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The Queen Bee & Her Role in the Hive

The queen bee is the mated female in a colony of bees, and the mother of all the workers. She is an essential part of a beehive and has one job: to lay eggs. Without her, there would be no hive. 

At the beginning of a new colony, there’s only the queen. She’s responsible for raising workers, who can then help her expand the hive and population.

But the queen doesn’t hold all the power. If the workers are unsatisfied, they may overthrow her.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the mysteries of the queen bee, as well as the intricate works of the queen and her hive.

What Is a Queen Bee?

The queen bee is the largest of all bees. She is the only bee to reproduce and has large, developed sex organs. For this reason, she requires special treatment from her hive-mates. She must be fed by workers rather than feeding herself.

She’s the most important bee of them all. If anything happens to the queen, the hive is at risk of dying. Hence, beehives are very protective of their queen.

There’s only one queen per hive. If at any point there were to be more than one, the extra queens would be killed by the workers.

Most people think that the queen bee makes the decisions. This is not true.

queen bee among swarm

Does the Queen Bee Control the Colony?

In terms of controlling the colony, the queen doesn’t have much to say. A beehive makes decisions collectively, hence the worker bees have the most control.

The only thing the queen controls is reproduction. Her job is to lay eggs. Honeybee queens lay roughly 250.000 eggs per year [1].

What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?

Queen bees are the largest bee in a colony. The queen is responsible for reproducing, hence she needs a bigger body to carry the eggs.

The queen bee has the same anatomy as other bees, with a body split into three parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. She has 6 legs, 4 wings, a pair of mandibles, and 5 eyes.

A queen bee also has a stinger that it can use to defend her nest if need be.

The abdomen of a queen bee is long and cylindrical, much longer than that of workers and drones, while her head and thorax are roughly the same sizes. Her abdomen is even longer than her wings, and she has small, stubby legs. 

Even though the queen has her own traits, it can be difficult to find her in a colony of 60,000 to 80,000 bees. Hence, most beekeepers mark their queen with a dab of paint.

The color of the paint tells the beekeeper what year the queen was born in. [2]

honey bees and queen bee

How Big Is a Queen?

Queen bee size varies by species and colony. Smaller queen bees are typically in the 10-15 mm (0.39-0.59”) range, with large queen bees being 20-25 mm (0.78-0.98”) or even more prominent in some cases.

The largest bees are Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) and Giant Honey Bees (Apis dorsata), where the queen may reach up to 40 mm (1.57”).

Can Queen Bees Fly?

The queen bee can fly, but not very well all of the time.

The queen bee flies in the air when she finds a hive to start her colony. This is called the nuptial flight. She’ll fly out to find drones bees to mate with, and will mate with up to 15 different drones.

The queen bee may also fly when swarming. This is when she leaves the hive with a swarm of workers to find new nesting grounds.

Since the queen bee is much larger than the rest of the bees, she’s not always very capable of flying. Hence, if the workers know that she needs to take a flight soon, they’ll restrict her diet.

This way, the queen is able to lose some weight beforehand, which improves her flying capabilities.

Related: Can queen bees fly?

bee flying towards flower

Reusable Stinger

People often mistakenly believe that queen bees can’t sting. This is not true, as the queen has a reusable stinger. The queen bee, unlike workers, has a smooth stinger that can be used more than a single time.

Queen bees also have an organ called the “sting gland.” This organ is located in between their abdominal cavity and their reproductive organs. 

The queen bee’s sting gland is responsible for producing the queen bee’s stinger.

The queen bee uses her stinger to protect herself and her hive from intruders such as rodents or other bees that may want to harm them. When a queen bee needs to use her stinger, she inserts it into the offender and injects venom directly into their body.

What Does the Queen Bee Do?

The queen bee is responsible for laying all the eggs in the colony. She’s the only bee capable of reproducing. It’s her job to expand the population of the colony and to keep producing more workers, as the old ones die.

The Queen Bee must be cautious, as her death can lead to the death of the entire colony. 

That is why she’s not allowed to go anywhere without a hive escort. Her bodyguards are also responsible for giving her food and water throughout the day.

queen bee pheromones

The queen bee also secretes queen pheromone.

Queen pheromone is a special pheromone, only secreted by the queen. Worker bees can detect the presence of the queen by measuring the levels of queen pheromone.

When the queen dies, the pheromone levels will drop, alarming the bees. The same thing happens when the queen gets old.

Reproduction

Reproduction in most bee colonies is asexual: the queen doesn’t need to mate with males every time she lays eggs. Worker bees and queen bees come from fertilized eggs, while males come from unfertilized eggs.

In order to lay eggs, a virgin queen does need to mate though.

When mating, drones fly out of their hives in swarms with other drones to find virgin queens that are searching for potential mates [3]

When the males find a virgin queen, they all chase after her for a chance to fertilize her eggs. The queen will mate with several drones, storing their sperm for later use.

When the virgin queen is done mating, she’ll return to her colony, or start a new one, and start laying eggs.

bee larvae

Life Cycle of the Queen Bee

The life cycle of the queen bee starts out as normal workers’ but takes a different turn along the way.

A common misconception about queen bees is, that they’re born queens. They’re not, instead, they’re raised to be queens, cared for, and fed a special diet.

Related: How does a bee become a queen?

Queen Cups

Queen bees are raised in special cells, called queen cells. These start out as queen cups, which are special cells, larger than the normal cells used for workers.

The queen cups are constructed vertically, whereas normal cells are constructed horizontally. This way, bees can keep track of which is which.

The old queen will lay eggs into the queen cups when it’s time for a replacement, either in relation to swarming or supersedure.

queen bee cup

Special Treatment With Royal Jelly

Worker bees feed the queen brood with royal jelly to make her a queen [4]

Royal jelly contains special nutrients and is a protein-rich secretion gathered from the glands on the heads of workers. [5]

As royal jelly is fed only to the queen, she has increased stores of these substances compared with worker bees. This is the reason why queen bees hatch as sexually mature female bees, whereas workers aren’t sexually mature.

queen bee

Adult Virgin Queen

As the queen hatches from her pupa, she’s a virgin queen bee, meaning she hasn’t mated yet.

As a virgin queen, she doesn’t do anything yet. She’ll still secrete queen pheromone, but she’ll produce less of the pheromones than mated queens.

Her main priority is to mate as soon as possible so that she can take over the responsibilities of the old queen.

After six to ten days, she leaves her hive with a large group of worker bees called a swarm. The unmated queen flies out with the swarm to find drones. The queen will then mate with drones, as the workers are waiting for her to finish.

She then returns to the hive, lays fertilized eggs to expand the colony.

queen bee on a beehive

Mating

When the queen has to mate, she’ll fly out to a drone congregation area (DCA), where drones have gathered, waiting to mate with virgin queens.

Queen bees mate with about 12 to 15 drones before heading back to the colony.

This mating flight may take place over a couple of days, depending on the weather. Bees mainly work when it’s warm and sunny, hence a cold day, or a rainy day, may cut the mating short.

When mating, the queen bee stores the sperm for later use, and will store up to 6 million sperm. She’ll then use this for the remainder of her life (approximately 2-7 years).

bees flying in large numbers

Nesting

Nesting is the term for when a queen bee is preparing a new nest for her new colony. Most queen bees will return to the colony from where they came, but sometimes they need to start a new nest.

This can either be due to overpopulation or due to the old hive being damaged. Typically, the queen will bring along a swarm of workers to help her.

swarm of bees on apiary

How Long Does a Queen Bee Live?

Queen bees are born in hives that have a younger queen. Queens can live for 2 to 8 years if their colony is healthy and if it isn’t destroyed by external factors.

Queens may have several nests and hives throughout her lifetime, as she swarms from her old nest.

How Queen Bees Mate

Queen bees mate with drones from other colonies. A virgin queen flies off from her colony to a drone congregation area, where she’ll be met by many drone bees (males).

Here, she’ll mate with 12 to 15 drones and store their sperm. [6]

This mating can take place over several days, depending on weather conditions.

Swarming

Swarming is a way for queen bees to hand over the existing nest to a new queen. This usually takes place during springtime but can happen sporadically throughout the year.

The old queen will lay eggs for new queens, and then fly off with a swarm of workers before the new queen hatches. 

Rather than staying in their nest and producing young, the queen will form a hive somewhere else.

swarming bees

How Many Queen Bees Are in a Hive?

There’s typically only one queen in a hive. 

At times, such as during supersedure or other extraordinary circumstances, there may be more than a single queen though.

Beekeepers can artificially increase the number of queen bees by introducing a new queen into the hive. This is done to increase honey production, but the two queens will only coexist for a short while, as one of them is killed.

Multiple queens can also coexist for a short while if both of the queens are injured.

Related: How many queens are in a hive?

Supersedure

Supersedure is one of the most critical events in the life of a honey bee colony. It is when an old queen bee is being replaced by one of her daughters.

The old queen may stay in the colony until the new queen becomes mature enough to lay eggs.

The daughter will take over the duties of raising new bees for the colony; she must reproduce rapidly to create more workers.

Supersedure usually happens under two circumstances:

  • When the old queen is losing her productive capabilities (reproduction is slowing down).
  • When the colony is becoming overcrowded.
swarming of bees on a hive

Queens eliminating Other Queens

When multiple queens are present in a hive at the same time, they will fight until one of them is dead. They do this because there can only be one queen in the hive at a time.

If a new queen is to replace the old one, the old queen will lay multiple eggs in queen cells. The first queen to hatch will kill the rest of the brood before they can hatch.

If multiple bees hatch at the same time, they’ll end up fighting. If they’re both too injured, they may coexist for a while though.

Can a Colony Survive Without a Queen?

A bee colony can’t survive without a queen. Not for long.

The entire bee colony is threatened if the queen is gone. Without her, there’s no way for the hive to reproduce and grow. The bees will eventually die out if their queen isn’t replaced soon enough.

To avoid this, worker bees will quickly try to raise a new queen. If they fail this, they will surely die.

dead swarm of worker bees

What Happens When a Queen Bee Dies?

If the queen dies, the workers will make another queen by feeding some of the worker larvae royal jelly (a secretion produced by young worker bees). 

They will place multiple eggs and larvae in queen cells, care for them, and raise them as queens.

The first queen to emerge will then kill the rest of the brood.

Related: What happens when a queen bee dies?

Queen Bee Rejection

Queen bee rejection is a behavior in which worker bees reject a Queen Bee. This is either due to infertility or if they see a new queen as an intruder.

When worker bees reject a new queen, they will form a ball around her. This ball of bees will keep her from escaping, while they bite and sting her to death.

Studies show that beehives that have gone longer without a queen, are more inclined to accept a new queen. [7]

Related: Why do bees reject a queen?

Do Worker Bees Kill the Queen?

Yes, worker bees may end up killing queen bees. They do this if they don’t accept her, or if they see her as an intruder.

They may also kill a queen if there is more than a single one present.

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.