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How Does a Bee Become a Queen?

A bee becomes a queen because of the way they’re raised. They’re fed a special diet of royal jelly and are placed in special brood cells. This is what enables them to become reproductively mature.

Bees are incredibly important to our ecosystem. Hence, a lot of studies and research have been done on the topic.

Queen bees are responsible for all reproduction in a colony. 

But what makes a queen a queen? And how does a bee become a queen?

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into how queen bees are selected, what makes a queen bee a queen, and what happens to queens if they aren’t accepted into the colony.

What Is a Queen Bee?

A queen bee is the only fertile female in any hive. The queen bee is solely responsible for laying eggs and growing the population in a beehive. She’s the only female bee that can lay eggs and is cared for by the other female bees (the worker bees).

Related: The Queen Bee & Her Role in the Hive

What Makes a Queen Bee?

Bees become queens thanks to special treatment by worker bees. A young larva, newly hatched egg, will be placed in queen cells (special brood cells). Then, this larva will be fed a special diet consisting of royal jelly, instead of honey and pollen.

The process of becoming a queen bee is a bit more complicated than just being fed royal jelly though.

When a queen bee dies, gets sick, or leaves the hive, the workers select which of the larvae will become their new queen. 

The selected larvae are then separated from the rest to be placed into queen cells that look different from the cells of other worker bees. These are vertical instead of horizontal.

The cell walls are also thinner, to make it easier for the queen bee to break out. 

The chosen larvae are fed royal jelly for a few days until they pupate and become queens. This special diet is essentially what develops the reproductive capabilities of queen bees. The lack of honey and pollen, along with added royal jelly, is the key component. [1]

queen bee

Queen Cells

Queen cells are special honeycomb cells used solely for queen brood.

Queen Cells are vertical honeycomb cells, instead of regular horizontal ones. They are wider at the base than at the top and have a small opening at the top. This opening is covered with a cap of beeswax when the queen is placed in the cell.

What Is Royal Jelly?

Royal jelly is a secretion that is produced by nurse bees to feed the queen bee. It is a creamy, yellowish substance that has a high protein content. [2]

Royal jelly contains B-complex vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. It has been found to be beneficial for human health and has been used to treat a variety of ailments.

Royal jelly is not a plant or animal product, but rather a substance that is created in the beehive from glands in worker bees’ heads.

queen bee cup

How Is a Queen Bee Chosen?

Queen bees are chosen when they’re eggs or larvae. This is a random selection, as the bees have no idea about which of the brood will be better or worse queens.

The queen bee is important because she lays all the eggs in the hive. If the queen dies, the workers will create a new queen by selecting an egg and feeding it royal jelly.

While it may seem like an important choice to choose the correct larvae as new queens, bees really have no idea which larvae may be best as queens.

Hence, bees will always place multiple larvae in queen cells. The first queen to emerge from her cell will be the new queen.

There is only one queen per hive, hence the first action a new queen does is to kill the other queen brood. This ensures that she’s the only queen.

Related: How Many Queen Bees Are in a Hive?

young bees inside honeycomb

When Are Queen Bees Replaced?

Queen bees will be replaced when they get old, as their reproduction starts declining or malfunctioning (they may be birthing too many drones).

The queen bee can live for up to five years, but her productivity declines in her last few months of life. When this happens, she’ll be replaced.

Old queen bees will usually be replaced through supersedure. This is a process where the old queen lays eggs into queen cups (queen cells) and will stay in the hive until they hatch.

When the new virgin queen has had her mating flight, she’ll then replace the old queen who’ll either die or fly away.

Queen bees may also be replaced if the beehive is overcrowded. When this happens, the queen will swarm.

During swarming, the queen will fly away from her hive, with a swarm of workers, looking for a new place to nest. This way, there’ll be room for new bees, as well as a new queen.

queen bee pheromones

Why Do Bees Reject a Queen?

There are various reasons why bees reject a queen. Aside from the queen bee’s incapacity to reproduce, the hive may reject the queen because of distrust.

The queen’s pheromone may also be foreign to the bees, which can cause the hive to treat her as an invader. 

When the worker bees collectively reject the queen bee, the hive will eliminate her by biting and stinging her to death. All of the workers will trap the queen in a ball of bees, where she won’t be able to escape. Once the workers have killed her, they’ll disband.

Queen rejection mainly happens when a foreign queen is introduced by a beekeeper. This is a queen that wasn’t born and raised in the hive. Studies show that daughters of the old queen have much higher acceptance rates. [3]

Bees that’ve gone longer than 2 days without a queen have a much lower rejection rate than those that’ve gone 0 or 1 day without one. [4]

Related: Why do bees reject a queen?

queen bee and hive

Do Workers Bees Kill Their Queen?

The short answer is no, not usually. However, worker bees might kill the queen if they see her as an intruder, if there is more than one queen, or if she’s failing.

The queen bee is responsible for laying eggs and producing honey. If she dies, the colony will eventually die off. Hence, workers are typically not inclined to kill the queen.

The worker bees essentially work as her assistants.

If workers decide to kill the queen, it’s often due to one of three things:

  • Her pheromones are foreign
  • Reproduction is failing
  • There is more than one queen present

If there are problems with the queen’s pheromones, the worker bees might kill her. Queen pheromones are chemicals that workers can smell to detect her presence. The new queen may produce pheromones that seem foreign, causing the workers to attack.

Another reason why worker bees may kill their queen is if she produces the wrong offspring. Sometimes, a queen may lay too many drone eggs. Too many drones will harm the colony, as they don’t do any work.

This can trigger bees to kill their queen.

Lastly, if there is more than one queen, the workers may also rise up against one of them.

queen bee close up

Why is the Queen Bee Important?

Queen bees are important for the survival of their hive because they’re the only ones who can produce offspring. Without her, there would be no workers to maintain the hive. 

If she were to die or disappear, it would lead to the death of her colony within a short period of time, unless the workers can successfully raise a new queen.

It is because of this that she receives special treatment from her workers.

The Queen and Egg-Laying

As most people know, the queen bee is the only bee in a colony to lay eggs. This means that without her, there would be no bees. Most people believe that the queen makes all of the decisions, but this is incorrect. She’s merely responsible for reproduction. [5]

Queen Pheromones

The queen bee is the most important member of a beehive. Not only does she lay eggs, but she also produces queen pheromones. These pheromones enable workers to detect her presence and health. [6]

Worker bees can sense the queen pheromone levels. If it drops, they know the queen is either dying or sick. This triggers them to start raising new queens.

Conclusion

A bee becomes a queen due to a special diet consisting of royal jelly, as opposed to the normal brood diet of pollen and honey. Queen brood is placed in queen cups (also called queen cells), which are special honeycomb cells.

When worker bees choose brood to place in these queen cells, they do it randomly. They have no idea what brood may become good queens. Hence, they will raise several queens, to ensure one of them is strong.

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.