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The Role of the Queen Bee in a Hive

In a colony consisting of thousands of individuals, one holds a special place in the hierarchy of the hive. Yes, we are talking about the queen, and her special role in a honey bee colony. Each colony must have one or the hive is doomed to slow death. The primary function of a queen bee is laying eggs and oh what an egg layer she is. However, that is not her only purpose. What else does this special bee do?

Queen honey bee marked with paint on comb with worker bees image.

Function of a Queen Honey Bee

Ask almost anyone this question, “If you could become any member of the colony, which one would you choose?” 

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Most people would chose to be the queen. Now, if you are a man, you might rather be a King Bee – sorry guys – one does not exist.

Sometimes it is thought that she is “in charge”.  We assume she “rules the roost”, telling all the worker bees what to do.

Hey, if you have to become a insect, you might as well be the boss – right? Ok, you can stop pretending to be a honey bee now.

Because, before you decide to cast your imaginary self in the role of a Queen Bee, let’s investigate a little further into the dynamics of life inside the hive.

picture of queen honey bees in a hive the role of a queen bee

Identifying the Queen Bee

She is the largest member of the colony.  The first thing you may notice is her long tapered abdomen. This enables her to place eggs deep into the bottom of honeycomb cells. 

A large queen bee with full ovaries of eggs  with worker bees inside the hive image.

Mature queens are very easy to tell apart from workers or drones – male bees. But a virgins can have a slim abdomen until egg laying ramps up.

Therefore, size of a queen can vary a bit – especially with young ones just beginning to lay eggs. Larger is not always better though – some slimmer queens are prolific egg layers.

A queen can be any color.  This reproductive female may be lighter or darker than the other individuals in the hive.  This depends in part on the genetics of the hive and the race of bee that she came from.

A colony will rarely have more than 1 at a time. However, there may be times when 2 queens reside in the colony for a while. This is usually a mother/daughter pair. Eventually the new daughter will take over.

What Does the Queen Bee Do?

In reality, the duties of a queen honey bee are few. However, her tasks are vital to colony survival. None of the other females can take her place. Her most vital tasks are :

  • laying fertilized eggs that develop into workers
  • producing pheromones that aid in colony communication

The queen is the mother of all the other members of the colony. As the only female in the hive capable of mating, only she can lay fertilized eggs. This is the primary function throughout her short life span.

The fertilized eggs develop into workers who will support the colony. Unfertilized eggs develop into drone honey bees (males). They too are important to colony life but it is the thousands of workers that maintain the hive.

Queen bee inspecting empty cell in brood nest of a hive image.

How the Queen Bee Lays Eggs

The queen moves slowly across the surface of the comb. Her long abdomen contains ovaries with ripening eggs.  She has a special structure inside her abdomen that stores sperm (spermatheca) from her time of mating. 

  1. She checks the cells of the comb and measures the diameter with her front legs.
  2. Upon finding a clean polished cell, she lowers her abdomen into the cell and releases one egg.
  3. If the cell size is proper for a worker, the egg will be fertilized with semen
  4. If the cell size is larger, intended for a drone, she lays an unfertilized egg-that will become a drone.

(How cool is that – she can decide if she wants to have a boy or girl !) 

Queen Bee Pheromones

Another function of a queen is the production of pheromones. Pheromones are chemical messengers -much like external hormones.

They are used to communicate hive conditions. A good queen has strong pheromones that promote stability in the hive. Colony life continues on with each hive members doing their tasks because they know a queen is present.

QMP (Queen Mandibular Pheromone) is one of the most important pheromones produced. It affects the colony in many ways and plays a role in swarming, inhibiting sexual development in worker bees, etc.

If egg laying or pheromone production wanes, the honey bee colony may begin preparations to replace their queen.

How Long Does A Queen Bee Live?

While the life span of a queen can cover up to 5 years or more, she is not normally allowed to live that long. 

When she begins to lag in her 2 main roles: egg laying and pheromone production, the bees will make plans to replace her.

This of course assumes that she is not killed by disease or accident. If the queen bee dies, she must be replaced as soon as possible.

Queens Are Replaced for Several Reasons

As with anyone who is the leader of an organization, a queen is often blamed when things go wrong. 

After a period of time, the queen will not be able to lay enough fertile eggs to meet the colony demands.  Poor egg production is often accompanied by failing pheromone production.

Once the workers become dissatisfied, her time is limited.  The colony will produce queen cell and make a new leader.

Also, if a beekeeper wants to introduce new genetics into a colony or replace an aging queen, the old one is removed from the hive before the colony will accept a new one that “smells” different.

Do Queen Bees Make decisions about hive buildup?

The queen bee does not really make decisions about building up colony population. She can not lay eggs until the workers build honeycomb and clean the cells.

She will not lay eggs in an unpolished cell.   No honeycomb, no polished cells = no eggs laid. The workers are the ones who really make most colony decisions.

Honey bee queen laying an egg with worker bee retinue surrounding her image.

What Happens to a Queen Without Workers?

Unfortunately, situations occur where a queen is left with few or no worker bees.  In this situation, the colony is doomed. 

The queen does nothing but lay eggs.  She does not forage for food or water and she can not take care of any brood.

She gives her whole life in service to the colony. Her tasks can not be accomplished by another colony member. This is why a colony without a queen strives to replace her quickly when needed.

Common Questions About Honey Bee Queens

What are the queen bee’s attendants called?

The queen’s retinue is a special group of young adult worker bees that attend to her every need.  They are often seen in a circle facing her.

They will provide food in the form of royal jelly – a nutrient rich, pure food source.  The few body wastes produced by the queen are  removed by her retinue.
picture of the retinue of attendants surrounding a queen honey bee in the hive

Can queen bees fly?

Yes, the queen has the capacity to fly.  However, she only leaves the hive during her time of mating or later with a swarm. 

Do queen bees mate with drones in the hive?

Reproduction in honey bees in not the same as that of mammals. Mating does not take place inside the colony.

Approximately 7 days after emergence, the virgin queen will take several mating flights. After mating with 12-20 drones, semen is stored inside her body.

She will never mate again and once the semen inside her body runs out. The colony will replace her.

Finals Thoughts on the Function or Role of a Queen Honey Bee

Being regal takes up a lot of the queen’s time.  As important as she is to the hive, she does not have to make all the decisions or do the work alone. However, the role of the queen bee is one that can not be performed by any other bee in the colony. For this reason, her status are the most important bee in the colony remains in place.

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