Understanding The Role Of The Queen Bee In A Colony
The queen bee is at the heart of the hive. She’s the mother of all the other members and the glue that holds the colony together. Without a queen, the hive will fail and the bees will disperse.
But what makes the queen so special? Like human royalty, she’s selected before birth and treated with a distinctive egg cell and special diet in her larval stage. When she matures, the queen mates several times, then spends the rest of her life laying eggs, never leaving the hive again.
Here’s a look at the most fascinating member of your colony:
The Queen Bee's Special Case
The life of a queen bee starts with a special egg cell that hangs vertically – also called a ‘queen cup’. Worker bees build these cells when the previous queen becomes weak, or when the colony gets too large for the hive and is about to swarm. They will usually build several queen cells, and the existing queen will lay an egg inside each. If the previous queen dies or leaves the hive unexpectedly, workers will find a new egg or young larva and move it into a queen cell.
The royal diet
Once the eggs in queen cells hatch, the larvae are fed a specialised diet until they reach maturity. At first, they are fed a fluid secreted from the glands of nurse bees – known as royal jelly. Although all larval bees are fed some royal jelly, future queens are fed a huge amount, which triggers the development of their distinctive body shape and functioning ovaries. In the final two days of the larval stage, the queens are fed honey as well, which includes hormones that help the body develop further.
When the queen larvae emerge from their cells after 6-8 days of growth, the next step is a fight to the death – not quite queenly behaviour! The first larva to emerge will often kill the previous queen, tear open other queen cells, and sting the larvae inside to death. Later, when she flies out to mate, she may also need to fight any other queens who survived or emerged from other hives.
Roughly a week after emerging from her cell, the new queen goes on the first of several ‘nuptial flights’. She hovers in the air in a specific area and attracts drones (or male bees) from other colonies. While in flight, she mates with 10-20 of these drones. Most drones are unsuccessful in mating, returning to the hive to die a few months later.
The bee mating process isn’t exactly romantic. During the act, the endophallus (sex organ) of the male bee enters the queen. As he pulls away, the endophallus rips from his body, tearing his abdomen open in the process. As a result, the drone dies shortly after mating. After two or three nuptial flights, the queen has around 6 million sperm stored inside special organs called oviducts. These are used to fertilise all her eggs.
After a few nuptial flights, the queen returns to the hive and stays inside for the rest of her life – unless the colony gets too big and she leaves with a swarm. While in the hive, the queen eats a diet of royal jelly and honey and spends the vast majority of her time laying eggs. A healthy queen will lay around 1000-1500 eggs every day, or roughly 200,000 a year. Worker bees feed her continuously, dispose of her waste products and distribute her hormones around the hive to prevent the production of queen cells.
The queen controls the population of the hive, laying fertilised female eggs or unfertilised male ones. The smaller female bees that emerge are worker bees, collecting honey and maintaining the hive, while the larger males are drones.
Ending and beginning
The average queen bee will live from two to five years. During that time, if the colony gets too big she may leave with around half the population to find a new hive. Otherwise, she will start to weaken and lay fewer eggs.
When worker bees see signs of weakness in the queen, they work quickly to build new queen cups, and the whole process starts over again. If the queen is accidentally killed by a beekeeper or a disease, the hive will be in disarray until workers can raise another queen.
An essential life
The life of a queen bee may not be very glamourous, but it’s essential for the health and wellbeing of the hive. That’s why it’s so important to check on your queen frequently and replace her if your colony doesn’t do it on its own.
Want to know more about the role of the queen? Talk to the expert team at Ecrotek.