Why Bees Kill their Queen

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In a colony with thousands of female bees, one has a special place. She is the heart of the hive – the one member essential to continuation of the colony. Yes, we are talking about the queen honey bee. But, in spite of her importance, the colony will sometimes choose to destroy her. Why do honey bees kill their queen? On the surface, this does not seem like a good idea.

Queen honey bee in hive on frame with workers.

The role of the queen bee is a special task that no one else can do. She is the only member of the colony that can mate and lay fertilized eggs using stored sperm. It is vital for the colony to have a queen – not only that – they need a good one.

Why Bees Reject a Queen

The honey bee colony requires a good work force to cover all the required tasks of the hive. Honey bees do not live for very long – especially during the busy warm season.

The colony will reject their queen if they are unsatisfied. Figuratively speaking, she is voted out. 

How the workers come to this agreement is still a bit of a mystery. But, we do know some of the things that seem to trigger this action.

Reasons for Queen Failure

There are several circumstances that could result in a queen being dethroned:

  • Egg laying rates are falling
  • Her pheromones have diminished
  • Something is wrong with her brood pattern
  • Hive stress
  • She is damaged
  • It is a new queen they don’t know

Decline in Brood Rearing

Bee brood refers to young developing bees. Brood gives off pheromones or chemical messengers that worker recognize. If there is an imbalance inside the hive, they know.

A lack of brood pheromones at a time when egg laying should be high could be an indication of a failing queen. The colony may kill the old queen and raise another.

Queen Pheromones

There are several types of bees in the hive, and the queen bee is the largest one. However, the size of the queen is not always a true indicator of her value.

However, she produces special queen pheromones that promote a unity and a sense of well-being. As her attendants groom her and interact with other members of the colony, these pheromones are distributed throughout.

But, as she ages, her pheromones naturally begin to wane. With decreasing egg laying and low pheromone levels – supersedure of the queen is likely.

Brood Problems

Workers may decide it is time for a new egg layer: if the colony is experiencing brood problems, such as sterile or infertile males or if brood disease (such as European Foulbrood) is present. Sometimes a vigorous young queen helps get the colony back on the right track.

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Hive Stress

If the hive is experiencing stress, the queen is often blamed (a human emotion I know). Sometimes, we beekeepers contribute to queen rejection.

Going into the hive too often to see what is happening in there can cause the colony to react. Stressed bees are not happy. They will try to find a way to make things better.

Beekeeper carefully marking queen bee to avoid damaging her.

Damaged Queen

Likewise, if she becomes damaged and looks strange, the bees may kill the queen. This can happen during hive inspections or when you are trying to mark your queen.

Unfamiliar Queen

Of course, any new queen added to the hive is likely to be destroyed. They don’t recognize her as being a part of the family.

Honey bees reproduce by sending virgin queens out on mating flights. Occasionally, one goes back to the wrong hive.

Even more common, is the situation where a beekeeper wants to requeen the colony with a new queen. Without a slow introduction, this project can fail.

Less brood in comb due to reduced queen laying.

The Queen is Killed

Regardless of the reason, the first step in queen replacement is to kill the one currently in the hive.

When the queen is slated for death, workers will surround her and begin to sting. They pile on top of one another and surround her inside a mass of bees. This is often called “balling the queen”. 

Just as they can deal with invader predatory hornets in this method, the heat generated by the ball kills the queen bee. Her body is then thrown from the hive.

If preparations have not already began, the colony now goes into full emergency mode. Queen cells are hurriedly constructed and the race against time begins. 

With no queen present to lay fertilized eggs, the bees must use the materials they have on hand. This does not always result in the very best queen due to the emergency conditions.

Bee colony making new queen cell to replace one killed.

How a New Queen is Chosen

The honey bee colony has a miraculous plan for making a new queen. The process begins very early in the bee life cycle with fertilized eggs or very young female larvae.

It is the quality and quantity of food fed to these larvae by nurse bees, they causes them to grow into queens.

For years, it was thought that the feeding of royal jelly was responsible for queen development. We now know it is more complicated than that. However, queen larva do receive a special diet blend.

This process takes time – 16 days to be exact. Even after that, she still have to mature, mate and begin to lay egg.

It is not simply a process of “appointing” one of the other females as queen. This does not work. A queen must be raised from the tiny young larvae stage.

The Colony Without a Queen is in Peril

Queen replacement is a dangerous time for the bee colony. A hive without a queen will fail. Older workers begin to die off over the next month or so. With no new adults emerging, colony population plummets. 

The weak hive may fall prey to robber bees from other hives. Pests such as wax moths and Small Hive Beetles also take down small colonies.

Beekeeper Error

It is the responsibility of a beekeeper to manage beehives in a productive and healthy manner. Yet, mistakes happen. It is not rare for a beekeeper to mistakenly kill the queen. Now what?

While this is certainly a sad situation, it is not necessarily a death sentence for the colony. If the hive has a good population of workers and plenty of fresh fertilized eggs – they can make a new one.

However, if the beekeeper buys a mated queen, this hurries the process along and introduces new genetics.

You might think the hive would be over-joyed to have a new young egg layer. Alas, this is not usually the case. A big part of life inside the hive is governed by scent.

Right away, your bees are going to think – ” hey, this doesn’t smell like our leader”. The queen’s scent is different and usually results in her death immediately.

Thankfully, beekeepers can use special cages to introduce new queens to an existing colony. The small cage has a candy plug in one end.

It takes the bees several days to eat through the plug and release the bees inside. This allows them to become familiar with the pheromones of the new queen. Over a period of 3-7 days, they come to accept her.

Colonies Kill Queens to Improve Their Status

Despite the risks involved, honey bees sometimes kill their queen to give the colony its best chance of survival. A young, well-mated queen is more likely to provide the future worker force needed.

She will lay the most eggs during the busy Spring/Summer season. And, is more likely to have strong pheromone production to help keep the colony united.

Final Thoughts

Our honey bee colonies function as super-organisms where life occurs on the individual level and on the colony level.

Many amazing processes take place inside the hive that keep things going along as they have for millions of years.

Honey bees instinctively know what is best for the future of the colony. That may mean killing the current queen.

Yes, sometimes they do get it wrong – but in the big scheme of things, they must be doing something right.