Queen rearing by honey bees

With all the swarming we’e been seeing this year our hives are busy producing new queens. I’ve written already this spring about my concerns of the replacement of queens in my hives. What follows is a brief article on the process of queen rearing by our bees.

It starts with queen cells
The first stage in the queen process is the creation of a special cell in which the queen will be reared, called a queen cell. There are three different kinds of queen cells, which are classified based on why the bees are producing new queens (and they rarely try to make just one queen at a time). These are: swarm cells; supersedure cells; and emergency cells.

Swarm cells and supersedure cells are both the result of the planned production of queens due to the hive preparing to swarm or sensing a need for a new queen because the current one is failing. These cells are made by the bees for the sole purpose of rearing a queen and in the beginning are called “queen cups.” The queen lays eggs in these cells and, from the start, the larvae hatched from these eggs are destined to be queens. The cells are a signal to the nurse bees to feed the larvae within the diet of royal jelly, which will cause them to develop into queens.

Emergency cells are the result of the hive suddenly losing a queen or of the queen being no longer capable of laying fertile eggs. In this case, the bees choose a very young larva in a worker cell, expand the cell, and start feeding her large amounts of royal jelly. How young the chosen larva is when a queen diet is commenced will greatly affect the quality of the queen reared. While it is possible for very good queens to be produced from emergency cells, this is not always the case. Beekeepers whose goal is to yield superior queens will mimic conditions that produce swarm or supersedure queens. Placing frames of eggs into a queenless hive will result in emergency queen cells and is not a method by which to attempt to consistently rear high-quality queens.

Feeding of the larvae
For the first two days after hatching, larvae destined to be queens and those that will become workers are fed the same diet. At that point, those in queen cells are fed larger amounts of food, more frequently, and of a special kind – royal jelly. Both royal jelly and the food fed to workers contain secretions from the worker bees’ mandibular glands, but royal jelly contains a much higher concentration of these secretions. Larvae become queens as a result of this special diet and the larger quantity of food consumed. This transformation of eggs containing exactly the same genetic material into two very different insects truly is one of the wonders of nature.

Pupae development and emergence
The queen cells are capped about five to six days after hatching as compared to seven to eight for worker larvae. Change from larvae to adults occurs over a period of about seven days during the pupal stage. At that point, the new queens eat their way out of the cells and emerge as virgin queens.

New queens will instinctively seek out and destroy other queens, including those still in their cells. Hence, when rearing queens, it is very important to separate queen cells prior to emergence or risk losing all but one queen. About four days after emerging, new queens will make one or more orientation flights. Mating flights (one or more) occur about 10 days after emergence. Mating must occur within about three weeks after emergence; after that, the new queen may commence laying eggs without benefit of mating and will lay only unfertilized eggs (drones). It is thought that queens that do not mate within about 14 days of emerging will be inferior. Queens may mate with about 10 to 15 drones on the mating flights, but numbers reported by scientists vary.

An additional important factor that influences the success of a honey bee colony’s production of queens is the season of the year. While bees may produce queens during any month with warm daytime temperatures (in Kentucky, this is from March or early April through October), their success rate is much higher April through June – the same time of year when swarm cells are most likely to be produced. During these months, we see warm temperatures, good nectar and pollen flows, and strong colony populations. All these conditions are also those that are optimum for swarming.

2 responses to “Queen rearing by honey bees

  1. Just checking how are your two hives doing, that you started from packages this spring. Haven’t seen any new updates in a while. Mine are not doing to well, one seems to queenless. Can’t find a queen lot of drones cells might have a laying worker. any advice on what to do.

    • Unfortunately, we see way too many queen issues in newly established packages these days and I do not know why.

      If you have laying workers, re-queening the hive can be difficult and often not worth it. If you have less than 3-4 frames of bees it may not be worth it.

      Hives with laying workers behave as if they have a queen and will almost always refuse to accept a new queen. I never try to re-queen a hive with laying workers directly, I always re-queen by first establishing the new queen in nuc and then combine the nuc with the queenless hive. If you have another hive that can use some reinforcing, you can just combine the queenless hive with that hive.

      I have updated my information on my new hives since you emailed me and am about to do so again.