The term “queen bee” is typically used to refer to an adult mated female that lives in a honey bee colony or hive; she is usually the mother of all of the bees in the beehive.
The queens are developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed in order to become sexually mature. There is normally only one adult, mated queen in a hive, in which case the bees will usually follow and fiercely protect her.
Although the name might imply it, a queen bee does not directly control the hive. Her sole function is to serve as the reproducer. A well-mated and well-fed queen of quality stock can lay about 1,500 eggs per day during the spring build-up—more than her own body weight in eggs every day. She is continuously surrounded by worker bees who meet her every need, giving her food and disposing of her waste. The attendant workers also collect and then distribute queen mandibular pheromone, a pheromone that inhibits the workers from starting queen cells.
The queen bee is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays. The queen lays a fertilised (female) or unfertilised (male) egg according to the width of the cell. Drones are raised in cells that are significantly larger than the cells used for workers. The queen fertilises the egg by selectively releasing sperm from her spermatheca as the egg passes through her oviduct.
Queen rearing is the process by which beekeepers raise queen bees from young fertilised worker bee larvae. The most commonly used method is known as grafting. In the grafting method, the beekeeper grafts larvae, which are 24 hours or less of age, into a bar of queen cell cups. The queen cell cups are placed inside of a cell-building colony. A cell-building colony is a strong, well-fed, queenless colony that feeds the larva royal jelly and develops the larvae into queen bees.
After approximately ten days, the queen cells are transferred from the cell building colony to small mating nuclei colonies, which are placed inside of mating yards. The queen cells hatch inside of the mating nuclei. After approximately 7-10 days, the virgin queens take their mating flights, mate with 10-20 drone bees, and return to their mating nuclei as mated queen bees.
Queen rearing can be practiced on a small scale by hobbyist beekeepers raising a small amount of queens for their own use, or can be practiced on a larger, commercial scale by companies that produce queen bees for sale to the public. As of 2017, the cost of a queen honeybee ranges from £25 to £300 for an artificially inseminated or island mated ‘Breeder Queen”.
Beekeepers can also utilise alternative methods of queen rearing. Examples are the Nicot cupkit, performing splits, Cloake board, and artificial insemination.