As the most important bee in the colony, you might think the queens live 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. However, the life cycle of a queen bee may not be a easy as you think. This role in the colony involves some hefty responsibilities.
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.
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Like every other member of the hive she is reared in a honeycomb cell and cared for until she is ready to begin her role.
Is the 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.
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).
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.
- 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.
However, fresh fertilized eggs or very young larva are needed to make a queen. If the colony waits too long, they may not have the materials needed to replace her.
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.
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.
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. In this case, workers select suitable 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.
Routine Queen Replacement:
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 wax cell.
However, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Normal Life Span of Queen Honey Bee
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 one 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 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.
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.