A honey bee queen is the most iconic member of the hive. As the only egg-laying female, she takes sole responsibility for the colony’s reproduction. She also bears a unique scent that keeps the other members of the hive content and productive. However, she isn’t an all-powerful monarch. In fact, much of the queen’s actions and well-being rely on the actions of the hive’s worker bees. As a beekeeper, you must understand the roles of every member of your colonies, and the queen bee is the perfect place to start. From the egg to the end of her life, here’s what beekeepers should know about queen bees.
How the Queen Is Made
Whenever a honey bee colony loses its queen, the worker bees get to work right away to produce a new one. Worker bees will build several dome-shaped wax cells—known as queen cups—to house a few chosen fertilized (female) eggs. Nurse bees then feed these special eggs a unique diet. While the other members of the hive’s brood will eventually switch from royal jelly to bee bread, the potential queens feast on royal jelly throughout their entire lives. This royal diet causes the queen to develop differently than her sisters. She has a longer body, more developed ovaries, and a smooth stinger that—unlike the barbed stingers of worker bees—she can use multiple times.
After around 16 days, the queen chews her way out of her queen cell to join the hive. However, the worker bees chose more than one egg to try to make a queen. To take her place on the metaphorical throne, the newly hatched queen must use her reusable stinger to kill the other queen cup occupants. If two potential queens hatch simultaneously, they will fight until only one remains. This last surviving honey bee becomes the new queen of the hive, but she still has a few matters to attend to before she starts her regular royal duties.
The Mating Flight
A newly hatched queen bee is known as a virgin queen. To take on her reproductive duties, she must first mate with drones from other hives. This process is called the mating flight. The honey bee queen will leave her hive to seek out drones. Meanwhile, drones from surrounding hives will gather together and wait for a queen. These drone congregation areas can contain thousands of drones, all vying for a chance to mate with another hive’s queen. When she arrives, the queen will mate with several of these drones and then return to the hive. The sperm she gathers from her mating flight allows her to fertilize eggs throughout her lifespan. Once she returns to the hive, she begins the egg-laying routine that will last her the rest of her life.
Her Royal Duties
One of the most important parts of what beekeepers should know about queen bees is the reproductive process. Laying eggs is, of course, the most important thing a honey bee queen does—and she’s very good at it. The queen knows exactly where, how, and when to lay each egg. In fact, a healthy queen in her prime productive years can lay around 1,500 eggs a day. That’s more than her body weight in eggs! As she goes through the hive, she places a single egg in each cell, giving each one plenty of room to grow. The different drones with which she mated during her flight allow her to spread a strong genetic diversity throughout the hive. This builds a stronger, hardier colony that has a better chance of weathering harsh climates and dangerous diseases.
Along with egg-laying, the queen also emits a unique pheromone. This chemical signal influences the colony’s behavior. When worker bees can smell their queen’s pheromone, they know she is alive, healthy, and productively laying eggs. This tells them they should continue as normal to care for the queen and the brood, defend the hive, and make honey. On the other hand, when a colony can no longer smell their queen’s pheromone, it means she is no longer alive or productive. This is their signal that it’s time to build new queen cells and select fertilized eggs to create a replacement queen.
Without a healthy and productive queen, a honey bee hive quickly falls apart. If a colony is queenless for long enough, some of the workers will start trying to lay their own eggs. However, these laying workers don’t have the anatomy or expertise of a queen bee. The queen bee is the only female bee that mates, which means she’s the only one that can lay fertilized eggs that will grow into female worker bees. Laying workers can only lay unfertilized eggs, which means the brood will consist entirely of drones, which can’t defend or provide for the hive. The lack of a queen quickly throws off a colony’s population balance, preventing them from producing the resources they need to survive.
How to Care for Your Queen
Because honey bee queens are so crucial to the health of your colony, it’s important that you keep an eye on them. Mark your queen with a dot of paint so that you can easily spot her inside the hive. Every time you perform a hive inspection, you want to make sure your queen is still active and healthy. Another way to check on her is to look at the hive’s egg cells. If each cell has a single egg in it, that means the queen is the one producing. If multiple eggs are in each cell, it’s a good sign that some of your workers have started clumsily laying eggs to make up for a missing queen. Additionally, if you can see queen cups in the hive, it means your bees are preparing to raise a new queen—if they haven’t already.
Re-Queening Your Hive
Colonies aren’t always successful in raising a new queen. If your hive loses its queen unexpectedly, you might have to buy a new one to replace her before the colony suffers too much. The process of introducing a new queen to a hive is called re-queening. You must be careful during re-queening, as your hive will likely smell the unfamiliar pheromones of the new queen and consider her a threat. Be sure to introduce the new queen slowly so that the colony has time to accept her. Before you place the new queen cage in the hive, make sure you get rid of the old queen and any queen cups. Place the queen cage in the hive and remove the cork over the candy plug. As your bees eat through the candy plug, they’ll gradually adjust to the new queen’s pheromones. If the introduction is successful, they’ll be ready to accept her and attend to her by the time she leaves her cage and officially enters the hive. Be sure to check the hive in about three days to make sure your new queen has left her cage. After another few days, you can look again to see if she’s started successfully laying eggs.
When you have all the right tools and information to take care of your honey bee queens, you’re that much more prepared to keep your hives healthy and productive. You can buy queen bees or any other supplies you need from Kelley Beekeeping. We’re here to provide beekeepers of all experiences and backgrounds with the information and resources they need to raise happy, successful hives.