Honey Bee Biology Series: Emergency Requeening

Thursday 18 May 2023

In nature, events can occur unexpectedly, and when this happens animals often have an innate response to deal with a situation. Honey bees are excellent at responding to their environment, and to situations within their hive. For example, if their queen suddenly dies, the colony is quick to recognize this fact, and emergency requeening will occur. This week’s blog will explain how honey bees rear a new queen if their queen suddenly dies.

Honey Bee Biology Series: Emergency Requeening

A queen may die suddenly due to many factors, including beekeeper error. If this happens there is a emergency response to make the colony queenright. Usually, within two days of queen loss, workers will create emergency queen cells constructed on the face of the comb amid capped worker brood (Sammataro and Avitabile 2011; Winston 1987). The sudden loss of a queen forces the bees to modify worker cells into queen cells, and as the larval queens develop, the cells’ edges are slowly enlarged by the added wax. This will eventually form the peanut-shaped vertical, capped cell that is the characteristic of all queen cells. In emergency replacement, few (between one and three) cells will be produced.

The developed young larvae will then feed on royal jelly and be raised as queens. When emerged, the new virgin queen will kill other developing queens and take over the hive (Winston 1987).

Attempts to make queens from older worker larvae may result in intermediate forms of queens on maturation. Overall, emergency or supersedure queens rarely look as robust as queens developed during the swarm season (Sammataro and Avitabile 2011). 

Emergency requeening cells (Nelson, 2022)

There are also situations when a colony loses its queen and is unable to rear a replacement queen. This is the result of a lack of eggs or young larvae (less than 3 days old). In this situation, some workers may start to lay eggs. The ovaries of these females will mature, and after these bees are fed royal jelly, eggs will mature. Since workers are incapable of mating, the eggs they lay will be unfertilized or drone eggs. If a population has laying workers it will slowly decline because the rearing of new workers stops with the loss of the queen (Sammataro and Avitabile 2011). A laying worker colony can be recognized by more than one egg being present in each cell, and if the eggs are on the sides of the cell walls, instead of the bottom. If eggs have not been laid as expected a laying worker colony should be suspected (Sammataro and Avitabile 2011).

It is important for beekeepers to have a good understanding of natural requeening scenarios, because, as a beekeeper, you can rear queens by simply letting the bees make their own. There are several risks associated with letting the bees make their own queen, but experienced beekeepers can successfully manage the process to allow a colony to rear a satisfactory queen. In fact many of the manipulations beekeepers undertake, such as splits, requeening, managing swarms, can be more successful with an understanding of the natural processes as done by the bees.

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Sammataro, D., and Avitabile, A. 2011The beekeeper's handbook. 4th ed. Ithaca, N.Y., Comstock Pub. Associates.
Winston, M.L., 1987. The biology of the honey bee. Harvard university press.