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Sweet Spotlight: The Queen

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

These are the days of our lives....

Just kidding. It's time to talk about the Queen Bee y'all! This gorgeous lady is the heart and soul of the hive. Let's take a look into her fabulous existence and some of the drama that comes with.

With very few exceptions, there would only be one Queen in any hive. The rest of the hive would be made up of Worker Bees or Drone Bees (which you can read more about in the linked blogs). And while every bee has their job to do, the Queen bee has the most important job of all. She is the only bee in the hive that can lay fertilized eggs. In the spotlight blogs on Worker Bees you can learn how Workers have the ability to lay eggs, but only unfertilized eggs, which result in Drone Bees. Fertilized eggs result in female Worker bees and new Queens, and since the vast majority of a hive is comprised of Worker Bees, this is a matter of hive life and death.

A Queen is Born

Worker bees will develop wax dome-shaped cups that are intended for the eggs of future Queens, these are called Queen Cups. The presence of Queen Cups can indicate a changing of the guard so to speak, or the potential for a swarm. Once the cups are formed into a cell and show signs of an egg-white liquid, this is an indication that a new Queen has been acknowledged by the hive, and is being developed into a future Queen.

Eggs are laid by the current Queen and are cared for and develop as usual into larva. Around day 9, the Nurse Bees will cover the cell with a layer of wax. It takes about 16 days for the queen to hatch. During this time the new Queens will be fed royal jelly, far beyond the typical three days other bees may receive. As I mentioned before, fertilized eggs are female, the only difference between what makes a Queen and what makes a Worker, is how their diets differ. Current studies suggest, that the lack "bee bread" contributes to genetic changes that allow a larva to develop into Queen.

At the end of her 16 day incubation, a Queen will begin to chew her way out of the cell. Once she is able to break through enough of the cell cap to be seen, Workers will come to her aid to help her chew through the remainder of the cap.

She will emerge as one of the largest bees in the colony, with a long abdomen and wings that cover only a portion of her body. Queen bees also have another singularly important feature, a spermatheca. This is the part of her reproductive organs where she will store the sperm she collects during mating. Shortly after her birth, the Queen will go on her inaugural mating flight. She will attract and mate with up to 20 different drones from different colonies. This large number of couplings ensure the genetic variation of the hive, and the queen will use this collected sperm for the rest of her life to lay fertilized eggs. A Queen can live for up to 7 years, but she will only ever have one mating flight. Most Queens will lay well for about three years from this singular mating event, but eventually all queens will begin to run out of genetic material for fertilizing eggs. And because she will not mate again, the Queen will either be replaced by her beekeeper or by her hive.

One of the other major stand out features of the Queen is the build of her stinger. While a Worker bees stinger is barbed and lodges into its victim (most often at the cost of the bees life), the Queen has a stinger that is very smooth. This allows her the ability to sting her victim multiple times and still survive. Despite having this ability, the Queen rarely uses it. On some occasions it will be utilized to fight other queens, but mainly her stinger will be used to position the eggs she has lain.

Aside from caring for her as a larva, the dynamics of the Queen and Worker bee during her adult life is highly involved as well. Workers will take care of the queen by feeding and grooming her. The queen cannot digest her own food and depends on the Workers to digest it for her and then feed it to her. They even clean up her waste after her.

OHH The Drama!

Let's dive into that soap opera caliber hive drama I mentioned before. It may be assumed that because she has the most important job, or that she is called the Queen, that this one little bee calls the shots of the hive. I can see where you would think that, but you would be wrong. The Workers as a collective actually direct the life of the hive, and can raise or destroy a Queen at their discretion. The decision isn't made lightly, but when it is made, there is no going back.

Queen bees give off a pheromone, which acts as a health note to the Workers, providing details about her overall health and productivity. Workers register this pheromone on a "per bee" concentration. Workers are alerted that it is time to raise a new queen, when they no longer smell this pheromone at the necessary levels. The lowered concentration indicates that there are now too many bees in the colony for just one Queen.

When the hive becomes overcrowded the Workers make the decision of when to swarm, deciding the path of the hive and the fate of the queen. During the swarm process the current Queen will continue to lay eggs as normal, but workers will create Queen Cups to initiate raising a new queen, and they will stop feeding the current Queen to lighten her up for her swarm flight. The current queen is a poor flier due to her size and weight, so her enforced diet is necessary if she is to survive the search for a new home. When all of the pieces are in place, the current queen will leave the hive with about half of the current colony. These will be the swarms you tend to see around late spring/early summer. The queen and her swarm will seek a new home, never returning to their original hive again.

Soon after the exit of the swarm, the new Queen cells will begin to hatch. The first Queen to hatch has a tough choice to make. She may take a portion of the hive, create her own swarm, and seek out a new home. Or she may choose to stay and become the new Queen. And while remaining in the hive is the typical decision, thats where things get really juicy!

The new Queen's first order of business is to kill all of the other Queens that would counter her claim to the throne. She will ensure she is THE only Queen in the colony, by seeking out her sisters cells and using her stinger to kill them before they have even emerged. The Worker bees who have nurtured this collection of new potential Queens will even help her chew through the cell caps to ensure their demise. If she is not quick enough, and two Queens just so happen to hatch around the same time, they will fight to the death with the survivor becoming the new Queen.

.....drama, drama, drama....

If you would like to learn more, this is an excellent documentary by NOVA on the life of the honey bee. It even includes a cameo from a hungry honey bear!

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