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Queen Bee Size-Are Large Queens Better?

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Queen Bee Size and Quality

Does queen bee size play a role in her value to the honey bee colony? Is a bigger queen always better? The size of a mature honey bee queen varies a bit from one colony to another. Age, genetics and feeding during development all play a role in determining how big a queen gets. Regardless of her size every hive must have one.

A large size mature queen bee on honeycomb frame image.

How Big is a Queen Bee?

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.

Her thorax (or mid section) is slightly larger than the worker. But, it is her abdomen or 3rd section that is most distinguishable.

Inside the long abdomen, the reproductive organs of the honey bee queen produce thousands of eggs for the colony.

Large size dark queen honey bee in a hive image.

Swarming Often Produces Large Virgin Queens

When a colony is in need of a new queen, preparations get underway quickly.  If a queen has died due to old age or disease, the hive is in an emergency situation to replace her.

Emergency queens can be of excellent quality but there is also a bigger risk of producing a smaller or inferior queen bee.

One of the best ways to get a large, productive replacement queen 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.  Queen cells are left behind containing developing virgin queen.

Once these virgins emerge, one will survive to mate and become the new queen 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.

This colony with a booming population has many young nurse bees to produce food for developing queens and other brood.

Queen Cell Size Predicts Quality of New Queens

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

Built by female worker bees, these large peanut shaped cells 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 queen 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 queen cells that are well provisioned with plenty of food for the developing queen.

These cells have a mottled, carved appearance on the surface. Inside the new queen bee 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, the queen cells will be fewer and smaller. 

Small size queen cell producing inferior queen bee image.

With fewer worker bees to build cells and feed brood, the developing queen inside may be inferior. She may never reach the size or potential that a good diet could have provided.

In general, large nicely mottled queen cells are preferred over small smooth cells.  The candidate in the large well-fed cells is more likely to grow to a good size queen bee that lives a longer productive life.

Why is the Queen Bee Bigger?

Why is the queen bee so much larger than the other bees in the hive?  It sure seems that she would be a great worker capable of bringing in lots of nectar and pollen for the family.

Alas, our queen honey bee is not a forager.  But, she has a very important function. She can do a job that no other bee can – she can lay fertilized eggs that develop into female bees.

Developing bee larva from eggs laid by queen bee image.

Inside the long abdomen of the queen honey bee we find her reproductive organs. A pair of large ovaries hold all of the eggs that she will ever lay.

With an average queen laying over 1000 eggs a day during peak season, that’s a lot of eggs!

Also inside her abdomen is the “spermatheca”,  this special organ that (only the queen has) – stores semen from her mating flights. 

The queen only mates for a short time during her youth.  This short period of mating means that she must have room inside her body to store semen.

The wings of the honey bee queen only halfway down her back.  Though she is capable of flying, flight is not her main objective. Wings are only used during mating and swarming.

Once the queen bee begins egg laying, she will continue until she dies or her performance lags.  If her ability to lay eggs drops too low, the colony will begin plans to replace her.

Older small queen honey bee image.

Can You Judge a Queen Honey Bee by Size

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

But you can’t judge that new queen bee you just purchased on looks alone.

However, size is not always a complete indicator of the quality of the mother in the hive. Some virgin queens seem very small upon first mating.

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.

Many factors go into evaluating the quality of a queen. It starts with her genetic makeup (disease resistance etc.).

Then, we must consider her period of mating. She must be well-mated by several drone bees to become a good layer for the hive.

And lastly, the overall health and strength of the colony has a major effect on the production of any queen regardless of size.

Final Thoughts on the Size of Queen Bees

Few things are more fullfilling to a beekeeper than seeing a large 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.

The true heart of the hive, the role of the queen bee holds a place of honor in bee society. Though size is not always an indicator or quality.

Usually, we desire queens that are strong and ready to lay thousands of eggs for the colony.

A strong hive is more likely to produce a healthy large sized queen ready to provide the next generation. Though size is not always the best indicator of queen quality, it seems to be true that in most cases larger is better.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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