Understanding the Queen Bee Life Cycle
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. However, all may not be as good as it sounds for this special bee. The Queen Bee Life Cycle involves some hefty responsibility. 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 all bees in the hive is necessary for successful beekeeping.
We need to know how a queen bee is made and what to do if your colony doesnt have one? These are management questions that a new beekeeper must understand.
We know much about bees but there is still a lot to learn about these amazing insects. Understanding why they behave in certain ways is all a part of being a good beekeeper.
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.
It takes the efforts of many female workers to produce a new queen bee. 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 only 1 in resident at a time. Where does she come from and how does this 1 special bee become the queen?
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. This sexually mature reproductive female is the mother of all the members of the hive.
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.
If the beekeeper does not replace her, the colony will try to do so. 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.
Honey 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, and a worker bee requires 21 days.
However, a queen bee can be produced in only 16 days!
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.
This sometimes causes problems in a colony that loses their queen without having eggs or very young larva.
How Bees Make a Queen Bee
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 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. Sometimes they use a cell already in place. Or, they choose a fresh egg or young larva in a regular cell.
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 – Stage 2
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 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!
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 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.
The transformation from pupa to adult takes place inside the capped cell. A new queen will emerge on day 16.
Adults – Stage 4 – A New Queen Bee Emerges
Day 16 – the adult queen bee emerges from her cell. She will search the hive for possible rivals.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 (chemical messengers) that 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 before then.
In my colonies, I rarely have a 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.
The more you understand about your bees, the better your chances of colony success.