I am asked how to know when a queen honey bee will emerge pretty often. So I've put together this article for new queen breeders which will detail the queen rearing time line.
Raising your own queen bees is a pretty simple process. Most new beekeepers I talk to are surprised by how simple it is. It requires very little in the way of equipment, and with the exception of a few specific days, very little of your time.
Raising your own queen bees using our queen rearing time line can also be very personally as well as financially rewarding. Rearing your own queens is also the next logical step in your beekeeping adventure. Not to mention it, but once you are able to raise your own queens, making NUCs is a breeze, as well as free but for the boxes. It will enable you to stop depending on someone else to save your apiary from doom, replace failing queens, supercede poorly bred queens and provide queens for swarms you catch or cut-outs you do where you failed to locate the queen or accidentally killed her in the process.
Realistically you should have as many queens as you might need ready to go on a weekly basis. This is easy to do using the queen rearing time line by setting up a queen-less colony early in the season and using it to raise queens all season. This way you will always have queens available for emergencies throughout the season.
How to Count Days In The Queen Rearing Time Line
From now on, try to remember that all bees, queens, workers, and drones start out the same. As an egg laid by the queen. What caste of bee an egg becomes is dependent on several factors. Whether it was a fertilized egg (diploid) or not (haploid), whether it was fed royal jelly exclusively (to become a queen), etc. The important part is that all bees begin as an egg, and the day they are laid is called "Day 1".
Determining the age of eggs based on their appearance is therefor an important skill. You will develop this skill by doing weekly hive inspections and viewing eggs between one and three days old. You will want to always graft from eggs that you knew the age of, you will have decent success with larva near 72 hours old, but getting them on the day they hatch is always optimal. The success follows a curve based on the larval age, with the most recently hatched larva giving you the best results. So it is important to know when your eggs will hatch so you can graft larva the day they hatch.
Day two begins with the egg continuing to mature as it approaches the moment when the developing egg hatches into a larva. You can relax on day 2, nothing exciting is going to happen.
Day 3 is an important day in the queen rearing time line, so be ready!
Day 3 is the day in the queen rearing time line when your egg hatches into a larva. Day three is when you will need to graft for optimal results. The closer to the moment when an egg becomes a larva you can graft, the higher quality your queens will be. Your success at grafting queens follows a curve based on larval age at time of graft. The closer to hatching you can graft, the more success you will have, and the farther from hatching the less success you will have. It is always best to graft larva the day they hatch, but you should have good success, especially in a non-commercial apiary up to 72 hours after hatching.
It is on this day that you need to have already made arrangements for your cell finisher hive to be ready. It is also the day you will need to have ready the various equipment you will need such as a grafting tool, wet towel, polished cell cups, cell bar frame, etc.
You will eventually learn how to identify all 5 stages of larval development. Suffice it to say that you are looking for the tiniest of the tiny here. Newly hatched larvae are almost invisible, at least to my older eyes lol. When in doubt inspect multiple frames, look for the smallest larva you can find and use only those to graft.
Day 4 - 7
Your newly hatched queen larvae are going to grow fast through all 5 stages of larval development. They will be fed exclusively royal jelly by the nurse bees. The queen cells will be constantly topped off with royal jelly, this is called "mass-provisioning" and differs from how drones and workers are fed, which is much more infrequently and is called "progressive-provisioning". It is during these days that the queen cell is drawn out to its final size, but remains uncapped.
The final task of your larvae is to spin a thin cocoon to encase the pupa it will develop into. This is why you should replace brood comb every other year as the cocoons eventually lead to smaller and smaller interior cell space.
Day 8 in the queen rearing time line is also an important day. It is the day your queen cells will be capped. Technically this happens on day 8.5 as queens specifically have a 5.5 day larval development cycle as opposed to 6 days for workers and 6.5 days for drones.
It is important to keep close tabs on your queen cells and know specifically on which day they were capped. Knowing this will be required to predict on which day they will emerge.
Just like days 4-7 though, there is nothing special you need to do during this time, other than make sure you know which step is happening on which day.
Your capped queen cells will be in their pupal stage during this time. quietly developing into fully formed queen bees. If you know you are going to be busy for the last couple of days of this cycle, make sure to put queen cell cages over your queen cells. The last thing you want is to have been off by one day in your count, and have a queen emerge before you thought she should, and kill the rest of the queens you've raised before they could ever even get our of their cells!
Payday! This is the day in your queen rearing time line that your queens will emerge. Technically this is 8 days after they are capped, as the time between egg and capping of cells can change if the brood nest temperature drops. Most of the time though, this is going to be day 16. As the queens emerge they will begin "piping" which is an audible call to other emerged queens to help them locate one another. They do this to have the ultimate Battle Royale, which will leave only one queen alive. Once there is only one queen, she will quickly find all other queen cells and quickly dispatch your other queens. That is if you have not taken care to put cell cages around the cells to protect them from one another.
Virgin queens should be placed, in a queen cage with candy, into your mating NUCs on day 16 or 17.
Day 17 - 19
Your queens will spend these few days maturing a bit to become ready for mating. Do not expect a newly emerged virgin queen to just take a mating flight as soon as she emerges!
Your new virgin queens have matured and are now ready for mating on day 20 of the queen rearing time line. She will be making mating flights over the course of the next 14 days. If she has not successfully mated by day 38 or has been mated with very few drones, she will likely be immediately superceded or will turn into a drone layer.
This is the earliest day you should expect to find eggs from your mated queen in her mating NUC.
I hope this queen rearing time line clears up any confusion and makes it seem less daunting to raise your own queens. The bees themselves do most of the work. You are only needed on a select few days in the cycle. Most of your work is honestly in preperation for the process. You have to make a cell starter, and a cell finisher, as well as have all the equipment you will need ready before hand. Once this is done though it's easy. If you make a typical grafting frame of 20-30 grafts, and have only 10% success, you still will have 2 to 3 queens! Really what do you have to lose? Give it a try, you'll love it. There really is very little else in beekeeping that is as rewarding as raising your own queens.