Why Bees Kill their Queen

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As a beekeeper, I know that the queen bee is rather important. So, why do honey bees kill their queen? She is the heart of the hive – the one member essential to continuation of the colony. But, in spite of her importance, the colony will sometimes choose to destroy her. While I am sure the bees have a good reason for this response, it is really hard for beekeepers to understand. Today, I share some ideas with you about why this strange behavior happens.

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

A colony of bees has its own good reasons for rejecting a current queen. Sometimes, we beekeepers can tell that there are some “queen issues” going on in the hive – other times we can not.

The workers will reject their queen if they are unsatisfied. Figuratively speaking, she is voted out. (Similar to the show Survivor – “The tribe has spoken”)

Survival of the colony unit is the only goal. This requires a strong work force. Honey bees do not live for very long – especially during the busy warm season.

How the worker bees come to the agreement to kill their queen 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 workers recognize. If there is an imbalance inside the hive, they know quickly.

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 a new more prolific egg layer.

Queen Pheromones

Can you tell a good queen by looking? Not really. Of all the bees in the hive (queen, drones, workers) the queen is the largest one. But, the size of the queen is not always a true indicator of her value.

However, she produces special queen pheromones that promote 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 the hive.

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

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Brood Problems

If the colony is experiencing brood problems, such as sterile or infertile males or if brood disease (such as European Foulbrood) is present – this might prompt the bees to kill the queen. Sometimes a vigorous young queen helps get the colony back on the right track.

Hive Stress

Another possible prompt is 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.

Getting too much paint or paint in the wrong places might cause her to look weird to the bees.

Unfamiliar Queen

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

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 (usually in a queen cage), 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 getting a 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 murder ball), 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.

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 honey 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 queenless hive 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 Interventions

It is the responsibility of a beekeeper to manage beehives correctly. Yet, mistakes happen. It is not rare for a beekeeper to mistakenly kill the queen or damage her.

During routine inspections, the beekeeper can watch for obvious queen problems.

  • a lack of brood when it should be present
  • more drone brood cells than worker brood
  • a damaged queen
  • the colony starting queen cells

Supersedure vs Swarming

In queen supersedure, the bees kill the current queen and rear a new one. This can happen any time during the year.

But, when honey bees swarm – the beekeeper will see many queen cells being made as the colony prepares to split into two. Learn how to tell the difference between the two situations because that affects the steps you need to take.

If the colony kills their queen and is without the resources to make another. The beekeeper may buy a mated queen, to hurry the process along and introduce new genetics.

Beekeepers can use special cages to requeen a hive. 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.

FAQs

Is aggressive behavior towards the queen normal?

In general, honey bees are not aggressive towards and accepted queen. However, it is possible that the hive may become stressed during a prolonged or difficult hive inspection and begin to ball the queen.

How can beekeepers intervene in case of queen issues?

Be proactive and watch for queen related problems. If the colony seems interested in killing the current queen and replacing her – sometimes it is best to let them do so. Or, do the job for them by purchasing a new queen.

What is the difference between supersedure and swarming?

Supersedure is queen replacement where the current queen is killed (or has died). Swarming involves new queens being reared to take over while the older queen usually leaves with the swarm.

Final Thoughts

Our honey bee colonies function as super-organisms where life occurs on the individual level and on the colony level. Honey bees instinctively know what is best for the future of the colony. That may mean that the bees must kill the current queen.

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

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