When a honey bee colony needs a new queen, they begin construction of special queen cells. Producing a new queen takes time. There are 4 stages of Queen cell development. Each stage is important to the colony’s attempt to make a good queen. Having a good quality reproductive female (egg-layer) is vital to colony survival.
Honey Bee Queen Cell Development
One of the marvels of nature is the ability of a honey bee colony to make a queen bee. The only requirement is that the bees must have a very young female larva or a fertilized egg.
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Only fertilized eggs or larva from fertilized eggs are female. They are the only ones who have the potential to develop into a reproductive female capable of mating.
Any colony that does not have fertilized eggs or very young larva is doomed without beekeeper intervention. The beekeeper must give that colony a frame with tiny larva or a replacement queen.
How Long Does it Take to Make a Queen Cell?
There are several reasons that a bee colony may need to produce another queen bee. Whether due to swarming, queen death or a failing one, the colony understand the urgency of replacement.
The time from egg laid to new queen emergence is an average of 16 days. The queen cell develops through several different stages in that time period.
A beekeeper inspecting the hive may notice small acorn shaped cups. Queen cups are the very first or pre-stage of a queen cell. However, in practice, we don’t designate a cup as a true cell until it contains an egg or larva.
Why? Because some colonies keep several queen cups on hand all year. It appears to be a genetic tendancy because not every colony has them.
Perhaps it is some type of inherited survival tactic to have some cups in place, just in case they are needed.
Finding Queen Cups in the Hive
Queen cups are included in this article because the sight of them often frightens new beekeepers. Some colonies may keep 10 or more of them in place on the comb- year round.
When the inexperienced beekeeper sees cups, they fear the colony is about to swarm. And, yes it might be? But, not usually.
Certainly seeing numerous queen cups in a colony that didn’t have them previously is some cause for concern. Perhaps, the colony is preparing to swarm.
However, the presence of cups alone is not an indicator of queen rearing activity. The queen will not lay an egg in an unpolished cell.
When the workers want her to lay in a cup – it is polished. Once that cup contains an egg or larva – it is game on. Your colony is making a new queen bee.
Queen Cell Timeline
The stages of normal queen cell development are: cups, open queen cells, capped queen cells and emerged queen cells.
Every new reproductive female made by a colony goes through this 16 day (on average) process. The life cycle of the queen progresses from fertilized egg, to larva, to pupa to adult.
The timing of cell and bee development can vary a little due to temperature and hive conditions. More than one beekeeper has been surprised during queen rearing to have a one emerge a day earlier than expected.
However, on average, the new queen spends 3 days as an egg, the larva is capped around day 8, and the adult emerges on day 16. But a lot is going on during this short time span.
In calculating the age of queen cells, finding an open cell means you have between 12 and 4 days until an adult queen emerges.
But, finding a capped cell means a new queen could emerge anytime in the next 4 days.
Open Queen Cells
Open queen cells occur during the larval stage of the developing queen. Worker bees build out the cell along the face of the comb.
Or, if the cell is being produced in a queen cup at the bottom, you notice the cell is being elongated. These are often (but not always) swarm cells and it is common to find several hanging from the bottom of the frame.
Notice the difference in terminology and understand that some beekeepers use different terms.
In this article, “open” means an uncapped cell with a larva. It does not refer to a cell that has “opened” and the new queen left the cell.
The term “charged” is also sometimes used for a cell that has a developing queen inside.
Queen bees come in different sizes. But no queen can fit in a normal brood cell. She must have more room. Therefore, the open queen cell will be noticeable on the face of the comb or at the bottom of a frame.
A look inside reveals a growing larva floating in a bed of brood food. It is the quality and quantity of food in this cell that is responsible for queen development.
We used to believe that queen larva was only fed royal jelly but researchers seem to have disproven that idea.
Any worker larva has the capability to become a reproductive queen if she is fed copious amounts of nutritious food very early in life.
Capped Queen Bee Cells
A queen cell becomes a long structure that resembles a peanut. They are usually hard to miss but sometimes they can be small. It almost seems as though the bees are trying to hide them.
As the developing queen finishes her larval development stage, she is finished eating. Workers cap the end of the cell with wax.
Inside the larva enters the pupal stage, she spins a cocoon and completes the transformation into an adult bee.
Emerged Queen Cells
Around day 16, a fully formed adult queen will emerge from her cell. Her first order of business is to seek out any other developing rivals and sting them to death.
Survival of the fittest can be an ugly business sometimes. Often beekeepers know that a queen has emerged from a cell when they find the end of the capped cell opened.
Also, any remaining cells may be torn open from the side. This is where the first one out has killed her rivals.
Our queen is not ready to take over the colony just yet. She will need to mature for several days and then take her mating flights.
After mating with several drone honey bees, she can return to the hive to begin her life’s work – laying eggs.
What Pictures of Queen Cells Tell Us
In general, it is thought that larger queen cells produce bees of better quality. This is due to the belief that a strong colony with a large population has more workers to feed developing larva.
When the beekeeper is deciding what to do with queen cells found during an inspection, the largest ones should always be considered the best to keep.
This is true in regards to raising or rearing queen bees too – the larger cells are most desirable.
Finding a queen cell, or several, that are torn open on the side is and indication that the colony has reared a new queen. The torn cells are evidence of her killing her rivals.
Final Thoughts on the Stages of Queen Cells
Taking the time to observe closely the activities inside the hive is important as it tells us a lot about the status of the colony.
Whether you are planning to raise your own queens or simply trying to understand what your hive is doing, understanding the different stages of queen cells is good to know.