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The Role of the Queen Bee

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. What does a queen bee do? She lays eggs – thousands of them. However, that is not her only purpose. What other function does this special bee have?

What does the Queen Bee Do?

Colony honey bee queen on frame with workers image.

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.

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.

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.

Identifying the Queen Bee

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 tapered abdomen. This enables her to place eggs deep into the bottom of honeycomb cells. 

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 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.

The queen does have a stinger but it is different than that of workers. Her stinger is smooth instead of barbed. She does not need to protect the hive from predators. Instead, her stinger is used to kill rival queens.

Golden queen bee with large abdomen on comb image.

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.

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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.

Duties of the Queen

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

She 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.

These fertilized eggs develop into 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.

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

Laying 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.  She has a special structure inside her abdomen that stores sperm (spermatheca) from her time of mating

The queen mates with several drones during the first week or so after reaching adulthood. Unless she leaves with with a swarm, the queen spends the rest of her life inside.

  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 thing that a queen bee does is produce special 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 daily 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, she is often blamed when things go wrong. 

After a period of time, the old 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, her time is limited.  The colony will produce queen cell and make a new leader. This is called a supersedure.

Also, if a beekeeper wants to introduce new genetics into a colony or replace an aging queen a replacement may be purchased. The old one is removed from the hive before the colony will accept a new queen 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 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.

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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8 Comments

  1. How do drones develop from unfertilized eggs?
    Who does the queen mate with?

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Those questions are answered a bit more in my post – The Life Cycle of the Queen Bee
    Honey bees are capable of parthogenesis – the ability to reproduce without sex. But only haploid drones (males) result. The queen mates in the air – well away from the hive with drones from other colonies.

  3. Jerome Banks says:

    Your information was very informative. I would love to visit your farm sometime. Me and my sister are new beekeepers. We have been doing this for two years. Lost some hives due to moths and some swarmed. We have two good hives going into the cold months. Hope to have honey next year.

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    I am glad to hear you have 2 good hives going into Winter. Hopefully you will enjoy a honey harvest next Summer!

  5. Hi, I have a question that does not seem to have been addressed anywhere. If I have a virgin queen from a swarm and also an established hive with a laying queen and I choose to add all the bees from the swarm into the active laying hive they suggest I remove the virgin queen and follow the procedures to introduce the workers, not an issue. Now, after removing the virgin queen, instead of putting her in the freezer to kill her, I release her into the wild miles from the hive. Will she be able to survive? Will she find other bees to take care of her, maybe mate with drones and start a swarm/colony? Or will she just perish over time? Thanks.

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Hi Doug, She will die. Other bees will not be attracted to her because they don’t recognized her as their queen.

  7. Barbara J HOUK, MD says:

    I admire beekeepers but I don’t plan to be one. However I have overgrown land. I know bees need flowers of many types but I don’t know what species are the most helpful. I am willing to deliberately let wild flowers that are not too invasive take over this overgrown land. That would make the area prettier and help my farmers in that the area bees would have a variety of food besides just their crops.
    Any suggestions?

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