The Vital Role of a Queen Bee
Bees are among the most important insects on our planet. And within any honey bee colony, there is a specific bee that holds an especially important position. Yes, I am talking about the queen honey bee. The role of a queen bee is essential to colony survival. From the beginning of her life until her last day, the members of the hive work to care for her and protect her. What does a queen bee do? Actually, you may be surprised to learn of some of the ways her presence affects the hive.
What does the Queen Bee Do?
Ask almost anyone this question, “If you could become any member of the colony, which one would you choose?” Most people would chose to be the queen.
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Now, if you are a man, you might rather be a King Bee – sorry guys – one does not exist. But, the male bees are important to colony life too.
Sometimes it is thought that the queen is “in charge” much like a human monarch. 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.
But, 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.
What does a queen bee look like? She is the largest bee (in length) in the colony and not too hard to find – once you learn what to look for.
The first thing you may notice is her long abdomen. Queen bees have a more elongated and tapered abdomen compared to the rounded abdomen of worker bees. This enables her to place eggs deep into the bottom of honeycomb cells.
Also, their wings are shorter in proportion to their body size. This is because they don’t have to fly very often.
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.
The size of a queen can vary a bit – especially with young ones just beginning to lay eggs. But, larger is not always better – some slimmer ladies are prolific egg layers.
A young queen must leave the hive and mate during the first week or so of her life. She has a special structure inside her abdomen that stores sperm (spermatheca).
Mature queens are very easy to tell apart from workers or drones – male bees. But a virgin can have a slim abdomen until egg laying ramps up. These are trickier to find in a large colony.
The queen does have a stinger but it is different than that of workers. Her stinger is smooth instead of barbed. The queen bee can sting multiple times without injuring herself.
She does not need to protect the hive from predators. Instead, her stinger is used to kill rival queens.
Queen Bee Pheromones
There is another important physical characteristic that is unique to the queen bee – but you can’t see them.
She has specialized glands that produce 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. They help identify her in the role as leader and reproductive center of the colony.
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.
Main Duties of the Queen
In reality, the duties of a queen honey bee are few. However, none of the other females can take her place. The main functions of the queen bee are:
- laying eggs – fertilized and unfertilized
- producing pheromones
The mother of all the other members in the colony. She is the only female in the hive capable of mating, and laying fertilized eggs.
Fertilized eggs develop into female workers who will support the colony. Unfertilized eggs develop into drone bees (males). They too are important to colony life but it is the thousands of workers that maintain the hive.
This is the primary function throughout her short life span. If egg laying or pheromone production wanes, the honey bee colony may begin preparations to replace their queen.
How the Queen Lays Eggs
She moves slowly across the surface of the comb – a small group of workers follow her. Her long abdomen contains ovaries with ripening eggs and stored semen.
- She checks the empty wax cells and measures their diameter with her front legs.
- Upon finding a clean polished cell, she lowers her abdomen into the cell and releases one egg.
- If the cell size is proper for a worker, the egg will be fertilized with semen
- If the cell size is larger, intended for a drone, she lays an unfertilized egg
(How cool is that – she can decide if she wants to have a boy or girl !)
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.
How a New Queen is Chosen
After a period of time, the older 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 female worker bees become dissatisfied, they will begin to build queen cells. Cells with very young larvae are chosen for potential new queens. This is called a supersedure.
The first virgin queen to emerge will kill her rivals and become the new leader.
Also, if a beekeeper wants to introduce new genetics into a colony or replace an aging queen a replacement may be purchased. The existing queen 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.
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 but can not survive alone for very long.
Being regal takes up a lot of the queen’s time. As important as she is to the beehive, she does not 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 as the most important bee in the hive remains secure.
A colony can survive for a short time without a queen bee, but the workers will usually attempt to raise a new queen bee as soon as possible. If a colony is unable to produce a new queen bee, it will eventually die out.
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 are removed by her retinue.
Yes, the queen has the capacity to fly. However, she only leaves the hive during her time of mating or later with a swarm. Other than those 2 exceptions, she remains in the hive for the rest of her life.
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 male drones, semen is stored inside her body.
The queen mates only during this short period of time. Once the stored semen inside her body is gone. The colony will replace her.
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.