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When the Queen Honey Bee Dies
The life of the honey bee queen may not be as glamorous as it seems. Yes, she is the single most important individual in the colony. She lays all the eggs that develop into worker bees. And, because each colony only has one queen bee we must wonder – What happens if the queen bee dies?
Thankfully, the queen is long-lived compared to other members of the colony. However, like all other bees there will come a time when she will perish.
Where a Queen Comes From?
The queen honey bee begins life as a fertilized egg – like thousands of her sister worker bee larvae.
When the colony needs a new queen, a few very young larva are selected. These larvae are fed a copious diet of rich brood food.
Brood food for queen production consists of royal jelly but also other substances. This is contrary to what was once thought about queen bees. Earlier, we believe that future queens were only fed royal jelly.
The amount and consistency of this special diet causes the larvae to develop into sexually reproduction females.
Reproductive Role of the Queen Honey Bee
The adult queen honey bee will be able to do something that the female workers can not. She can go out and mate with drone bees.
Drones are the male bees of the colony. Their only function is to mate with virgin queen.
A special structure in the queen’s abdomen, the spermatheca, stores drone semen. The queen only mates during a short period of her young adult life.
She acquires all the semen she will ever have access to during this time of mating. Once this source is depleted, she is no longer be able to lay fertilized eggs.
She becomes a drone laying queen due to her inability to produce workers for the colony. Then, the hive makes plans to replace her.
Beekeepers faced with a failing queen will often find the queen bee and replace her with a new one. A well mated productive queen is vital for colony success.
Lack of Queen Pheromones Signals Trouble
Queens produce special pheromones that are recognized by other members of the colony. These “external hormones” are the chemical messengers of the hive.
Select workers feed and groom the queen with their antennae. During the process, pheromones are passed throughout the hive.
The presence of queen bee pheromones and those given off by developing bee brood inform the colony that all is well. Colony life is going along as it should.
If those pheromone levels disappear or drop, the colony knows that their queen is failing or missing.
This signals workers to begin hasty construction of queen cells. If the queen bee dies or fails, her replacement is needed as soon as possible.
Lack of Fertilized Eggs Signals a Queen Problem
Often the queen may not die but begin to lag in production. The queen honey bee is an egg laying machine. Depending on colony conditions, she can easily average 1000 to 2000 eggs per day.
However, she has a limited supply of eggs and stored sperm. Once these are exhausted so is her usefulness to the colony.
Either poor egg production or failing pheromones may cause the colony to decide its time for a new queen bee.
Life Span of the Average Honey Bee Queen
Having the potential to live 3 years or more, the actual life span of the queen is often cut much shorter.
Poor mating, disease, bad genetics or a beekeeping accident can result in a colony finding itself suddenly queenless.
Predator accidents such as an attack by a bear have been known to cause queen death. And, honey bee robbing incidents can result in queen loss.
Some studies suggest that the colony is aware of a dead queen within minutes of the event. The bees must take swift action to make a new queen bee.
What Worker Bees do if the Queen Dies
When a queen is suddenly lost (or is failing) time is of the essence. Workers spring into action to rear a new queen bee. Their first action is building queen cells.
Developing queen bee larvae require larger cells than regular workers. We call these special cells – queen cells.
These large peanut shaped queen cells hang down from the face of the comb or are attached at the bottom of the comb.
When the queen suddenly dies, we call the cells being built- emergency queen cells. The members of the colony did not have time to plan for queen replacement.
With the queen gone, the colony must use the fertilized eggs or larva they have on hand. The youngest larva may be found anywhere on the face of the comb.
The best larva is about 1 day old and very tiny. After enlarging the cell around the chosen larva, an enormous amount of brood food is loaded into the cell. This diet causes the selected larvae to develop into queen bees.
Often, 5 or 6 larvae will be chosen as queen candidates. Workers continue to feed the developing larva and build the queen cells to the desired size.
The queen cells will be capped at the appropriate stage according to the life cycle of the queen bee.
About 16 days after the egg was laid, a new queen bee will emerge. In most cases, the first virgin queen to emerge will seek out and kill her rivals.
Replacement Queen Mates and Begins to Lay Eggs
After maturing inside the hive for a few days, the virgin queen will take her mating flights. Leaving the hive on warm, fair afternoons, she may fly up to several miles away.
Once she arrives in the area where drones are congregating, mating takes place 20 – 80 feet in the air. The queen may make several mating flights over the next few days.
After mating with 12-20 drones her spermatheca is filled with semen. Her time of mating is over. She will never leave the hive again unless she is part of a honey bee swarm.
Within 3-5 days of mating, our new mated queen begins to lay. Now, the cycle is complete and our bee colony has replaced their lost queen.
The life cycle of the colony is back on track with a laying, pheromone producing queen at work.
If the colony fails in their attempt, the beekeeper may need to buy a new queen.
How Long Can a Colony Survive Without a Queen?
If the queen bee is removed from the hive and no replacement possible, hive life will continue on…for a while. Individual bees will live out their short 6 week life span.
Due to the lack of queen and brood pheromones, some bees may become laying workers in an attempt to spread their genetic heritage. But the colony is doomed and will fail within a couple of months.
Final Thoughts on Replacing a Dead Queen Bee
When a queen honey bee dies, the colony knows that she is the one bee they can not do without. The mood of a colony in transition may be more testy.
As a bee family, they are in a precarious situation and seem to realize it. As will all things in bee life, they work together to rear a new queen bee.