How Is A Queen Bee Born?

A new queen honeybee is born from an egg laid by an existing queen. The egg hatches into a larva, which is then fed a special diet by nurse bees in order to become sexually mature. Thirteen days after the egg hatches into a larva, a new queen bee emerges.

New Queens Are Born And Raised Inside Queen Cells

Queen bees are born and raised inside special cells called queen cells. Due to the increased size of a queen, a queen cell is larger and thicker than the cells used to raise drones and workers, and it looks somewhat similar to a peanut shell.

The location of queen cells depend on the reason the colony is building them. If the colony is getting ready to swarm, the queen bee cells are located on the outer edges of the comb.

However, for supersedure, the cells are typically hanging off the middle or face of the comb.

Emergency queen cells are quite different. In this case, worker bees will modify existing honeycomb cells to widen the walls in order to accommodate a new queen.

Queen Bee Diet: How A Queen Bee Is Made

All female larvae possess the same genetic structure. So why is it that some become queens and others don’t? It’s because of the food they are given by nurse bees.

You see, through careful manipulation of the diet, nurse bees initiate a complex series of biochemical reactions that mean some larvae develop into queens while others develop into workers.

A key part of that diet is royal jelly – a thick, white, soup-like substance secreted from the glands of the hypopharynx and mandibles in the head of nurse bees. Royal jelly is made up of two-thirds water, one-eighth proteins, 11% simple sugars, small quantities of Vitamin C, and different trace minerals and enzymes.

All larvae are fed royal jelly until they are 3 days old, at which point the diets are altered.

Larvae destined to become queens continue with the royal jelly diet. On the other hand, larvae destined to become workers are fed a ‘worker jelly’ that contains mashed-up honey and bee bread.

Nurse bees also alter the components of the royal jelly fed to larvae – a sugar content of 35% hexose are given to a queen, but workers are given a jelly with only 10% of this ingredient.

Until recently, it was widely believed that royal jelly was an incredible substance solely responsible for developing certain larvae into queens. However, recent studies have shown that the absence of honey and bee bread from the diet of these larvae plays a vital role.

This is because honey and bee bread contain p-coumaric acid, which is commonly found in plants. Researchers discovered that larvae fed a diet containing p-coumaric acid had significantly smaller ovaries than those reared without the compound.

In other words, feeding larvae a diet that includes bee bread and honey acts as a sort of chemical castration. The study suggests the fact certain larvae aren’t fed honey, and bee bread could actually be more important in their development into queens than the fact they are fed royal jelly.

Queen Bees Develop More Quickly Than Drones And Workers

All honeybees go through a similar development process, progressing from egg, to larva, to pupa, then to adult. However, queens go through the process at a faster rate than both workers and drones.

On average, the process from egg to adult takes 24 days for drones, 21 days for worker bees, and just 16 days for queens. A queen’s pupa phase is particularly fast, lasting 5 days on average. By comparison, a worker’s lasts 10-13 days.

Queen larvae are also given more attention by nurse bees. They’re visited about 10 times more frequently than worker larvae are – reflective of their importance to the hive.

Queen cell cups are kept at a warm temperature of 35ºC (77ºF). The cells are heated by bees that cluster around them. This is done to aid the safe development into a healthy adult.

How Often Are Queen Bees Born?

Queen honeybees are born only when they are needed by a colony. How often this occurs depends on the colony and how healthy they are. However, it is common for a colony to raise new queens approximately once a year.

Honeybees will raise new queens for 3 different reasons. They are:

1.  Swarming

Swarming is when a honeybee colony splits in two. The laying queen and half the workers leave to find a new hive.

Before swarming, the colony will raise new queens in queen cells to replace the one that leaves. The first virgin queen to emerge will sting her rivals to death. She will then leave the hive to mate before returning as the new matriarch.

To reduce the chance of conflict, the old queen will swarm just before the new virgin queen emerges.

2.  Supersedure

Colonies routinely replace their laying queen when she becomes either too old or too sick.

Worker bees are able to detect the change in pheromones that indicate her ability to lay is diminishing. When this happens, the colony will raise between 1-3 new queens in queen cells, each constructed a few days apart.

The first healthy queen to emerge will use her stinger to destroy the other queen cells. The new queen then leaves the hive to mate before returning to start laying.

3.  Emergency queen rearing

Emergency queen rearing is essentially the same as supersedure, except that the queen dies unexpectedly before workers have a chance to raise her replacement. They therefore must select already-hatched young larvae to turn into queens using a special diet.

Workers are able to detect that their queen has died within 50 minutes because her mandibular pheromone disappears (the pheromone she releases to prevent queen replacement).

They’ll get to work straight away – if they wait too long, there will be no larvae young enough to develop into queens.

How Is A Queen Bee Chosen During An Emergency?

When a queen dies unexpectedly, additional queen cells are hurriedly constructed in the brood nest by extending the walls of a normal-sized comb cell. Workers then carefully select several larvae between 1-3 days old and place them on the special diet required to develop into queens.

How these larvae are chosen remains somewhat of a mystery. It was previously thought that nurse bees may choose larvae more closely related to them (because a queen mates with multiple drones, all female bees inside a colony are either sisters or half-sisters).

However, studies have shown nurse bees make an unselfish choice. They do not choose larvae for queen rearing based on how related they are. Instead, they appear to select larvae based on other factors which could benefit the colony.

Recent research suggests that one of these factors is how well-fed larvae are. This is because well-fed larvae are more likely to develop safely – and the safe development of a larva destined to become a new queen is vital to the survival of the colony.

According to other research, it appears that workers also preferentially select larvae from particular ‘royal’ subfamilies to become queens. These royal subfamilies are rare in the overall worker population.

There are almost certainly other factors involved in the selection of larvae for emergency queen rearing. However, more research needs to be done to determine the exact process that takes place.

Queen Bees Are Bred By Beekeepers

In many parts of the world, queen honeybees are reared by specialist breeders and sold to beekeepers.

It is common for beekeepers, especially commercial ones, to replace their queens every year or two. In the U.S.A, many beekeepers requeen as often as twice per year.

There are numerous reasons beekeepers replace queens, including:

  • To reduce swarming
  • To increase brood and honey production
  • To start new colonies
  • To change certain genetic characteristics

The most common method to raise new queens involves transferring young larvae (between 12-24 hours old) from worker cells into queen cells located in a queenless hive.

The larvae are then fed a special diet and cared for by nurse bees, so they develop into queens.

After 10-11 days, just before the queen emerges, the cell is moved into a small queenless colony called a ‘mating nuc.’

Shortly after, a virgin queen will emerge from her cell before taking her mating flight to mate with drones. She then returns to the nuc and begins to lay. The laying queen is then caged and sold, often being delivered via the mail inside special packaging.

Final Thoughts

A queen honeybee is vital to the survival of the colony. That’s why the process of raising new queens is so carefully organized by honeybees.

Honeybees almost always plan to have a new queen ready to emerge should the old one leave the hive, get sick, or die. They do this by laying eggs in special queen cells, then feeding them a special diet once they hatch as larvae, right up until they’re ready to emerge as virgin queens.

However, sometimes the laying queen in a hive dies unexpectedly. When this happens, workers select young larvae, expand their existing comb cells, and feed them the special queen diet in order to develop them into new queens.

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