bee Life Cycle. The real story is in the details – let’s get these honey bee facts straight.
As with any living thing, bees have a life cycle that consists of different stages.
Being insects, they have the same development levels as other insects and pass thru all 4 stages.
Understanding the life cycle of the queen honey bee is necessary for successful beekeeping.
Her important role in the colony requires an understanding of queen bee development.
How is a queen bee made? What can I do if my bee colony is without a queen? These are management questions that a new beekeeper must learn to answer.
We know much about bees but some members of the colony, still have secrets. Understanding why bees do the things they do, why the queen bee behaves as she does. etc is all a part of beekeeping.
For the queen bee, a journey that begins with an egg (smaller than a grain of rice) results in producing the most important bee in the colony!
During the queen bee life cycle, female workers contribute time and energy to make the transformation process occur.
This is a whole colony effort and the continuation of the colony depends on its success.
Is the Queen Bee Really in Charge?
The queen bee is a “celebrity insect”. Everyone knows that a bee colony has a queen. But, how does one bee become the queen ? Where does the queen come from?
It would be a great story if the queen bee life span 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.
Duties of the Queen Honey Bee During Her Life
Unlike worker bees, the duties of the queen bee do not changes as she ages. And, she is the only one bee with her important job. A honey bee colony normally has one 1 queen.
This sexually mature reproductive female is responsible for laying all the eggs. This means she is the mother of all the bees in the beehive.
When the Colony Needs a New Queen Bee
From time to time, the honey bee colony will need a new queen. There can be several reasons that a new queen bee is needed.
Perhaps the old queen has died or she may be reaching the end of her reproductive life.
As she grows older egg laying slows. A queen bee only has a limited number of eggs. When they are gone-that’s it.
Bee Life Cycle
Honey bees like other insects go through a process called complete metamorphosis. The journey to adulthood consists of 4 stages.
Life Stages of Honey Bees
The time frame from start (egg) to finish (adult) is different for the various types of honey bees inside the hive.
A drone (male honey bee) requires 24 days to mature, a worker bee requires 21. However, a queen bee can move from egg to adult in only 16 days!
The process of making a queen bee begins early in the development process. In the beginning, any female larva has a chance to become queen.
But the window of opportunity closes quickly. Larva older than 2 days do not make the best queen bees.
This sometimes causes problems in a colony that loses their queen without having eggs or very young larva.
Queen Honey Bee Life Begins
Egg – the first stage of the honey bee life cycle
When a honey bee colony has decided to raise a new queen, the workers will prepare and clean a special cell called a queen cup. It is noticeably bigger than a regular cell.
These acorn shaped queen cups are no cause for alarm. It is normal for some colonies to keep queen cups on hand.
However, once the queen lays an egg in this cup – it becomes a queen cell. The queen bee life cycle has begun.
Sometimes, the colony must be in a hurry. In this case, they will not build a special cup but will use a cell already in place.
Also, they can choose very young larva instead of having the queen lay in special queen cups.
Having a queen is critical. Once a queen has failed or is failing the colony takes whatever measures needed.
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.
Larva – the second stage of the queen bee life cycle
The larval stage of queen bee 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 food fed to larva destined to become queens is different than regular brood food.
Emergency Queen Rearing
Sometimes, worker bees don’t have time to create a special queen cup for egg laying.
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 because the situation is not ideal. To produce a good queen, worker bees choose only the very youngest larva.
Older larva may not develop into good queen bees because the nutrition of the first few days is so important. But the bees have to work with what they have on hand.
The only thing larva do – is eat and grow. Nurse worker bees inside the hive feed all the larva a white milky food.
(Psst: that’s why we call larva – milk brood.) But you will find a queen cell will always be filled in abundance.
Now we have a size problem that comes into play especially if this is an emergency queen production.
Queen larva will develop and grow much larger than regular worker bees. They will not fit into regular honeycomb cells.
Worker bees will build a large peanut shaped cell for the queen larva. This is the easily recognizable queen cell that we watch for.
It is normal to have more than one queen cell at a time.
Pupa – the third stage of the queen bee life cycle
Around day 7 ½ (from egg laying) the queen 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.
The transformation from pupa to adult takes place inside the capped cell. A new queen will emerge on day 16.
ADULT – the fourth stage -a queen emerges
Day 16 – the adult queen emerges from the queen cell. The new queen will search the honeycomb for other queen cells.
When she finds them, she will chew into the cell and kill the queen inside. Being royal is messy business.
This is a real Game of Thrones happening inside the beehive. The rivalry is about genetics, the queen wants to be the mother of the hive.
Recognizing a Queen Bee
How can we know that our hive has a queen? We have to be able to find her. Being able to find the queen bee in a hive is a vital skill for any beekeeper.
What does she look like ? How do I identify the queen? Luckily, the queen bee is larger than the regular worker bees.
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).
The queen bee is able to reach way down in a honeycomb cell to place an egg.
Drones are often mistaken as queen because the are larger and wider than worker bees. However they lack the long abdomen.
Queen Bee Mating Cycle
After emerging from her queen cell, the new virgin queen will mature for a few days. Then she will leave the hive to mate in the air with male bees (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 her sons.
She can take several mating flights over the next few days. Once the special organ 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).
The queen bee life cycle completes with her hard at work in the colony. She lays eggs during the warm months.
Thousands of eggs that will develop into worker bees and drones for the colony.
Her workers attend to her every need. They feed her, groom her and remove her wastes.
She has a simple life at this point and her only duty is to lay eggs. She also emits pheromones that are chemical messengers inside the hive.
The pheromones assure the rest of the colony that a queen is present.
Queen Bees Don’t Live As Long As They Used To
Though a queen bee might be able to live 5 or 6 years, that rarely happens. She will likely fail or become a drone laying queen before then.
Living under normal colony conditions, worker bees replace the queen much more often. It is difficult to give a solid answer to the question of how long bees live.
In my colonies, I rarely have a queen last more than 2 years. It is often a much shorter reign.
Some colonies replace queens after only a few months. This is one of the challenges facing beekeepers.
The more you understand about your queen bees, the better your chances of colony success.