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The development of the queen

A queen is produced from a normál fertilised egg. Once the egg hatches, the workers will feed the larva with an exceptionally rich food, high in sugar and nutrients known as royal jelly. The larva is provisioned with more food than it can consume so is never lacking food. The outcome is that the larva grows ex-tremely rapidly and when fully grown the body contains high quantities of juvenile hormone. The larva grows to about 2500 times the weight of the egg within just five days. When the larva pupates the juvenile hormone results in the body forming into a queen. It is believed that the hormone causes different genes in the DNA to be switched to produce a queen instead of a worker bee. In effect the DNA of a female honey bee describes two different insects and the way the genes ultimately express themselves is controlled by the way a larva is fed.

Workers are developed in normál wax cells but queens are produced in speciál queen cells that hang vertically down (as opposed to lying nearly horizontál). Under normál conditions these cells start as 'queen cups' that look a bit like an acorn cup. Once the egg has been laid in the cup the workers start to fash-ion the sides of the cell, which grows as the larva develops. Once the larva is fully-grown the bottom of the cell is sealed with a porous capping made from wax mixed with pollen. The larva pupates inside the cell for a further eight days and then is ready to emerge as a fully formed queen. Workers are able to control the timing of a queen's emergence because the wax around the cell is too thick for the queen to chew her way out of the cell. They will thin the base of the cell when they are ready to release the new queen.

The act of pupation (forming the adult body from a larva) uses all the energy available to the queen. Once she emerges from the cell she will rush off and feed. It takés about four days for her to be able to produce queen pheromones and during this time she is left on her own. Then the workers become aware of her existence, start to feed her and encourage her to leave the colony on mating flights.

Mating and reproduction

The virgin queen flies from the colony with a smáli entourage of worker bees. She goes to a specific area near the hive where drone (male) honey bees gather in what is known as a drone collection area. Here, the drones will chase the queen and the strongest and fastest-flying ones will catch her and mate with her 'on the wing'. She will mate with up to 20 drones and store their semen within a speciál gland (called a spermatheca) in her body. However, she can only be mated within about three weeks from achieving maturity. If unsuitable weather or another obstacle stops her from mating in this period she becomes sterile and will only be able to lay unfertilised eggs (which produce drones). From the colony point of view she is rendered useless and usually the whole colony will eventually die.

Once the queen has mated successfully she may remain in the colony for the rest of her liře (up to five years). She can store up to eight million sperm in her body and this is enough to keep the colony operating for many years. Once she starts laying eggs the queen will remain in the nest and normally only leave when the colony decides to swarm. When this happens, the queen will leave with about half of the workers and find a new nest site. The old colony will create a new queen and continue to operáte. Swarming is a natural process of colony reproduction.

Excerpt from the book: The bbka guide to beekeeping

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