The Queen Bee – What You Need to Know
The queen bee is undoubtedly the most popular honey bee in the hive. Everything involving hive life evolves around her. However, is she really in charge? Let’s explore some facts about the queen and find out. What does this bee do beyond lay eggs?
Man (and woman) have been interacting with honey bees for thousands of years. So, we know everything about them by now, right? I mean, they’re bees – how complex can be life be?
No, nothing could be farther from the truth. We still do not know everything about bees. And, the honey bee colony has a complex social structure.
We have learned a lot about bees and the queen in particular. A colony does not usually have multiple queens in a hive. This can happen for a short time during a transition but it is not the norm.
We know that honey bees live together in a colony and share the work load. The honey bee colony over-winters as a family inside their beehive. The fact that a cold-blooded insect can over-winter is another wondrous feat.
Honey bees make honey from collected plant nectar. They also collect pollen and store it for Winter. Yet, the bee colony still has some secrets.
Researchers and beekeepers continue to learn bee facts every year.
How bees communicate with each other, how they interact with the environment and the roles played by individual bees are still being studied.
Much research has been done on the activities of honey bees in hives and the ritual of how one queen is chosen to rule. Let’s take a look into the life of a queen bee.
Questions and Answers about The Queen
- Are Queen Bees Bigger?
- What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?
- Is the Queen Bee Genetically Different?
- How is a Queen Made?
- How Long Does a Queen Bee Live?
- What Does the Queen Bee Do?
- How is the Queen Bee Chosen?
- Queen Bee Mating?
- How Honey Bees Recognize Their Queen?
- How to Spot the Queen Bee?
Honey bees are social insects that like together in a family. Each task that supports the colony is important. Every bee in the hive has a role to play.
The queen honey bee receives a lot of deserved attention. She is the most important single bee in the hive.
Normally, a colony will only have 1 queen at a time. But that doesn’t mean that her job is not very important.
Most people know that the queen lays eggs. The way bees reproduce would not be possible without this reproductive female.
She is the only bee who can lay fertilized eggs. These worker larva are the backbone of the colony. The queen lays a lot of eggs during the warm season. Some queens are reported to lay over 1000 eggs per day (or more).
But what else should you know about this “royal” honey bee?
Are Queen Bees Bigger?
How big is a Queen? She is the largest bee in the honey bee colony. Her size can vary a bit due to the bee race she belongs to.
A mature mated queen is about twice the size of the worker bees.This is due primarily to her long abdomen.
In fact, the shape of her body showcases the function of the queen. That long abdomen produces eggs.
A virgin queen will have a shorter abdomen until she begins to lay. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell a virgin queen from a larger worker bee.
However, if you look closely you will not that her abdomen is indeed a bit longer than the worker.
Amazingly after a week or so of laying eggs, the queen can get rather plump.
What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?
A queen honey bee is an insect. And we know from bee anatomy that all insects have 3 major body sections.
The queen has a long abdomen because of her role as mother of the colony. Her ovaries will produce a lifetime’s quantity of eggs.
The length also allows her to cement an egg into the bottom of a honey comb cell.
In order to manage a honey bee colony successfully, a beekeeper will often need to locate her.
Learning how to find the queen can take some time and practice. I have a video that my beekeeping students use for practice.
Drones (male bees) are often mistaken for a queen by beginning beekeepers. It’s an easy mistake to make. This is especially difficult on a frame with hundreds of bees moving around.
Drones are wider and noticeably different than regular workers, but they cannot compare in length to a mature queen.
The number of drones present vary during the warm season. But, all drones and no workers is a sign of problems with your queen.
Looking for a Virgin
It is very easy to over-look a young virgin queen in a crowded colony. A new queen can look very similar in size to some of the workers.
As she matures and progresses into her egg laying role, she will plump up. Beekeepers should not be alarmed if they have a smallish queen early in the season.
Another situation involving queen size is the time of swarming. Worker bees feed the queen honey bee.
When the colony is preparing to swarm, the queen is fed less than normal.
She will slim down making flight possible. Anyone who has ever stressed to find a slim queen in a hive of 60,000 bees understands the problem.
Is the She Genetically Different?
As with most living things, one queen will have different genetic material than another. The characteristics of each queen will differ.
One may produce offspring that are good honey producers. Another may produce workers that are very defensive and hard to manage.
This is why beekeepers will requeen a hive that has undesirable traits.
However, the queen honey bee develops from a fertilized egg. Any fertilized egg laid by a queen has the potential to become a queen bee.
She shares the same genetic material as thousands of her sisters. She has thousands of sisters and then daughters to keep her company.
How is a Queen Made?
The queen bee is not the only female in the colony. Thousands of female worker bees take care of all the tasks involved in bee life.
But when the colony needs a new queen, worker bees select very young larva- normally more than one. These queen larvae are fed a special diet that causes them to develop into queens.
The quality and quantity of food feed to a female bee larva determines reproductive development.
For years, it was believed that a substance called royal jelly was responsible for queen development. This is a special food that is very rich in nutrition. Today, researchers are thinking that other food substances may be involved.
Though the bees will invest effort into several queen cells, only one will survive to become the new matriarch of the colony. The first queen to hatch will seek out and kill the other virgin queens.
How Long Does It Take for a Queen to be Born?
Honey bees are insects that develop through several stages. The four stages are : egg, larva, pupa and adult.
The honey bee life cycle is amazing. Worker bees develop from egg to adult in 21 days. Drone bees make the same journey in 24 days.
But it only takes 16 days for the most vital bee in the hive to reach adulthood!
Instead of being “born”, we use the term “emerge”. An adult queen will “emerge” from her cell 16 days after the egg was laid.
How Long Does a Queen Bee Live?
While the queen is capable of living several years, this rarely happens. Two years is most common and some only last 1 season.
Once the aging queen declines in egg production or pheromone levels, the colony will replace her.
What Does the Queen Bee Do?
Function of the Queen Bee
News alert !! The queen is not the boss of the hive !
WHAT?! It’s true that she is important. However, it is an amazing fact that she does not make all the important decisions.
Inside the colony, workers feed the queen. She does not feed, groom or clean herself.
Swarming & The Queen Bee
The queen does not decide if the colony should swarm. Swarming is a natural activity of bees. A large crowded colony splits into 2 hives.
When planning to swarm, worker bees cut back on the amount of food received by the queen. This is so she will lose weight and be able to fly.
Queen cell development begins as larva from fertile eggs are chosen for possible queens.
Usually the old queen will leave with the swarm to become their queen at the new location. She is rushed out of the hive entrance by the exiting bees.
The original colony will have multiple queen cells inside. One of the virgin queens inside will become the new queen.
The Queen Decides Where to Lay Eggs Right?
Yes, the queen does lay eggs but the workers play an important role in that as well.
The queen moves across the honeycomb surface checking empty cells. She measures them with her antenna and front legs.
This is to determine whether it is a worker-sized cell or a drone-sized cell. An unfertilized egg is laid in a drone-sized cell – those in the worker cells are fertilized inside the queen’s body.
But, the queen will not lay in a cell that the worker bees have not cleaned and polished.
If the colony needs drones, the workers prepare drone-sized cells. If no drones are needed, those honeycomb cells will not be cleaned for the queen to use.
Do Queen Bees Have Stingers?
Yes, they do have stingers. But, queen are not aggressive – at least not towards us. She does not participate in defending the colony.
How is the Queen Bee Chosen – Queen Rivalry?
When a colony needs a new queen, they will actually raise several young queens at the same time.
This is to increase their chances of success – in case something happens to some of the cells.
So, how is the queen bee chosen among several contenders? The first virgin queen to emerge from her cell searches out the other queen cells to destroy them.
If more than one virgin queen emerges at the same time, a true queen bee fight will ensue.
The queen’s function in the hive is highly specialized. Her stinger is not barbed, it is smooth.
She uses her stinger to kill rival virgin queens. Queen bees rarely sting humans.
Almost everyone knows that a worker honey bee dies as a result of stinging a person or other mammal. Yet, the queen can sting you and live to talk to about it!
Why? Because a worker bee has the job of colony defense. When workers sting, their barbed stinger sticks in your skin.
This causes the stinger and poison sac to rip out and continue to inject venom!
If you get stung by a honey bee, you may try some sting remedies for relief!
Honey Bee Mating-Outside the Hive
Queen honey bees do not mate inside the hive. A few days after emerging from her queen cell, she will take flight on a warm, sunny afternoon.
How does she know where to go? We don’t know the answer to that . (I told you we still had things to learn about bees.)
If the virgin queen mated inside the hive, she would be mating with her brothers.
By mating well away from her colony, she is more likely to mate with unrelated drones. She mates with 12 to 20 drones during her mating flights.
This is a good thing because is promotes genetic diversity.
Do Queens Leave the Hive?
These girls just don’t get out a lot.They might be described as home-bodies, or rather, hive-bodies?
Workers take care of her every need. Royal jelly consumed by the queen bee results in little waste products.
Fed and cleaned by her daughters, she has few reasons to leave the hive.
There are only 2 occasions for Her Royal Majesty to leave the hive
- the virgin queen leaves the hive to mate
- a queen leaves with a swarm
How Honey Bees Recognize Their Queen
Queen Bees Smell Funny. Okay, let me phrase it another way.
Each queen has a unique smell. Smell is very important to honey bees. They use odors as a form of communication.
A queen constantly emits pheromones. (These are like our hormones but on the outside.) These pheromones are passed throughout the colony.
Workers spread them by antenna touching and other grooming activities. As the queen ages, she emits less pheromones.
Eventually, the colony will make a new (pheromone rich) queen to replace her. Egg production is highest in young queens and declines over time.
As egg laying and pheromone levels drop, her time is growing short. She may have the ability to live up to 2 years. But most colonies replace their queen much sooner.
How Beekeepers Introduce A New Queen
This queen pheromone activity is very important. A beekeeper can not simply drop a new queen in a queen-less colony.
She will smell different than all the other occupants. Workers of the colony view her as a threat and usually kill her.
Bee suppliers place a new queen in a special cage (queen cage) that is placed inside the hive. This queen cage gives colony members a chance to get to know her.
Hive workers will feed her through the wire and after a period of time (usually 3 – 7 days), she is accepted as the new queen.
How to Spot the Queen Bee?
Chances are that you will never see a queen honey bee unless you are a beekeeper. The vast majority of her life is spent inside the beehive.
For new beekeepers, knowing how to find the queen takes time. And, you won’t always be able to locate her.
I also like to mark my queens, this makes finding and replacing a queen easier. Being able to find your queen is a good skill to perfect.
Don’t be upset if it takes you a while to learn how to find a her: marked or not. It takes time and practice.
Want to practice finding queens? (Wish the quality was better but its still good practice and fun for everyone !) – Video
We know so many bee facts in general. But, we have a long way to go to unlock all the mysteries of the honey bee.
And, even though role of her majesty is vital – she does not make all the decisions for the hive.
Queen Status = Colony Condition
A colony without a productive queen is a colony in trouble. The bees will know it because of lack of queen pheromones and fewer eggs being laid.
The workers may attempt making a new queen for the hive. If the beekeeper sees queen cells being constructed in a colony that is not crowded, queen problems must be considered.
By contrast, a bee colony with a healthy productive queen will have brood of all stages and a general sense of well-being.
I have been studying honey bees for many years and still feel that I know so little. If you are considering beekeeping, I have a tip. Never stop learning.