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How Does a Bee Become the Queen Bee

People think the queen honey bee is the ruler of the colony- controlling everything. In some sense she is, but she's also the colony's slave, doing their bidding. She is really an egg-laying machine. In her prime, when conditions are ideal, she can lay between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs each day.

If for any reason she isn't as good as the colony thinks she should be- perhaps she's getting too old, or isn't productive enough, she can be replaced in a matter of under three weeks. The only difference between a worker bee and the queen bee is the way she is fed in the larval stage of her development.

All workers and queens are female; they hatch from fertilized eggs laid by the resident queen. If the queen has been lost, perhaps eaten by something, or squashed by a careless beekeeper, the entire colony is aware of that fact within a few hours. Since honeybees share food between each other and as a matter of course, they all receive some of the pheromone, sometimes called queen substance, the queen bee produces. If they stop receiving enough of that substance because the queen has died, is too old, or just because the hive is too crowded, a response to create a new queen is triggered in the workers.

The workers select an egg or a very young larva that they have decided to make into queen bees. Often they choose a number of prospects and raise a number of queen bees concurrently.

Normally, worker bees are fed royal jelly, a protein rich food secreted from a gland in the nurse bee's head, for a few days. The larva is then weaned onto a mixture of pollen and nectar or honey, sometimes called beebread.

The queen, however, is not weaned off the royal jelly, but workers continue to feed this highly nutritious food to the larva for about 5 days. She gains weight very quickly, her size multiplying many times over. The beeswax cell in which she develops has to be enlarged and elongated to accommodate the much bigger queen larva. About 7 days after the egg was originally laid, the queen cell is capped over and sealed inside the larva pupates, emerging on or about the sixteenth day.

If the new queen was created because the hive was overcrowded and just before the new queen emerges, the old queen leaves the hive along with about half the worker bees, and flies off to find a new home. This is what is called a swarm. If the weather conditions are not good enough for the swarm to leave, workers prevent the new queen bee from emerging until the weather improves.