Everyone’s heard of the queen bee. From her appearance to her role in the hive, she stands out from her fellow bees. A honeybee queen is the largest bee in her colony—she’s usually around twice as long as a worker bee. Although a colony has hundreds of drones and thousands of worker bees, there is only one queen. She’s the focal point of a honeybee hive, tasked with maintaining the population and keeping the colony healthy and buzzing.
However, there are also many misconceptions about honeybee queens. For example, she doesn’t technically rule the colony, nor does she make decisions such as when to raise a new queen. Scientists and beekeepers are always learning more about the life of a queen bee. If you’re wondering what honeybee queens do and what role they play in the hive, learn more with this guide.
The Birth of a Monarch
A honeybee queen’s life starts when the hive needs a new queen. This might happen for several reasons. The old queen might die unexpectedly or lay fewer eggs due to old age. The colony might also outgrow its hive, in which case the colony splits in half and a new queen takes over half the population. Whatever the reason, a hive can’t survive long without its queen. Raising a new queen bee is one of the most important tasks a colony can undertake.
Preparing for the Queen
When it’s time to raise a new queen, worker bees will choose several fertilized eggs to become potential new queens and house them in unique, dome-shaped wax cups called queen cups. Nurse bees feed these eggs royal jelly throughout their development. While all larvae feast on a diet of royal jelly for the first few days of their lives, worker bee larvae eventually switch to a diet of honey, pollen, and bee bread. This royal jelly diet allows queens to develop differently from their fellow bees, with larger bodies, different reproductive systems, and a smooth stinger that can sting more than once without killing the queen.
One Queen to Rule them All
By choosing a few eggs to be queens, the hive has a better chance of raising a strong and healthy queen. However, only one queen can exist in a hive. As a result, a newly hatched queen will kill the competition by stinging the other larvae while they’re still in their cells. If two queens hatch at the same time, they fight until only one remains—the colony’s new queen.
Once she hatches and matures, a queen’s main role in the colony is to lay eggs. In her most productive seasons, a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs every day. This is what makes her so dear to the colony. A healthy queen maintains a colony’s population and ensures there are enough worker bees to provide for and protect the colony all year round.
A honeybee queen is the only female in the colony that can lay fertilized eggs. In order to do this, she goes on a mating flight. Shortly after hatching and defeating her competition, the queen will leave the hive and fly to a drone congregation site, where thousands of drones have gathered to mate with a queen. At these sites, the queen will mate with several drones—who die soon after the event—and store enough sperm to fertilize millions of eggs throughout her lifetime. After the mating flight, the queen returns to her colony and begins her duties as the royal mother.
Laying eggs is a honeybee queen’s biggest responsibility, and she’s extremely good at it. She can lay more than her body weight in eggs every day during a healthy, productive season. She also knows to lay one egg in every cell, giving her brood plenty of room to grow and mature. Because of her mating flight, a queen bee spreads genetic diversity to her colony as she fertilizes eggs with sperm from other colonies’ drones. This genetic diversity keeps a hive strong and resilient, increasing their chances of survival through harsh seasons or other hardships.
A Queen Bee’s Life
Now that we know where a queen comes from and what her biggest role is, it’s time to look at the daily life of a honeybee queen. What do honeybee queens do under special circumstances? What other duties do they have? No matter the time of year, a queen’s life looks different than that of the rest of the hive.
Worker bees have different roles in the hive, and some of them spend their days attending to the queen. She is constantly surrounded by a group of worker bees who feed, groom, and otherwise care for her. They even digest her food for her, since a honeybee queen lacks the digestive glands necessary to process her own food. Without this royal treatment, the queen is unable to take care of herself, and she would eventually die.
Apart from reproduction, the queen also plays a part in the temperament and behavior of the colony. Queen bees release a unique pheromone—the chemical signal bees use to communicate with each other. A queen bee’s pheromone lets the colony know she’s alive and healthy, keeping them comfortable and motivated to keep working.
A few special circumstances may occur during a queen bee’s life. One of them is swarming, or when a colony gets too big for its hive. As a result, worker bees will start the process of raising a new queen. When the new queen hatches, the old queen will form a swarm with half the population and leave to establish a new colony. Meanwhile, the new queen will stay in the original hive, maintaining the remaining half of the colony.
If a queen starts faltering in her duties—perhaps due to old age or other circumstances—the colony will decide to replace her. Nurse bees raise a new queen. When she hatches, she takes over the colony, and the workers get rid of the old, unproductive queen.
Honeybee queens play an invaluable role in the hive, but they’re just one reason why beekeepers are so passionate about their colonies. Mann Lake can help you learn more about bees and their colonies, buy quality bee equipment, and start your own journey as a beekeeper.