Our recent experience with queenless hives and the hatching of new queens has had me curious about how honeybees “make” a new queen bee. As a new beekeeper, Philip often has YouTube on to learn about a variety of subjects. You can imagine that as of late; beekeeping has been a hot topic of study in our house. While Philip is the primary student, I am learning as well, since I hear it playing in the background.
The beekeepers frequently use the term “make a new queen”, which had me curious, how does a hive make a queen? I heard another beekeeper use the term, “rear a queen” which honestly makes more sense to me. Is the correct term to rear or raise a new queen rather than make one when used in the context of animal husbandry? We raise chickens, yes, they may hatch in an incubator, but I do not make chickens, I raise them.
This post has brought out the science nerd in me. I have always loved science, even in middle school conducting complex experiments for the science fair. As a homeschool mom, I could always be counted on to teach the hands-on science courses at the local co-op that some moms might cringe away from.
What Determines the Development of a Queen Bee Versus a Worker Bee?
The difference between the development of a queen bee and a worker bee is her diet. All larvae are given a limited amount of royal jelly. Royal jelly is a secretion produced in the head glands of nurse bees. Worker larvae are fed royal jelly for only a few days, and then are fed bee bread, which is a mixture of pollen, nectar, and honey. Queen bees are fed royal jelly exclusively for their entire life. In the developmental stage, they are fed royal jelly in abundance. This is what triggers the development of the queen bee. It is also why queen bees develop more quickly than other types of bees. It takes only 16 days for a queen bee to develop, while other bees take 21 to 24 days. Once the new virgin queen hatches, she will first take her mating flight. When she returns, she will begin laying eggs to help build a strong colony.
As with many complex things in nature, scientists do not completely understand the complexity of the royal jelly. They also theorize that it is the exclusion of the bee bread that may be the factor that influences the differences in the worker bees in comparison to the queen bee’s physiological differences. When looking at photos of queen bees compared to other female bees, they look like completely different insects. They have different life expectancies, behaviors, and physical abilities, but they are identical from a genetic standpoint, their only difference is the special food fed to the queens.
Amazing, Bees Really “Make” a Queen Bee
With this understanding, I certainly can see that the bees do “make” a queen bee as they do specifically feed the young larva royal jelly to cause the creation of a queen bee. They also withhold the royal jelly from the other female larva that “make” that larva into worker bees. “Rearing” a queen in context would indicate that a queen bee hatched. Then the bees raised her with royal privilege. Feeding her a royal jelly diet for the rest of her life which is not at all what happens. They literally make her a queen by what they feed her.
Why Do Bees Create a New Queen Bee?
If the Queen Dies
One of the most obvious reasons would be if the old queen were to die or be missing. Queen bees produce pheromones which influence the hive behavior, if those pheromone levels become very low, the bees may not be able to sense the presence of a queen bee. In that case, the worker bees would expedite the creation of a new breeder queen. A queenless hive that cannot replace its queen will eventually die. While other bees can lay unfertilized eggs and create male drones, only the queen can lay fertile eggs and create female larvae. Since the worker bees are responsible for all aspects of hive maintenance, a colony will not survive without replacing the most important bee, a newly mated queen.
Unfit Queen Bee
The worker bees may also replace the queen if they collectively decide she is unfit and needs to be replaced. This is referred to as supersedure. A queen might be considered unfit if she is not laying eggs, or not laying fertilized eggs resulting in only drone production. Maybe she is sick or declining, possibly injured. In this case, in order to maintain a strong colony, they will replace her with a quality queen.
Another reason bees may create a new queen is when they are preparing to swarm. When bees begin to feel crowded, they swarm to split the colony. The first step of the worker bees is to prepare the queen to swarm first by slimming her down to fly. When she is ready, they will leave the hive with 30% to 70% of the colony, including both drone bees and worker bees. Together they will create a new colony. However, they will leave the hive prepared to create a new queen for the remaining colony to continue. The goal of honeybees is to reproduce, they reproduce in two ways, by creating new brood (new bees), but also by creating new colonies that will reproduce as a separate entity.
Nursery Fit for a Queen
Honeybees create queen bees in enlarged cells called queen cells. As with all aspects of beekeeping, the queen cell is quite complex. There are multiple types of queen cells.
A queen cup is an enlarged cell that is typically just a rounded cell, larger than a drone cell shaped much like a teacup. A queen cell is referred to as a queen cup in its unfinished state before the eggs are laid. The location of the queen cell cups can provide clues to the purpose of its development.
If the colony decides that a new queen is needed, the queen cup can be transformed into a supersedure cell and can be completed even after the eggs are laid. The queen that emerges from this cell will supersede the current queen or take over the colony. The supersedure cells are often on the face of the honeycomb as a means to hide it from the existing queen. The colony often builds a number of queen cells to ensure that a healthy queen will hatch and replace the existing queen. Since a colony only has one queen, the healthy queens will either fight to the death or the first queen to emerge will kill the remaining queens in the larvae stage before they hatch. Unlike worker bees, queen honey bees can sting multiple times.
Another type of queen cell is a swarm cell. Swarm cells are created in advance when the bees are preparing to swarm to create a new home. They transform the teacups into swarm cells so that a second queen can be created to lead the remaining hive. They often create multiple swarm cells to give the remaining bees the best chance of survival. Swarm cells are usually created vertically along the margins of the combs.
Another type of queen cell is an emergency cell. This is often created after a catastrophic event that left a hive queen less. In this case, the workers create a queen cell from a normal brood cell that is in the first days of development. As long as there are fresh eggs or newly hatched larvae within the first days of development in the brood frames, they can still create a queen within the hive.
Stop Me, Bees are Fascinating!
Well, friends, I could go on and on about all the wonderful things I have learned about queen bees. However, I settled in my own understanding that bees do actually make a queen. They don’t rear one but make them. The more I learn about bees, the more I realize what amazing creatures they are. Bees are considered the most important insect on earth, because of their role in pollination. Their royal titles and protocol become even more clear as I learn about the intricate social structure that makes up the complex organization within a beehive.
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Philip recommends this headband magnifier to easily spot eggs and queen bees when performing hive maintenance.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.
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Sources for Additional Study
Many thanks to these wonderful websites that were beneficial in the development of this blog post. I have learned so much from these amazing authors.
This is an excellent resource for my fellow science nerds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqoZvVu1E7s