Queen Bee Size – Is Bigger Better?

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The size of a mature honey bee queen varies a bit from one colony to another. Does queen bee size mean she is of more value to the honey bee colony? Age, genetics and feeding during development all play a part in determining how big she eventually gets. But, does how important in queen size?

Large size queen honey bee surrounded by workers on comb.

As a beekeeper interested in keeping productive colonies, the condition of queen bee is a top priority. She does not have to be large but she does need to be productive.

Normal Size of Honey Bee Queens

A queen bee is around 20-25 mm in length. This may not sound very large but it is about double the size of worker bees.

The queen’s wings only extend halfway down her back. Though she is capable of flying, flight is not her main objective. Her time of flying outside the hive is limited to mating (during the bee reproduction phase) and swarming.

The thorax (mid section) of a queen is slightly larger than that of workers. But, it is her abdomen or 3rd section that is most distinguishable.

The long abdomen houses reproductive organs that enable her to fulfill the primary role of the queen honey bee – laying eggs.

Infographic chart that compares size of queen bee to worker and drone.

Why is the Queen Bee Bigger?

Due to her larger size, it sure seems that she would be a great worker capable of bringing in lots of nectar and pollen. Alas, our queen honey bee is not a forager bee

But, she can do a job that none of the other bees in the hive can – she can lay fertilized eggs that develop into workers.

Queen’s Abdomen

Inside the long abdomen, we find her several important reproductive organs. A pair of large ovaries holds all of the eggs that she will ever lay. She can average over 1000 eggs a day during peak season, that’s a lot of bee eggs!

Also, the queen has a developed “spermatheca”. This special organ stores semen collected from drone bees during her mating flights. 

The queen mates for a short time during her youth. She must have room inside her body to store sperm.

Once the fertile queen begins egg laying, she continues until she dies. When her performance begins to lag the worker bees kill the queen and make a new replacement.

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Fresh bee eggs laid by the queen in honeycomb cells.

Queen Cell Size May Predict Quality

Because of the large size of the queen bee, she must be reared in special wax cells. The larger developing queen pupa would not fit in a regular bee brood cell.

Larva that are destined for queenhood are reared in special queen cells. These peanut shaped structures hang down from the surface of the honeycomb.  

Sometimes, you will see them along the bottom of a frame of comb. This is especially true for a colony planning to swarm. It is not uncommon to see 6 or more of these special cells on the bottom of frames in a crowded colony.

Capped queen queen cell on frame with worker bees extruding wax image.

A healthy colony with a strong population produces large reproductive cells with a mottled, carved appearance on the surface.

They are kept well provisioned with plenty of food during the developing larval stage. Inside the queen larva floats in a bed of royal jelly and other brood food.

If the hive has a low population of workers or sick and unhealthy bees, queen cells will be fewer and smaller. With fewer worker bees to tend and feed the larva, the developing queen inside may be inferior.

She may never reach the size or potential that a good diet could have provided. But, that is a generality not a written in stone certainty.

Large mottled queen cell in beehive.

Swarm Season and Queen Reproduction

One of the best ways to get a large sized queen bee is during the time of honey bee swarming

In most swarming situations, the old queen leaves with the swarm to start a new home in a different location. Left behind as swarm cells that hold several developing queens.

Hopefully the strongest virgin queen emerges first. She kills her rivals and after mating becomes the new mother for the colony.

Why is the queen bee size and quality often better during swarm season? Swarming often occurs in Spring when the colony has ample food resources.

With a booming population, there are numerous nurse bees to produce care for developing queens. These larvae have the best chance of becoming large healthy queen bees.

Can You Judge a Queen Honey Bee by Size?

Size can matter in determining the quality of the primary egg layer in the hive. In general, bigger is better. We would hope a large size means that she was well fed during development and well mated.

But, when you purchase a queen bee (especially early in the season), initial size is not always a true indicator of quality.

Some freshly mated queens seem very small. Don’t be disappointed yet. Given a few weeks to mature and begin laying in the hive, the small lady’s abdomen starts to plump up.

Only time will tell if the initial queen size was an indicator of her value. Other factors, including how well mated she is and the health of her colony also affects her performance.

FAQs

What does a big queen bee look like?

The long abdomen of the queen bee is her most distinguishing characteristic. The queen’s wing do not extend to the end of her abdomen. Her thorax (mid section) is also slightly larger.

What is the size of a queen honey bee in inches?

With some variations, the average body length of a queen honey bee is 0.96 – 1.00 inches.

What is the size of a queen bee vs a worker bee?

On average, a queen honey bees is about twice the size of a worker bee in length. A drone bee is also longer than a worker but lacks the long abdomen of a queen.

A Final Word

Few things are more fulfilling to a beekeeper than seeing a large size queen bee waddling across the comb. She ignores our intrusion as she goes about her vital task of selecting cells in which to place her young.

Though size is not always an indicator of quality. All beekeepers I know reach for the biggest one if given a choice – I do too!

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