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Why is the Queen Bee Such a Big Deal?
Who is the most well-known member of a honey bee colony? The queen bee of course. The most important individual in the hive, every part of colony life revolves around the her. She can not live without the other members of the hive. But, a colony will not survive for long without her either. Thankfully, our honey bees have a system to replace this special bee when needed. Let’s explore some amazing facts about the queen bee. Some of them may surprise you.
Being curious about bee life if nothing new. Researchers have studied bees for a very long time. Honey bees have been managed in man-made hives for thousands of years. But we still do not know everything about their life.
However, we have learned a lot about bees and how they function as a family. Individuals of the colony work together for the benefit of the hive. Different roles are played by various members of bee society. Each bee in the colony has a role to fill.
The honey bee queen is the mother of every bee in the hive. From egg laying to colony communication, she fills a role that no other colony member can.
What Does the Queen Do?
A queen bee actually has a several known functions in the hive. That we know of -who knows what we have not yet discovered?
Of course, the major role of the queen bee involves laying many thousands of eggs. Her major claim to fame is her ability to lay fertilized eggs. This is important because fertilized eggs develop into worker bees .
This is the work force of the colony and thousands are required to maintain the hive. Workers bring in food, raise young and protect the hive from predators.
The queen bee can also lay unfertilized eggs which develop in drones. Drones are male bees that are needed to mate with new queens.
The queen also produces special pheromones. These pheromones are chemical messengers that aid in colony communication. They help to stabilize the mood of the hive and ensure members that everything is going along as it should.
If the queen bee is missing, the colony is alerted quickly due to a lack of her pheromones. Some resources say that the bees can recognize her absence within 15-30 minutes.
A hive without a queen bee is “queenless” and the colony recognizes the severity of the situation. Workers begin the process of replacing her within hours.
What Does the Queen Bee Look Like?
A queen bee is similar to other female members of the colony. Honey bees are insects that go through several stages of development. The queen does the same progressing from egg, to larva, pupa and adult.
And, we know from bee anatomy that all insects have 3 major body sections. She has a head, thorax and abdomen with 2 pairs of wings and 6 legs – antenna, eyes and other vital body parts.
However, a quick glance reveals a major visible difference, the presence of a large, long abdomen. The large abdomen holds ovaries that will produce a lifetime’s quantity of eggs.
The long tail reaches deep down into the comb cells. At the bottom a single egg is attached to the bottom of the cell.
Also, inside is a spermatheca that holds stored semen from the mating process to be used for fertilizing eggs. She is much like her sisters but has specialized structures that allow her to perform her duties.
Unlike the other females in the colony, she does not have pollen baskets. This is because she does not leave the hive to gather pollen or nectar.
Do Queens Have Stingers?
Yes, a queen bee does have a stinger but it is different than that of the workers. She is not tasked with the duty of hive protection. Chasing off predators, such as, a bear or rowdy beekeeper is not her problem.
But this does not mean that her stinger is without a purpose. The smooth stinger of a queen is not barbed at the end. It is only used to kill rival virgin queens.
The colony produces more than 1 queen at at time but only one new virgin will rule. All rivals must go. The first to emerge will quickly kill all other contestants. But this sting is only for other bees – humans are rarely stung by a queen.
Are Queen Bees Bigger?
The largest bee in the colony, a mature mated queen is about twice the size of the workers. This is due primarily to her long abdomen. However, her middle section or “thorax” is slightly larger than also.
Her size can vary a bit due to the type of bee (or race) that is part of her genetic heritage. Maturity plays a role too. A virgin has a smaller abdomen until she begins to lay eggs.
In fact, sometimes it is difficult to tell a virgin from a larger worker bee. But once she begins to lay, the abdomen will fill out and plump up noticeably.
New beekeepers must learn how to find their queen honey bee for hive maintenance. This skill takes a while to master. It is common for new beekeepers to be confused and find drone bees instead.
Everyone tells beginner beekeepers to look for the biggest bee – LOL. True, drones are larger than most members of the colony. But, they lack the long egg-filled abdomen that you should look for.
Does the size of the queen bee matter? Sometimes beekeepers feel that a larger queen is likely to be a more productive egg layer but that is not always true. In general, a plump abdomen can signal good egg producing ovaries and a full spermatheca.
However, due to genetic issues at play – you may have a slimmer queen that becomes an egg laying machine.
How are New Queens Made?
The life cycle of a queen begins with a fertilized egg. When the colony needs a new queen, worker bees select several very young female larvae. The larva must be very tiny – almost too small to see – to be the best candidates.
These tiny larvae are fed copious amount of rich food by numerous nurse bees. This causes the larvae to develop into reproductive females capable of mating.
For years, it was believed that a substance called royal jelly was responsible for reproductive development in bees. Today, researchers believe that other food substances are involved in this process too.
As the larvae grow, their cells will be enlarged to accommodate their larger size. Approximately 16 days after egg lay, the new virgins emerge. One will survive to rule the colony.
Mating takes place in mid-air with 12-20 drones from other colonies. This promotes genetic diversity in the colony population.
A honey bee colony consists of thousands of female worker bees. The one task that worker bees can not perform is laying fertilized eggs. If something happens to the queen, a new one must be made quickly.
In spite of the best planning, bees don’t live forever. If the queen bee dies, the colony must spring into action quickly.
It takes 16 days for a new queen to be produced and additional time for her to mature and mate. The future of the hive depends quick decision making by members of the colony.
Queen Cells-What They Mean?
Because a developing queen bee is larger than normal workers, she requires a larger cell for growth and development. These large cells are called queen cells.
They are easy to identify due to the large peanut shape on the surface of the comb or hanging from the bottom of frames.
Worker bees usually create several cells at one time. This is to increase their chances of success in case something where to go wrong – or maybe a clumsy beekeeper smashes one – ;).
But, only one of the newly hatched virgins will survive to become the new matriarch of the colony.
How is a new queen chosen among several virgin contenders? It is a battle to the death with hopefully the strongest contestant as the winner.
Seeing queen cells in a colony is a sure sign that something big is happening. Going through several stages of queen cell development, the progression aids the beekeeper in understanding their purpose.
Certainly a sign of queen production, these cells are built for various reasons. The colony may be replacing a failing queen or preparing to swarm.
Beekeepers must decide what to do with queen cells when managing their hives. Whether to leave the bees to their own plans or interfere depends on the condition of the colony and the beekeeper’s goals.
Some beekeepers become involved in queen rearing producing extras to sell or use in their apiary.
Do Queen Bees Leave the Hive?
Queen bees do not leave the hive regularly like the other members of the colony. These girls just don’t get out a lot. They might be described as home-bodies, or rather, hive-bodies?
She does not need to forage. Workers take care of her every need. Royal jelly consumed by the queen is so pure it results in little waste products. She has few reasons to leave the hive.
Reasons a Queen Honey Bee Flies Outside
- the virgin leaves the hive to mate
- she leaves with a swarm
Both activities relate to honey bee reproduction. In the first instance the new queen leaves the colony on several mating flights. Then returns to begin egg laying.
In the second instance, a queen leaving with a swarm is honey bee reproduction on a colony level. Both of these situations result in more bees.
How Honey Bees Recognize Their Queen
Queen Bees Smell Funny. Okay, let me phrase it another way. Each queen honey bee has a unique smell. She constantly emits pheromones. (These are like our hormones but on the outside.)
These pheromones are passed throughout the colony and tell the colony that all is well. Workers spread them by antenna touching and other grooming activities.
As the queen ages, she emits less pheromones. As egg laying and pheromone levels drop, her time is growing short. Having the ability to live up to 2 years, most colonies replace their queen bee much sooner.
Replacing Queens in a Beehive
Beekeepers often replace queens too for the same reasons as the colony. Having a young, well mated queen laying a lot of eggs is the goal.
Buying a queen bee for a hive is the most common way of replacing one. You can even buy one online and have her shipped through the mail.
Providing a honey bee colony with a different queen is called “re-queening the hive“. However, the beekeeper can not simply drop a new one in a colony.
The new queen will smell different than all the other occupants. Workers of the colony view her as a threat and usually kill her. She must be introduced to the colony slowly.
Before introducing this new queen, the beekeeper must remove the old one assuming she is still in the hive. Do you keep your queens marked? Marking a queen bee is safe when done properly and makes finding her much easier.
Final Facts about Queen Bees
The world of the honey bee is full of never ending surprises. Many facts are known about bees but there are some amazing myths about queen bees too.
While the queen is vital to colony life, she does not actually make colony decisions. These are made by the workers who know the needs of the colony. Learn the facts about queen bees and you will be able to share your bee knowledge with others.