The Queen Honey Bee: Everything You Need to Know

Life is full of sweet surprises, isn’t it? And one of the best surprises you’ll get from raising your own beehive is the honey. But unless you have a working queen honey bee, you can kiss all that sugary goodness goodbye. But to become the reigning queen, the honey bee has some serious obstacles to overcome. When a hive needs a new queen, the worker bees begin feeding select larvae differently so that it develops into a fertile bee. The fertile honey bees will go on to become queen honey bees.

Here’s the thing: a hive can only have one queen bee, so to take the royal scepter, the newly formed queen honey bees will have to fight to the death. Once on the throne, she must risk her life again to mate, and then stay in the nest her entire life. However, her subjects aren’t loyal for life, and once the hive needs a new queen, or she begins to lay fewer eggs, she has to think strategically to survive.

There are three types of bees in a hive: the queen honey bee, the workers, and the drones. The workers are females whose job it is to build the honeycomb, forage for food, produce honey, keep the nest clean, feed the larvae, and defend the nest from any predators. Hence the name worker bee.

The drones are male, and they have it a little easier. Their main job is to mate with the queen honey bee — although that really doesn’t end well for them (more about this later). Sometimes the drone bees help keep the hive cool on a hot day by flapping their wings.  Once the mating season is over, the drone bees become a burden to the worker bees, so they kick them out of the hive. That causes many of them to die.

The queen honey bee is the leader of the pack, so to speak. Her job is to mate with the drone bees and then lay thousands of eggs to keep the bee colony going strong and producing enough honey to live on. Without her, the colony would never happen, as she is the only source of eggs.

You would think a bee that held a position of such importance would be born of royal blood, but that’s not how a queen honey bee becomes a queen. In fact, her humble beginnings are no different than the rest of the larvae in the nest. All larvae are fed royal jelly for the first three days of their cycle, but the worker bees select a few queen larvae and continue to feed them this nutritious food that ultimately allows them to become fertile.

Some of the queen larvae never develop, and if more than one does, the surviving queen bees will fight to the death until only one is left buzzing. For an entertaining and informative video on the entire process, check out the SciShow video, “How a Bee Becomes Queen.”

The American Bee Journal estimates that there are approximately 25 bees per square inch in a hive. For most hives, that means between 10,000 and 80,000 bees are living there, and some-bee (get it?) has to keep order. That job falls on the queen honey bee. Although the worker bees and drones have jobs, they ultimately answer to the queen honey bee.

In addition to her order-keeping responsibilities, the queen honey bee is solely responsible for keeping the hive alive. She is the only fertile female in the colony, and without her, it would die off.

The demanding and essential roles of the queen honey bee:

  • She mates with the drone bees.
  • She produces eggs.
  • Once the colony has grown too large, she initiates a swarm to form a new one.

If you thought the world of online dating was tricky, wait until you hear how the queen honey bee mates. Remember the drone bees — those male bees that hang around solely to mate with the queen? Well, when she’s about a week out of her larvae cell, the queen bee will take flight to announce to the drones that she’s ready to mate. And because they’ve been hanging around waiting for her — and not doing much else — the games begin immediately.

And the queen isn’t messing around. She will mate with as many as 20 drone bees each flight, all done midair. And get this — as soon as a drone bee mate with the queen, it dies. Talk about dying for love!

The queen bee may take up to three flights. She will continue to mate until she has enough sperm in her sperm pouch, also called a spermathecal, to last her a lifetime. It is the last time she will leave the nest until a new queen honey bee replaces her once she gets too old to produce enough eggs.

Once the queen honey bee is back in the nest, the worker bees begin caring for her. They feed her so that her bee belly swells, and lick her, transferring pheromones onto her body. That helps her regulate the colony.

The queen bee’s power lies in her pheromones. She is the only bee in the hive to produce queen bee pheromones, and they are like the glue that holds together the hive. These pheromones put off a scent that encourages the worker bees to take care of her, while at the same time, inhibits the production of any more queen bees in the nest. It is such a constant that if the hive becomes too crowded and the worker bees can no longer detect the queen’s pheromones, they will begin to swarm to create another hive. And if the queen honey bee leaves the hive or dies and the worker bees can no longer detect her pheromones, they will panic and take steps to produce another queen.

Now that you understand the basics of how queen honey bees live and operate within the colony let’s talk about some fun facts. Queen bees are not only an integral part of the hive but also quite interesting. Here are some things you may not know about the queen of the bees.

They are twice the size of a worker bee, and a drone bee is about two-thirds the size of a queen.

When a queen honey bee establishes her colony, she will lay an egg every 20 seconds, or about 1,500 a day.

A busy worker bee may only live for six weeks before dying of exhaustion. And a drone bee will live for a few weeks to four months — or until mating with the queen. Queen honey bees, on the other hand, can live up to five years.

When a queen bee stops producing enough eggs, she loses her status in the colony. They turn their attention to the new queen honey bee, and the old one is either killed, allowed to waste away, or sent on her way to find a new hive.

Even though they are Queen of the Hive, queen honey bees don’t get to decide where to lay the eggs. The worker bees keep track of whether the colony needs more worker bees or drone bees and cleans out the cells to make them ready for laying. And the queen bee can only lay eggs in a clean cell.

Do you have a sweet tooth that can never be satisfied? Or maybe you plan to use beekeeping as a way to earn an income. In either case, here are the facts. The more queen honey bees you have, the more hives you’ll have — and that means lots of honey. If you want more of the sweet stuff — for whatever reason — it might be time to raise your own queen honey bee and create a new hive. After all, if each hive produces between 20 to 60 pounds of honey, you can easily multiply that with new queens.

While Mother Nature has created the ideal plan for worker bees to produce queen honey bees when they need one, a little human ingenuity can also do the trick.

If you have more than one hive, you’ll want to choose the hive with the best characteristics because the new queen will have those traits. Look for a hive that is gentle, quickly builds up in the spring, produces a good amount of honey, has minimal swarming, and shows a resistance to pests and diseases.

Your next step is to remove the queen of the colony. Remember, when a hive loses its queen, it immediately begins to produce another one. Take the removed queen and one frame of capped brood that is covered in bees and place it into a new colony. If you have another hive, take a similar frame from it — but without the bees — and place it in the new colony. These bees will quickly get to work and create a fast-growing colony that will likely produce a lot of honey.

Now it’s time to go back to the first hive and look for a frame that has just-hatching larvae. Cut out the new larvae and place them in a brood frame with a beeswax foundation. Place this in the hive with no queen and watch the worker bees get busy trying to make a new queen so the colony can survive.

If you want a simpler method of rearing queen honey bees, you can also use a kit that will make things easier. These kits encourage the queen bee to lay her eggs in special cups or plugs, which you control. Some of your queen bee rearing kit options are the TooGoo Beekeeping Rearing Cup Kit or the MannLake Complete Queen Rearing Kit.

Finally, if you’re going to rear your own queen bee, you’ll need to develop the skill of identifying them. You’ll need this skill if you’re going to remove the queen to start a new colony, or to check on the condition of your hive.

But it’s not easy to find one bee in a hive that contains thousands of them. While it’s true that queen bees are larger than the other bees in the hive, it can be difficult to detect the size difference.

Here are three ways to help you identify the queen bee in your hive:

1. Learn the characteristics of the queen honey bee

Once you have enough beekeeping experience, you may be able to spot the queen bee on your own. Her abdomen is larger than the worker bees, and she is also longer than them. Don’t confuse the queen with the drones, who are almost the same size. Drone bees have very large eyes that mark them as male.

2. Make her stand out

Mark the queen with a beekeeper queen bee marking kit. These pens place a water-based paint drop on the queen that will make her easy to spot.

3. Practice finding the queen

Practice looking for queen bees in your hive, or with a video to develop your skills. Jason Chrisman developed a Find the Queen Bee game on YouTube that is free to play.

Whether you do beekeeping for your own personal pleasure or do it commercially, the queen honey bee is a big part of your success. The worker bees will keep her happy and fed, and the drones will ensure that she mates so she can lay enough eggs in her lifetime, leaving little for you to do.

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