Queen Bee: Facts & Curiosities of the Queen Honey Bee
The queen honey bee is the most important bee in the hive. The only female in the colony who can lay eggs, the queen is not really a ruler though. She’s more like the mother of the hive.
The queen bee’s intricate relationship with her hive is absolutely crucial to the bees’ health and survival. That makes her pretty special for humans too.
What does a queen bee look like?
The queen bee looks like a larger, heavier bee. She is caramel in colour, with a longer abdomen and shorter wings. It’s not likely that you will be able to identify a queen bee in your garden though — she spends so little time outside of the hive.
Queen Bee vs Worker Bee
The queen bee is genetically identical to the worker bees. That means that any female larva has the potential to become a queen.
The queen’s diet is very different, and this is literally what makes her a queen. Instead of honey and pollen, the queen bee is fed with royal jelly.
Royal jelly is a milky white substance that is very rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and antibacterial compounds. An increased quantity of food, together with the special properties of royal jelly turn an ordinary worker bee into a queen. Worker bees are fed royal jelly for only three days after they hatch, but the queen enjoys it for the whole of her life.
The queen bee lifespan is much longer than that of worker bees. Worker bees typically live from 5 to 7 weeks but a queen can live for 4 to 5 years.
Unlike worker bees, the queen bee sting does not have a barb. That means she can sting you without dying.
Apart from her mating flights, she spends her entire life inside the hive. As she is the only fertile bee in the hive, her main job is to lay the eggs. The only time the queen will leave is if the numbers grow too large — then she might depart with a swarm.
What does the Queen Bee do?
The queen bee is responsible for the entire population of her hive. A single queen can lay up to 1500 eggs per day. She moves slowly through the hive, laying eggs in special cells in the ‘brood chamber.’ Most of her eggs are fertilized and will become female workers. If she finds a larger cell, she will lay an egg without fertilizing it. These become the larger male bees, called drones.
During her life, the queen bee really is treated like a queen. She is surrounded by special attendants who groom her and dispose of any waste products.
Queen bees give off a special chemical known as ‘queen pheromone.’ This chemical ‘signal’ that a fertile queen is present is constantly monitored by her attendants. If the queen is sick or dies, the signal is disrupted. In that case, her nurses alert the hive and begin to create a new queen.
The queen bee pheromones affect the whole mood of the hive. The healthy queen ‘signal’ suppresses reproduction in the other females and stimulates all the activities needed for the hive’s survival. These include communication, cleaning and construction, defence, foraging, honey-making and nursing.
How long does a queen bee live?
The queen bee lifespan is from 2 to 5 years. The length of her life will depend on how long she is able to remain fertile. As she grows older, her ability to lay fertilized eggs decreases and she gives off less queen pheromone.
What happens when the queen bee dies?
If the queen bee is accidentally killed or lost, the nurse bees will detect the absence of the queen’s pheromone. They immediately begin the process of preparing emergency queens.
How does a bee become a queen?
To create a new queen bee, the nurse bees select 10 to 20 newly hatched female larvae. The nurses secrete royal jelly from the tops of their heads and feed it to each of the potential queens. This rich diet of royal jelly is what activates the female larvae’s reproductive systems, converting them into queens.
The emerging queens locate each other by making piping noises. Then they fight to the death. This might sound ruthless, but it ensures that the strongest and healthiest queen is the one who takes over.
If the old queen remains in the hive, the new queen will sometimes kill her as well, or she may be left alone to continue laying for the last few weeks of her life. Sometimes the old queen will have already left with a swarm. In either case, the new queen is ready to take over the egg-laying duties.
The Queen Bee’s Mating Flight
Before she can begin laying eggs, the virgin queen must embark on several short mating flights. After circling the hive to orient herself, she will fly away from the colony to mate.
The drones will be waiting for her, in an area around 6 – 35 meters off the ground. The queen flies high and very fast so that only the strongest drones will be able to mate with her. She will mate with between 10 – 15 males. 48 hours later she is ready to lay her eggs.
The queen bee stores the sperm from her mating flight in a special sac called a spermatheca. A single queen can store around six million sperm for as long as seven years.
After she has mated, the queen will usually remain in the hive. She will only leave if there is a swarm.
We beekeepers love our queen bees.
Beekeepers who love their bees always pay special attention to their queens. They know that a healthy queen bee is crucial for the happiness of their hives. If a queen is sick or dies, it takes the worker bees around 16 days to raise a new queen.
During that time the hive is completely disrupted. Beekeepers can quickly rectify the problem by introducing a healthy young queen to the hive. This is also necessary when a hive needs splitting due to overpopulation.
New queens are bred in special queen-raising apiaries, but queen raising is quite a specialist skill. At Mountain Valley Honey, we love to keep this activity in the family. Murray’s father, Merv, used to raise our queens and now that task falls to his sister, Cath.
Raising our queens is one of the little things that we cherish about our small business. We think the queen bee is one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet. She is so important for happy beehives. And happy hives mean happy lives. Both for us and our beautiful bees!