Honey bees are considered peaceful pollinators but nature can be tough – the behavior known as “balling the queen bee” is one example. A colony of honey bees is a large social organism where everyone has a role to play. If things, get out of balance – changes must be made. In this case, we have a situation where the queen is not living up to expectations – or a new queen has been put into the hive and the bees do not recognize her. Either event may result in a dead queen bee.
As a beekeeper, I strive to manage my colonies with as little human interference as possible. But, making sure the hive has a queen bee fulfilling her role as egg layer is a must.
What is “Balling the Queen”?
The action of balling the queen refers to a rather frightening and seemingly brutal way that the worker bees in the hive – kill a queen.
They flock (or flow) across the comb to the intended victim. Piling on her much like a loose football in a championship game.
In just a few seconds, we see an actual ball of bees surrounding the queen. A sharp buzz or distinctive hissing sound is common.
In addition, to some stinging, it is the actual presence of so many bodies that is responsible for queen death.
Packed closely together – the bees are able to generate heat. So much heat that the queen in the center of the ball is overcome and dies.
Why Does this Aggression Happen
There are several reasons why bees kill their queen. The most common is that she is failing. She may be important to the colony, but her egg laying can not decline below an acceptable level.
The colony knows that its very survival depends on a good egg layer. When the queen can not fulfill that role and keep colony harmony – it is time to replace her.
In most cases, she would not allow another queen to be in the hive with her – though you may occasionally see a mother/daughter pair co-exist for a short time.
Before a new queen emerges from queen cells, the old queen must be removed.
New Queen Introductions
Another situation where we see bees balling the queen is during introduction of new queens. Any colony that has been long queenless is more likely to resist efforts to requeen the hive.
If a newly introduced queen is not slowly integrated into the hive (as with a queen cage with candy), the workers usually consider her to be an intruder and will kill her by queen balling.
Balling the queen is a much more aggressive behavior than when we see bees biting the wire mesh of a new caged queen. But, that action is definitely a sign that they would ball her given the chance.
Disturbances in the Hive
On several occasions over the years, I have seen bees begin to ball the queen during one of my hive inspections. Why? I don’t know. But, a possible cause is that I was being too disruptive to the colony.
Any time of stress can cause bees to react in strange ways. Maybe, they were attempting to protect her by surrounding her. This is another reason why inspections – especially those first hive inspections after installing bees should be brief.
What to Do
I have used my bee smoker to blow a puff of cool smoke on a balled queen. If the cause was due to stress from a hive disturbance – this may be enough. Following up with a light spray of 1:1 sugar water that I keep in my toolbox doesn’t hurt.
In situations where the queen is unknown to the colony, it is better to get her out. The balling cluster may be very determined and difficult to disperse.
Sometimes the application of smoke only makes the ball tighter. Try scooping up the ball and dip it in a bit of water – it will usually break up.
If you know this queen is already accepted, it might be best to quickly close up the hive and back off until another day.
Balling For Defense
However, in the case of insects that enter the hive – a strong colony of bees can ball the intruder in the same way they do the queen and kill it.
In most cases, balling a queen is an aggressive move when the workers are using body heat to kill the queen.
If the balling cluster is loose, the colony may only be trying to protect her. However in many cases the queen will die or be damaged during aggressive balling.
If the queen is new to the colony, you may want to quickly remove her. If she is known to the bees, it is often best to quickly close the hive and try inspection on another day.
A Final Word
Even after thousands of years managing bees, we still find secrets within the hive. We don’t always understand the “why” of some of the things they do. But, this is one of the benefits of beekeeping – we get a chance to look inside this intriguing world.