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On the Queen's Time

Understanding the time that it takes for a queen bee to develop is not only important if you're in the business of raising queens. It can also tell you a lot about what's going on inside your hive when you see a queen cell!


If you need a refresher on how to differentiate between the different types of queen cells, click here.


No matter what type of queen cell you are looking at (swarm, emergency, or supercedure), the timeline that it will follow from egg to emergence is the same. In total it takes 16 days for a queen to emerge, and then another 8-14ish days for her to mate and start laying eggs.


Day 1: Egg

Your bees can make an queen out of ANY fertilized egg in the hive, whether or not it was laid in a queen cell. All female bees start out the exact same way and are only differentiated after the larva hatches. If you see eggs, you (1) have had a queen in your hive in the past three days and (2) have a queen-in-potentia if your current queen happens to drop dead today.


Day 3: Larva

The day that the egg hatches and becomes a larva is an important day in the world of a developing queen. This is the day her fate is sealed and she will either be raised as a queen or a worker.

When this becomes important for you as a beekeeper is when you find yourself queen less. If you have eggs or tiny larvae, your bees can likely make themselves a new queen without intervention. If you've only got chubbier larva, you may need to give them eggs or a new queen.


If you are seeing a larva inside a queen cell (usually floating in royal jelly), then your bees are getting serious about making themselves a queen. This is the time to figure out what kind of cell you're looking at and make some decisions about how to proceed (here is that link again).


Day 8: Cell is Capped

If you find a capped cell in your hive, your next step is to have a VERY close look for your queen. You may also want to scan the neighbourhood trees as bees tend to swarm as soon as a cell is capped so she may already be gone. Often, the best course of action when you find a capped cell is to close things back up and let them figure things out for themselves.


If you find several capped cells on separate frames, you have an opportunity to start a new hive from scratch. Take one frame with a capped cell on it, plus one more frame of brood and stick them in a nuc box. Voila, new hive.


Day 16: Queen Emerges

If you see queen cells that have been neatly opened in a perfect circle on the bottom, you've got a virgin. Chances are you have more than one. Listen for piping because that's fun to hear, but then close them back up and come back in two weeks. There is nothing you can do when there are virgins in a hive. DO NOT try to requeen with a purchased queen. You're just wasting your money at that point.


Day 20: Reading for Mating Flight

Queens mate on warm, calm, sunny afternoons. If you are very lucky, you may witness her leaving or coming back from her flight. This can be quite a sight, and is sometimes mistaken for a small swarm.


From the queen's perspective, the mating flight is the most dangerous step in this whole process. Many queens do not return from their mating flight.


Day 24: First Possible Eggs

This is an important date to figure out from whichever milestone you started this queen cell adventure from. It's just some simple math, but it does require you noting when you saw (for example) a larva in a queen cell so that you can count up to the date that you can start looking for eggs. It is also important to know that this is the EARLIEST POSSIBLE day to see eggs. Don't panic if you're not seeing eggs on day 24. Technically, you're not supposed to panic until day 38, but I like to start thinking of a plan B on day 30 if there are still no eggs.


A Month Without Brood

All of this means means that allowing your hive to requeen itself will give you a full month without brood. This is absolutely fine and can even be beneficial in reducing mite populations, but could also result in a smaller colony size and potentially less honey stored going into winter.


Personally, we tend to let hives requeen themselves in spring and early summer when there is still plenty of time to catch up, but we are more likely to intervene and give them a new queen in late summer and early fall when they can't afford the long break in productivity.


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