What Does the Queen Bee Do?
The queen honey bee is the most well-known bee in the colony. Everyone who understands any honey bee facts knows that each colony must have a queen. But, what is the role of a queen bee – what exactly does she do? 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 the queen.
Why? Because, they are thought to be the one “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 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 bee hive.
We can look closer the the life of a honey bee queen. What exactly does she do? Why is she so important ?
What is the Job of the Queen Bee?
In reality, the duties of a queen are few. However, her tasks are vital to colony survival.
None of the worker bees can take her place. She is vital to colony survival.
The queen honey 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 because she is the only bee who can lay fertilized eggs. These fertilized eggs develop into workers who will support the colony.
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. She will not lay eggs in an unpolished cell. No honeycomb, no polished cells = no eggs laid.
Another function of a queen bee is the production of pheromones. Pheromones are chemical messengers -much like external hormones.
They are used to communicate hive conditions. A good queen bee has strong pheromones that promote 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.
A queen can be any color. She may be lighter or darker than the other bees in the hive. A colony will rarely have more than 1 queen bee 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.
Primary Queen Bee Function
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 her 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 !)
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.
Workers Make Colony Decisions Too
We know the queen bee is a vital part of the 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. !)
Can Queen Bees Fly?
Yes, a queen bee has the capacity to fly. However, she only leaves the hive on 2 occasions.
Once when a young virgin, she leaves the hive to mate. Approximately 7 days after emergence, the queen bee will take several mating flights.
Mating does not take place inside the bee colony. 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.
Workers reduce the amount of food given to the her causing her to slim down. This enables her to fly when the colony swarms to a new home.
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. If the queen bee dies, she must be replaced as soon as possible.
Lifespan for a Queen Bee is Limited
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.
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 fertilized egg to produce queen cells.
The colony will soon have a new queen. If the old one is still in the hive, the new queen usually kills her.
Beekeepers 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.
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.
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.
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.
Queen bees perform as nature has intended for millions of years. She gives her whole life in service to the colony.