From time to time, beekeepers will need to replace old queens or provide a queen to a hive that has, for one reason or another, lost their queen. One method of making new queens is by the Doolittle Method (named for G.M. Doolittle). This is done by grafting the appropriate aged larvae into homemade wax cups. This requires a bit of dexterity and good eyesight, but is the most popular method used. Today plastic cups are often used in place of wax. Nature, however, has a method of its own.
A virgin queen will develop from a fertilized egg, the same as a worker. The young queen larva develops differently because of its diet. She is fed royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers. Honey bee larvae are fed royal jelly for the first few days after hatching, but only queen larvae are fed on it exclusively. As a result, the queen will develop into a sexually mature female.
Queens are raised in specially constructed queen cells which have a peanut-like shape. Queen cells start out as queen cups which are larger than the cells of normal brood comb. When conditions are favorable for swarming, the queen will start laying eggs in the queen cups. Once the mature queen has laid an egg inside, worker bees will further build up queen cup and eventually cap it with beeswax. When ready to emerge, the virgin queen will chew a circular cut around the cap of her cell. During swarming season, the old queen will likely leave with the prime swarm before the first virgin queen emerges from a queen cell.
A virgin queen is a queen bee that has not mated with a drone or male bee. Virgin queens are intermediate in size between workers and laying queens. Virgin queens appear to have little queen pheromone and often do not appear to be recognized as queens by the workers. When a young virgin queen emerges from a queen cell, she will generally seek out virgin queen rivals and attempt to kill them. Virgin queens will quickly find and kill (by stinging) any other emerged virgin queen, as well as any unemerged queens. Unlike the worker bees, the queen’s stinger is not barbed and she is able to sting repeatedly without dying.
The surviving virgin queen will fly out of the hive for her nuptial flight to a “drone congregation area” where she will mate with 12-15 drones . She may return to the drone congregation area for several days until she is fully mated. Mating occurs in flight. The young queen stores up to 6 million sperm from multiple drones. She will selectively release sperm for the remaining 2–7 years of her life, fertilizing each egg as it passes through her oviduct. Though timing can vary, mating usually takes place between the sixth and tenth day after the queen emerges. Egg laying usually begins 2 to 3 days after the queen returns to the hive.
The queen’s sole function is to serve as the reproducer and she can lay about 2,000 eggs–more than her own bodyweight in eggs–every day. She is continuously surrounded by worker bees who meet her every need, giving her food and disposing of her waste The queen bee is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays. She lays a fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) egg according to the width of the cell. Drones are raised in cells that are significantly larger than the cells used for workers.
When the queen begins to age, her reproduction will slow down and at this time, the hive will need a new queen. A hive dies quickly without a queen!