If you’ve ever heard someone be called a “queen bee,” there’s actually a lot behind that label.
That’s because honeybees are very complex creatures, and the main character of any hive is the queen. She’s absolutely crucial to the health of the colony, which can’t survive without her.
Keep reading to learn all about the queen bee, her role in the colony, and what makes her so special!
Who Is the Queen Bee?
In a colony of honey bees, the queen bee is the central figure around which the rest of the hive revolves.
Her most important job is to lay fertilized eggs and populate her colony. In order to do this, she must take a nuptial flight to mate with drones from other hives. She is the only member of the colony capable of doing this.
The queen communicates with and directs the workers in her colony using special pheromones. This lets them know what to do and also tells them that they do not need to make a new queen.
It can be tough to spot her among her tens of thousands of daughters, so many beekeepers will mark her back. This makes her easier to spot during inspections, and the color used also signifies the year she was born to keep track of her age.
Unique Characteristics of the Queen Bee
The queen bee looks different from worker bees and drones.
She’s nearly twice as long as the workers, and her body is more slender than the drones. Her long abdomen makes her wings look comparatively short.
Her back, or thorax, is black and shiny without the yellow fuzz that workers wear. She will also typically have longer legs that are yellow or lighter in color, although some subspecies still have darker legs.
Her coloring will vary depending on which subspecies she belongs to. Some queens are golden yellow, while others can be almost entirely black and everything in between.
While the female workers are capable of laying eggs, too, their eggs can’t be fertilized and thus will only be able to hatch into drones.
Only the queen bee is able to create more workers. They will inherit both her own genetics and those of one of the drones she mated with. Queens can lay up to 3,000 every day.
Her daughters are very attentive, constantly grooming and feeding her. Sometimes the best way to find an unmarked queen bee is to look for clusters of worker bees facing inward and fussing over her.
The Lifespan of the Queen
The queen bee begins life as a fertilized egg in a cell just like any other female bee.
Once an egg is specially selected, the workers will build a “queen cup” for her. This is a peanut-shaped cell that can accommodate her size since she won’t fit into a regular worker cell.
Once the egg is in the special cell, it takes 3 days to hatch. The larva will be exclusively fed royal jelly by nurse bees which will cause her to develop into a queen bee. On the eighth day, her cell is closed so she can pupate and finish growing.
A queen bee spends less time developing in her cell than workers or drones, fully growing in about 16 days. She will then chew through her cell.
Once she emerges, she will seek out any other developing queens and eliminate them before they’re able to emerge. If more than one queen has already left their cells, they will usually fight to determine who will rule the colony.
Now that the queen is out and about, her workers will continue to feed her royal jelly throughout her life.
A week or so after hatching, she will go on her mating flight to find drones to fertilize her eggs. If she’s able to make it back, she is unlikely to leave the hive ever again.
A queen bee usually lives and lays eggs for 2-3 years. She can live as long as 5 years, but her productivity declines as she ages.
A queen who hasn’t yet gone on her mating flight is known as a “virgin” or “maiden” queen. It’s difficult to tell the difference by sight, but virgin queens tend to be a little bit smaller.
Her eggs will need to be fertilized soon after she is born so she can begin to lay eggs and populate her colony.
A week after her emergence, she will fly to a designated area that she locates via pheromones. Drones from other colonies will converge there to mate with queens. It’s not entirely known how these “drone congregation areas” are determined.
The queen bee can mate with as many as 20 drones, all while in flight, after which each drone will die. She’ll carry the genetic material of several individuals for diversity when fertilizing her eggs.
Making a New Queen
The colony may need a new queen for several reasons: if she dies, if she isn’t laying well, or if the colony becomes too big.
Queens can be made by the colony if they have fertilized eggs available. The beekeeper can also bring in a caged queen, who will need to be properly introduced and accepted into the hive.
If there isn’t a fertilized egg to use, they can’t create a new queen since workers aren’t able to lay fertilized eggs.
The colony will typically make several queens at a time so they have the best chance of ending up with a strong queen bee.
Death of the Queen
The main reasons for a queen to die are old age, she didn’t return from her mating flight, or she’s accidentally injured or crushed by the beekeeper during a hive inspection.
Since the first two are impossible to avoid, it’s important to be careful during hive inspections to avoid harming the queen inadvertently. During certain hive maintenance activities, such as testing for mites, it’s best practice to locate the queen first to make sure she’s safely in the hive.
The colony will immediately know that they no longer have a queen regardless of what happened because they can no longer detect her pheromones.
The Queen Needs to Be Replaced
Sometimes a queen isn’t suitable either for the bees or the beekeeper.
The colony can tell if she isn’t laying well for any reason and will “supersede” her or replace her themselves. The telltale sign is a specific type of queen cell known as a supersedure cell, which will show up in a particular location in the hive.
Once they have decided to replace her, the workers will crowd around and ball the queen, essentially cooking her to death.
The beekeeper can also see if she isn’t producing well and may want to replace her. A spotty brood pattern, where there are only eggs laid sporadically, is usually a sign that the queen isn’t up to snuff.
Another reason a beekeeper may need to intervene is if the colony is becoming especially aggressive. The queen can pass on genetics that affect her offspring’s temperament, making hive inspections or even getting near the hive difficult.
In this case, it’s best to “pinch” the current queen and bring in a new one to interrupt the aggressive genetics.
To bring in a new queen, the beekeeper can purchase one in a small cage with a few attendants to feed and groom her.
One side of the cage is closed with a cork, and the other with a candy plug. Once the cage is placed inside the hive, the queen will be protected until the colony hopefully accepts her. They will slowly eat through the candy plug to release her into the hive.
A successful and productive hive may get so big that a single queen is no longer able to communicate with all of them.
This will lead to the colony splitting in half and swarming. They will bring the original queen bee with them while the remaining workers stay behind.
Before they swarm, a new queen will be made in a special swarm cell for the half of the colony that remained in the hive. This is one way the beekeeper knows that the hive is about to swarm. Just like a supersedure cell, a swarm cell has its own particular appearance and location in the hive.
Contrary to popular belief, a swarm is not a cloud of upset and aggressive bees. In fact, they are much less likely to sting while they swarm as they don’t currently have a home to defend.
Honey bee swarms will usually show up on tree branches or hanging from a roof. They look like a large mass of bees. Finding and catching a swarm is a great way for beekeepers to get “free” bees!
All Hail the Queen Bee
The queen bee is the most important member of the colony, and she’s a fascinating insect.
Without her, the hive can’t continue to grow. It’s amazing to see her workers care for her as she works hard to create new hive members.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!