If the queen bee is accidentally killed, lost or removed from the hive the workers will sense her absence within minutes, by the reduction in her unique pheromones (queen substances). This substance is passed from the queen to worker bees as they feed and groom her and then passed from worker bee to worker bee throughout the hive.
They will then select one, or a few young worker bee larvae or eggs if there are no young larvae and then build large vertically hanging cells (queen cells) to house them. When an older queen begins to fail, that is, her egg production drops or her queen substance reduces, the colony will also start to raise a new queen, this is called ‘supersedure’. The same process occurs in preparation of swarming and the trigger for this is believed to be again the reduction of the queen substance throughout the hive. As the numbers in the hive increase so the concentration of the queen’s pheromones is diminished as it is passed from bee to bee over a very large number of bees.
As with emergency queen cells, supersedure queen cells typically are raised on the comb surface. In comparison, queen cells produced in preparation for swarming are found along the bottom margins of the frames or in gaps in the beeswax combs within the brood area.
The selected larvae are fed with high concentrations of royal jelly, which appears to be the trigger for turning an ordinary worker bee larva into one that will become a queen bee. Queens reared as a result of supersedure are usually stronger and more productive than emergency queens since it is believed that there is usually more time for them to receive larger quantities of food (royal jelly) during their development.
A new queen (or virgin princess) will emerge from her cell 16 days after her egg was laid. If she is strong and acceptable to the workers she will fight and kill any other would-be queens as they emerge from their cells. She will then stay in the hive for about a week while her wings strengthen and then leave the hive to mate with drones in flight.
Because she must fly some distance from her colony to mate (to avoid inbreeding), she first circles the hive to orient herself to its location. She leaves the hive unattended for only about 15 minutes, usually in the afternoon and mates with seven to fifteen drones at an altitude above 20 feet. Drones are able to find and recognize the queen by her chemical odour (pheromone). If bad weather delays the queen’s mating flight for more than 20 days, she loses her ability to mate and will only be able to lay unfertilized eggs, which result in drones.
After mating, the queen returns to the hive and begins laying eggs within about 48 hours. She only mates once in her life time and will have stored enough sperm (in her spermatheca) to be able to produce as many as a million eggs in her productive life time. She releases sperm from the spermatheca each time she lays an egg, these fertilized eggs will become female worker bees. If her egg is laid in a larger drone-sized cell, she normally does not release sperm and the resulting unfertilized egg becomes a male or a drone. The queen is constantly attended and fed royal jelly by the colony’s worker bees.
The number of eggs the queen lays depends on the amount of food she receives and the size of the worker force capable of producing the beeswax cells for her eggs and caring for the larva that will hatch from the eggs in 3 days. She effectively becomes an egg laying machine, producing up to 2,000 eggs a day and up to 250,000 a year depending upon conditions.
Article by Ben Gibson. Ben Gibson is a professional beekeeper, writer and naturalist. For more information about beekeeping and bees see http://getbuzzingaboutbees.com