Understanding the Queen Bee Life Cycle
The life cycle of a queen bee may not be a romantic as you think. Her existence has been romanticized as a life of luxury. She is large and in charge of thousands of worker bees. However, all may not be as good as it sounds for this special bee. The queens job involves some hefty responsibilities. The real story is in the details – what is the life of a queen bee like?
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.
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 Queen Bee Really in Charge?
The queen bee is a “celebrity insect”. Everyone knows that a bee colony has only 1 in resident at a time.
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. She depends on her colony members.
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 one that can lay fertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs develop into workers and the colony needs thousands.
A colony of honey bees normally has only 1 queen – though a mother/daughter pair may co-exists for a time.
This sexually mature reproductive female is the mother of all the members of the hive. Her special queen pheromones tie the colony together as a social unit. If she is missing, the colony become aware very quickly.
When the Colony Needs a New Queen Bee
From time to time, the colony will need a new queen. There are several reasons to replace the current monarch.
Perhaps the old queen has died or she may be reaching the end of her reproductive life. She does not live forever.
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-laying queen.
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 produce a new queen.
Beekeepers must understand honey bee reproduction and know what to do if your colony doesn’t have a queen? Is this something the bees can fix on their own, or should you intervene?
Life Stages of a Queen Honey Bee
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. However, not just any egg can become a queen.
How Bees Make a Queen Bee
The process of making a queen bee begins early in the development process. In the beginning, any female larva (from a fertilized egg) 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.
Eggs – Stage 1
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. These acorn shaped queen cups are no cause for alarm. It is normal for some colonies to keep some cups on hand.
However, once a egg is laid in a cup – it is now called a queen cell. The colony has become serious – the queen bee life cycle has begun.
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.
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.
Queen Larva – Stage 2
The larval stage of queen bee development is where the magic starts to happen.
Any very young larvae from a fertilized egg have the capacity to become a reproductive queen.
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!
The only thing larva do – is eat and grow. Nurse worker bees inside the hive feed larva a white milky food. (Psst: that’s why we call larva – milk brood.)
If you find a queen cell, it will be stocked with large quantities of brood food.
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 cell that we watch for. It is normal to have more than one queen cell at a time.
Pupa – Stage 3
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. Inside this capped queen cell, the final transformation takes place. Around day 16 a new queen will emerge.
Adults – Stage 4 – A New Queen
What is the first thing this new queen does? She searches out any possible rivals in other queen cells.
When she finds them, she will chew into the cell and kill the virgin queen inside. Being royal is messy business.
This is a real Game of Thrones happening inside the beehive. The rivalry is about genetics, only 1 bee can become the mother of the hive.
Emergency Queen Rearing
Sometimes, the colony is in crisis. 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 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. Queen bees reared in emergency conditions are not always the best quality.
They may not lay as well or last as long as a queen bee that is raised during better hive conditions.
Queen Bee Mating Cycle
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 her sons.
She can take 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. She lays eggs during the warm months. Thousands of eggs that will develop into worker bees and drones for the colony.
Workers attend to her every need. They feed her, groom her and remove her wastes.
What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?
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 she 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).
This long abdomen is able to reach way down in a honeycomb cell to place an egg.
Drones are often mistaken as queens because the are larger and wider than worker bees. However they lack the long abdomen.
Shorter Queen Bee Life Spans Are Common
Though a queen bee might be able to live 5 or 6 years, 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 facing beekeepers who are trying to keep good queens in their hives. The quality of queens is dropping and the queen bee life spans are growing shorter.