What Does the Queen Bee Do?
The queen honey bee is the most known bee in the colony. Everyone understands the importance of queen bees. But, is the role what you think it is? You may be surprised.
Ask anyone this question, ” If you could become any bee in the hive, which one would you choose?” Most people would chose to be one of the queen bees in a large colony.
Why? Because, queen bees are thought to be “in charge”. We assume the queen bee “rules the roost”, telling all the worker bees what to do. Hey, if you have to become a bee, 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 the Queen Bee, lets investigate a little further into the dynamics of life inside the bee hive.
Let’s look closer at the life of a honey bee queen. What exactly does she do? Why is she so important ?
What Do Queen Bees Do?
In reality, the duties of queen bees are few. However, her participation is very important. She is vital to colony survival. Without a good queen bee, the colony will not last long.
The queen bee is the mother of all the bees in the colony. She lays eggs that develop into adult bees. This is a very important duty for the queen because she is the only bee who can lay fertilized eggs.
Do Queen Bees Decide When to Build Up Colony Population?
Not entirely, she can not lay eggs until the workers build honeycomb and clean the cells in preparation. She will not lay eggs in an unpolished cell.
No honeycomb, no polished cells = no eggs laid.
Another function of queen bees is the production of pheromones. Bees communicated using pheromones – external hormones.
A good queen bee also gives off pheromones (chemical messengers) that promotes stability in the hive of this social insect.
If egg laying or pheromone production wanes, the honey bee colony may begin preparations to replace their queen.
How Do You Identify the Queen Bee?
The queen bee is the largest bee in the colony. She has a long tapered abdomen that enables her to place eggs deep into the bottom of honeycomb cells.
She is the largest bee in the colony (it’s hard to have thousands of kids and keep your figure- right?).
A queen bee can be any color. She may be lighter or darker than the other bees in the hive. A honey bee colony will rarely have more than 1 queen bee at a time.
However, there may be times when 2 queen reside in the colony for a while. This is usually a mother/daughter pair. Eventually the new daughter will take over.
Drones (male bees) are sometimes mistaken for queens by new beekeepers. It is an easy mistake to make. Drone bees are easy to notice because they are larger than worker bees.
However, drones lack the long abdomen of queen bees. They also have rounded tails instead of pointed ones.
Laying Eggs is the Primary Role of Queen Bees
During times of plentiful food sources, workers will build comb and clean each cell. They also clean cells after new bees have emerged.
The queen bee moves slowly across the surface of the honeycomb searching for clean/polished cells. She has a distinct waddling walk that beekeepers learn to recognize.
Her long abdomen contains ovaries with ripening eggs. She has a special structure that stores sperm (spermatheca) from her time of mating.
The queen honey bee checks the cells of the comb. Each polished honeycomb cell is inspected and measured with the queen’s front legs. She lowers her abdomen into the cell and releases one egg.
If the cell size is proper for a worker bee, the egg will be fertilized with semen before it leaves the queen’s body. If the cell size is larger, intended for a drone, the queen lays an unfertilized egg.
Worker (female) bees develop from fertilized eggs. Drones (males) develop from unfertilized eggs. The queen uses the sperm stored in her body to fertilize the egg as it moves through her abdomen.
Or not, if the cleaned cell is drone size. (How cool is that – she can decide if she wants to have a boy or girl !) Or does she make that decision?
Queen Bees – Do They Make Egg Laying Decisions?
We know the queen bee is a vital part of the honey bee colony. But is she the boss? Does she decide when to produce workers vs drones?
Hmmm.. The workers build the honeycomb and determine the size of the cells. And, they (the workers) decide which cells to clean and polish. No eggs are laid by the queen in a cell that is not polished.
Larger cells will hold drone bees. (Males that develop from an unfertilized egg). The measurements found by the queen’s inspection tell her which type of egg to lay. BUT, the worker are the ones who prepare the cells for eggs.
So, I guess she really does not chose the sex of her offspring. She simply lays the proper egg in the cell built and polished by workers.
Once eggs are laid in the honeycomb. The role of the queen bee as mother is over. She will play no part in the rearing of young.
Female worker bees will feed the developing larva until they transform into adults. (That’s metamorphosis folks. !)
The Queen Bee’s Retinue
Being regal takes up a lot of the queen’s time. Luckily for her, she has a retinue. This is a special group of young adults that attend to her every need.
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.
Can Queen Bees Fly?
Yes, a queen bee has the capacity to fly. However, queen bees only leave the hive on 2 occasions.
Young virgin queen bees leave the hive to mate. Mating does not take place inside the bee colony. Approximately 7 days after emergence, the queen bee will take several mating flights.
Depending on weather and drone availability, queen bees can be well mated in one day or over several days. Semen is stored inside her body. She returns to the hive and begins her role as mother of the colony.
The queen honey bee will never again leave the hive, unless the colony swarms. If the colony plans to swarm, the queen bee needs to slim down – making flight possible.
Workers will the amount of food given to the queen bee and encourage her to move more. This enables her to fly when the colony swarms to a new home.
Queen Bees Role in Communication -Pheromones
Let’s take a look at the other major role of queen bees. They are responsible for promoting colony harmony and survival. She produces external pheromones that serve as chemical messengers to the colony.
The retinue of workers following her around constantly groom her with their antennas. They groom the queen bee, themselves and other bees nearby.
In this way, the pheromones as passed throughout the colony. (Beekeepers use the pheromone system of bees to catch swarms with swarm lures.)
This pheromone identification is how bees recognize other members of the hive. When a bee who smells different tries to enter the hive, she will most likely be met at the door by guard bees.
In most cases, guard bees will repel the intruder if she is not a colony member. This important response protects the colony from robber bees.
The robbers would steal the colony’s food and possibly kill the queen. Strong pheromones ensure the bee colony that all is well and they have a producing queen bee.
Colonies that are queenless are often more irritable. If your bees are especially grumpy at times of the year when the weather is good and food abundant, check your queen status.
How Long Does A Queen Bee Live?
While a queen honey bee can live several years (2-5), she is not normally allowed to do so. When she begins to lag in her 2 main roles: egg laying and pheromone production, the bees will make plans to replace her with a new queen.
This of course assumes that she is not killed by disease, robbing bees or a clumsy beekeeper before then.
Lifespan for a Queen Bee is Limited
Though the queen bee has a short list of duties, I imagine laying 1500 eggs a day gets tiresome. Also, as with anyone who is the leader of an organization she is often blamed when things go wrong.
A queen bee only has a certain number of eggs in her ovaries. In addition, she has a finite amount of semen stored.
Replacing the Queen Bee
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.
What is a colony to do when their queen mother is not performing? Off with her head! Ok, it doesn’t happen exactly like that.
Once the workers become dissatisfied with the queen, her time is limited. The colony will use a very young larva from a fertile egg to produce another queen.
Queen bees are produced by choosing a larva of the right age and feeding it a special diet. This new queen will locate and kill the old queen if she is still there.
How sad is this? She lays thousands of eggs and one of her daughters “takes her out”. Alas, this is how the insect world works. The survival of the colony trumps the survival of the individual.
Do you know what a queen cell looks like ? – Check It Out Here – ->-> Queen Cells In The Beehive <-<–
Beekeepers Often Replace Queen Bees
A queen bee will average a life span of two years. There are reports of queens living much longer but most will be replaced much sooner by the bees or beekeeper.
The honey bee colony will only tolerate the queen in her role for as long as she can produce babies and pheromones. The bees will replace her if needed.
When the colony decides to produce new queen bees, it is a magical transformation. It is also risky. Things don’t always work out and the colony can end up without a queen bee!
Also, it takes time to produce a queen, get her mated and begin the laying cycle. A weak colony may not be able to survive long enough to finish the proceedure.
Beekeepers often have to replace queen bees that are failing. There is less risk for the bees and the beekeeper to simply buy them a mated queen. It also gives the beekeeper a chance to introduce new genetics into the colony.
This is the part of beekeeping that I hate. The current queen is killed and a new queen installed in a special introduction cage.
However, it is better to kill one bee rather than let a colony of 40,000 die due to a bad queen. Checking queen status is an important part of hive inspections.
I saw this one-handed queen catcher at a beekeeping convention. I have not tried it but I am intrigued by the concept and would like to get one someday.
It is common to feel a bit nervous about grabbing a queen bee. If you are too rough and damage her, it will cost you. Either you will have to buy a new queen or the colony will expend energy in producing a new queen bee.
Can a Queen Bee Sting?
Yes, the queen bee has a stinger. However, it is rare to be stung by the queen. Queen bees use their stingers to eliminate rival queens not for colony defense. Your chances of being stung by a queen are low.
Finding the Queen Bee
Like many beekeepers, I do try to mark my queen bees. This makes the job of finding the queen much easier. And, if you use the international marking guideline for colors, you can know the age of the queen.
Beekeepers place a non-toxic color dot on the thorax of queen bees. This is used to identify the birth year of the queen. Done properly, this does not hurt the queen.
Years ending in 0 or 5 are blue. If the year ends in 1 or 6 use white. Years ending in 2 or 7 are yellow. If the year ends in 3 or 8 use red. Years ending in 4 or 9 are green. i.e. 2017 (yellow) 2018(red) 2019 (green) etc
What Happens to the Queen Bee 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 bee does nothing but lay eggs. She does not forage for food or water and she can not take care of any brood.
The role played by a honey bee queen is not all glamour and gold is it ? Taking into consideration all the aspects of being the queen bee of the colony, it does not seem like the dream job we might imagine.
Queen bees perform as nature has intended for millions of years. She gives her whole life in service to the colony.