The birth of a queen bee is a critical part in the survival of a beehive. It is a process that isn’t very well-known outside of the beekeeping community. It involves many interesting steps such as careful selection, a special diet and a transformation from a regular bee larva into her royal highness.
I consider myself pretty lucky to witness the emergence of a new bee sovereign on a regular basis. In the following article, let’s explore each of the steps together. I will try to shed light on a very fascinating side of bee biology.
How Is A Queen Bee Born – The Life Cycle of a Queen Bee
Let’s get one thing clear – the bee hive is its own boss. But the queen bee is the one who runs the show. She lays all the eggs that create the colony of bees.
The life of a queen bee can be divided into different parts: The development of queen bee larvae, the emergence of a virgin queen bee ready to mingle, and the fertilized adult queen bee laying eggs in the colony.
There are numerous factors that play a role when a beehive deems it necessary that a queen bee should be formed. These may include the passing of an existing queen bee, replacement of a queen due to her age and reduced productivity, or the need to swarm and divide the hive.
Regardless of the cause for the development, how queen bees are born always follows the same process.
How Queen Bees are born starts with Queen Cups
Amid all the construction and renovation work that is going on in a healthy beehive, bees will occasionally decide to build a so-called queen cup.
Queen cups are the initial stage of queen bee birth. They actually do look like little teacups. They can be easily distinguished by their looks from regular comb in the hive.
The worker bees can build several of these queen cups throughout the hive. The queen cups may remain unused for extended periods and serve as a backup in case the current queen in the hive encounters any issues.
For me personally, empty queen cups cause no concern but rather are an indication of a healthy population.
What makes me raise my eyebrows is when a queen cup contains an egg and is being loaded up with royal jelly. Royal jelly is what makes the difference between the development of a worker bee and the birth of a queen bee.
Royal jelly is a secretion that is produced in glands of worker bees. It is a true power food! It consists of water, protein, sugars, fatty acids, minerals, antibacterial components, antibiotics and various amounts of different vitamins.
A special Diet for maturing Bee Queens
How queen bees are born depends on the amount of royal jelly the larvae in a hive are being fed.
ll the larvae in the colony are fed with a certain amount of royal jelly directly. Regular worker bee larvae are being fed royal jelly directly in combination with so called bee bread, a mixture of nectar and pollen.
Potential queen bees are fed royal jelly exclusively. Their cells are being stocked with copious amounts of it as you can see in the picture below.
If I come across queen cups that contain larvae and royal jelly, it means the hive is planning something. They may have chosen to create a new queen bee, either as an addition or a replacement, or are getting ready to split the hive into two and swarm.
As mentioned before, there are several reasons for that, which I will delve deeper into in a different blog post.
The Queen Cell
The result of the very special royal jelly-diet is the formation of a sexually mature female, which is raised in specially formed queen cells. They are a lot bigger than normal cells and hang from the comb vertically.
About eight days into the process of a queen bee birth, the queen cell is being capped by the worker bees and the transformation begins. Her legs, eyes and wings develop, her furry hair starts to grow.
The Birth of a Queen Bee and her Mating Flight
After exactly 16 days, a virgin queen bee emerges. She does so by chewing her way out of her cozy queen cell. Most likely multiple queens are in the pupating stage simultaneously, so she’ll look for competition to seek out and eliminate, first.
Tooting and Quacking
She’ll do so by tooting after she has emerged from her royal chamber. Tooting is a series of high-pitch noises the queen creates by compressing her thorax and activating her wing-beating mechanism without actually beating her wings. The other queens still confined in their cells will respond by quacking.
Unknowingly they will lead the bloodthirsty firstborn queen bee directly to their location. The worker bees will even help with the murders and finding the competition. It’s not all fun and games in a beehive.
The Queen Bee’s Mating Flight
Quite some time can pass between the birth of a queen bee and the time she lays her first eggs. About 5-7 days after the queen emerges from her cell, she takes one or sometimes two mating flights over an afternoon.
During these flights, the queen bee will fly to a drone congregation area, where she will mate with 10-20 bee drones. The drones that mate with the queen bee will die shortly after mating.
The Importance of Drones
Drones are male honey bees, and their only purpose is to mate with virgin queens. They have no stingers and cannot gather nectar or pollen. Drone bees are produced by the queen bee in the spring and summer months when the colony needs them for mating.
The queen bee lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs, which develop into worker bees and drones, respectively.
The mating with drones is essential for the colony’s reproduction. The queen bee will store the sperm from her mating flights in her spermatheca, a specialized organ in her abdomen. The stored sperm will be used to fertilize eggs throughout the queen’s life.
I’m always a bit on edge during that time, as sometimes she has to go on several mating flights to get lucky. What makes me nervous about the whole process of mating flights is that I can never be sure if she will actually return. It’s dangerous for a virgin queen bee out there!
The Queen Bee finally lays Eggs!
Once the queen bee has fled from her royal chamber, I normally refrain from interfering with the hive at all for about 10 days. I don’t want to stir any trouble in these turbulent times. And when I spot the precious first little eggs, I do a little happy dance.
Now is when the real work starts for my queen bee. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day and can live for up to 5 years. Queen bees are usually very friendly. She uses her stinger only to kill rival queen bees and will not sting humans unless provoked.
The Use of Pheromones to reign over the Hive
The queen bee uses her chemical signals, known as queen pheromones, to communicate with the worker bees and maintain order in the hive. Her pheromones signal to the worker bees the presence of a fertile and healthy queen.
As soon as her smell is gone, the entire hive knows that something is going wrong and the queen bee might have died or disappeared for whatever reason.
Queen Bee Death and Replacement
Where there is a queen bee birth, there is a queen bee death. When a queen bee dies, the hive will need to replace her in order to survive. As the queen bee is the only bee in the hive that can lay fertilized eggs, a hive will eventually die off without her.
In the case of a healthy queen bee dying, the hive will immediately begin the process of replacing her. Worker bees will select several larvae that are less than three days old and feed them a special diet of royal jelly.
If the queen bee is not healthy and her egg-laying abilities are deteriorating, the worker bees may begin the process of replacing her before she dies. They will create queen cells and feed the larvae a special diet of royal jelly to ensure that they develop into healthy, sexually mature queens.
As a beekeeper, I can also take measures to replace a queen bee if I notice that she is not laying enough eggs or if her productivity is decreasing. I can introduce a new queen bee to the hive by placing her in a cage, adding her to the hive and allowing the worker bees to become accustomed to her pheromones. This process si called Requeening.
Once the worker bees have accepted her, they or I will release her from the cage and she will take over as the new queen.
Requeening: Should you kill the old Queen or not?
There is ongoing discussion if the old queen should be taken out of the hive and killed, or if the two queens should fight it out between themselves, as most likely the stronger queen bee would survive. The problem is that the surviving queen bee could suffer injuries.
To each his or her own. Myself, I “dispose” of the old queen bee before introducing a new one. It’s hard to do so sometimes, a beekeeper gets attached to his or her queen bees easily. They are fascinating creatures and it’s a great pleasure whenever I spot a healthy queen running around in my hives. The feeling just does not get old.
How Is A Queen Bee Born: Conclusion
As a beekeeper, it is my responsibility to ensure that my hives have healthy and productive queens. Strong queen bees are the foundation of a thriving beehive. By understanding the life cycle and behaviors of our queen bees, I can better care for my hives and ensure the survival of these important pollinators. I hope this post has inspired you to continue your own beekeeping journey and to always appreciate the wonder and beauty of the queen bee.
I hope this blog post has been informative and engaging for all my fellow beekeepers out there. Witnessing how a queen bee is born is truly a remarkable experience that never gets old.
If you have any input or further questions, if I am spreading misinformation, or if you just want to say that you liked what you have read, feel free to leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading!