A working knowledge of the timing of queen development can help you sort out all kinds of bee management situations.
Just like workers and drones, queens have a distinct development timetable that controls their lives. Whenever – and for whatever reason – you have a queen replacement event underway, your management options are controlled by the biology.
- Queen egg cycle: Three days long; all honey bee eggs hatch after the third day.
- Queen larval stage: About 4 days, in all. This is the stage where the difference between queens and workers begins. Immediately after they hatch, all larvae are initially fed a diet of royal jelly.
- Will she become a queen or worker? That’s an open question for up to 36 hours after an egg hatches. During this time, the larvae are fungible; in other words, potential queens and worker bees are still interchangeable. By the end, however, worker bees are being fed a different, less-rich diet by the nurse bees, and much less frequently. While the queens remain on a lavish, royal jelly diet. These nutritional differences are what control the destiny of the workers to mature as sterile bees, without ovary development and with working-class body structures such as pollen baskets and wax glands. The queen’s reproductive capacity will continue to develop, however, in keeping with her main function in the colony. Queen larvae are fed continuously, with nurse bees providing food to them about every 90 seconds, around the clock.
When you’re working to raise your own queens (whether by allowing the bees to make emergency queen cells after you’ve made a split or by grafting) this short, day-and-a-half-long window is a key turning point. If the bees were making swarm or supersedure cells on their own volition, they would, of course, choose larvae of the optimal age to turn into queen cells. But if you are trying to prompt a requeening event using emergency queen cells, the bees need young-enough larvae to work with. If their only choices are larvae that are past this critical period, the resulting queens will be poor quality because they will have had a temporary interruption in the rich diet normally reserved for queens. Since very young larvae are difficult to see, the practical lesson from this when making splits is to be sure to give the bees a frame with eggs. Then they will be able to select larvae of the correct age to make queen cells.
- Proof of queen-starting: Four days after a split, or a suspected swarm, or inserting a frame with eggs or very young brood to test for queenrightness, check the colony. If the colony is going to make queen cells, it will have done so, visibly, by this point. This will reveal whether the bees have recognized the need to raise a new queen and gotten the job started. If so, you’re on your way.
- Queen cell is capped: Day 8 after the egg was laid. If you’re dealing with a swarming event, the day the first queen cells are capped often coincides with the departure of the swarm, weather permitting. But a rainy period may keep them at home for a few extra days (and confound your calculations if you’re trying to deduce when an unobserved swarm happened).
- Queen pupation period: Eight days long. Compared to workers (12 days) and drones (16 days), queen pupae reach maturity very fast. This is likely driven by the biological urgency for a colony to raise a queen, get her out and mated and back on the job as quickly as possible.
- A particularly delicate stage of queen pupa development: Around Day 13 after the egg was laid. Queen cells are vertical, not horizontal like those of workers and drones, with the queen positioned head downward. Late in the pupation period, the queen’s wing buds are forming and any jostling may damage her wings and compromise her ability to go out on miles-long mating flights. Handle a frame with queen cells very gently and keep it vertical at all times.
- Queen emerges: Day 16 is the Queen’s Birthday. The sign of a successfully emerged queen is a neat, round hole on the tip of a queen cell. Her first task is to find out if she has any rivals, and then kill them off. She will pipe or quack to lure them into revealing their locations. Even if the others are still capped, they may reply, sealing their doom. The queen will sting them to death through the sides of the cells. The exception to this violent beginning is a supersedure. In that case, the new queen will continue her development without challenging the existing queen (her mother) until after she has returned from mating and begun laying.
- Post-emergence development period: About six days long. After emerging, the virgin queen needs to complete her physical development. Among other things, her wings must harden enough to meet the demands of making her mating flights. Towards the end of the period she will make short orientation flights so she can identify her colony when she returns.
- Queen’s mating flights: Around Day 22, the queen will begin her mating flights. Generally, these happen between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on mild, calm days. She often departs the hive with a small retinue of workers, but eventually leaves them behind and flies on to a Drone Congregation Area where hundreds of drones (called a “comet of drones”) are waiting around for the chance to mate with a virgin queen. It is not known how the queen knows where to go to find potential suitors, but it is usually beyond the range of where drones from her own colony (her half-brothers) might be hanging out. She will mate in the air with 10 to 20 drones, before finally returning home for good. The practical importance of knowing when she might be going out on mating flights is to avoid making any changes, even small ones, to the placement or appearance of the hive in order not to confuse her on her return. If she enters the wrong colony when she returns home, she would be immediately attacked and likely killed.
- Post-mating period: For several days, and sometimes up to a week, her reproductive organs continue to develop. She will process and store the sperm from all the drones in a special organ, her spermatheca. It will hold enough to fertilize her eggs for the rest of her life. Her reproduction organs will finish developing and the shape of her abdomen will change, becoming noticeably fuller and longer.
- Egg laying begins: About Day 29, the queen will begin to lay eggs. It’s not uncommon for a young queen to mistakenly lay more than one egg in a cell, at first. Once she gets the hang of it, though, the normal one-egg-per-cell pattern will appear. If you can easily spot eggs, starting looking for them about a month after whatever triggered the queen replacement cycle. If you have trouble seeing eggs, wait a week longer so there will be late-stage larvae or capped brood to confirm that the colony is once again queenright.