Once the Queen is deemed unfit to serve due to old age or disease, worker bees cluster tightly around her body until she dies from overheating, a process known as “cuddle death.”
The surviving virgin queen will fly out on a sunny, warm day to a “drone congregation area” where she will mate with 12-15 drones. If the weather holds, she may return to the drone congregation area for several days until she is fully mated. Mating occurs in flight. The young queen stores up to 6 million sperm from multiple drones in her spermatheca. She will selectively release sperm for the remaining 2–7 years of her life.
The young virgin queen has a limited time to mate. If she is unable to fly for several days because of bad weather and remains unmated, she will become a “drone layer.” Drone-laying queens usually signal the death of the colony, because the workers have no fertilized (female) larvae from which to raise worker bees or a replacement queen.
Though timing can vary, matings usually take place between the sixth and tenth day after the queen emerges. Egg laying usually begins 2 to 3 days after the queen returns to the beehive, but can start earlier than this.
A special, rare case of reproduction is thelytoky: the reproduction of female workers or queens by laying worker bees. Thelytoky occurs in the Cape bee, Apis mellifera capensis, and has been found in other strains at very low frequency.
Capped emergency supersedure queen cells
Supersedure is the process by which an old queen bee is replaced by a new queen. Supersedure may be initiated due to old age of a queen or a diseased or failing queen. As the queen ages her pheromone output diminishes.
Supersedure may be forced by a beekeeper. For example, by clipping off one of the middle or posterior legs from the queen, she will be unable to properly place her eggs at the bottom of the brood cell. The workers will detect this and will then rear replacement queens.
When a new queen is available, the workers will kill the reigning queen by “balling” her, colloquially known as “cuddle death”: clustering tightly around her until she dies from overheating. This method is also used by Japanese honeybees to kill large predatory wasps that enter the hive and may be used against a foreign queen attempting to take over an existing colony. Balling is often a problem for beekeepers attempting to introduce a replacement queen.
If a queen suddenly dies, the workers will flood several cells, where a larva has just emerged, with royal jelly. The young larva floats on the royal jelly. The worker bees then build a larger queen cell from the normal sized worker cell and it protrudes vertically from the face of the brood comb. Emergency queens are usually smaller and less prolific, and therefore not preferred by beekeepers.