How Is a Queen Bee Chosen?
Bees live together in a colony with a very specific social structure. While the female worker bees are food providers, the male worker bees — drones — are there to mate with the queen bee. She’s the one single bee, without whom the colony couldn’t exist.
Do Workers Choose the Queen Bee?
A bee colony has a very complex organization. Although the male workers are supposed to mate with the queen bee, they aren’t to mate with the queen bee in their colony.
Therefore, the queen bee needs to leave her hive occasionally, to seek unrelated drones to mate with. Besides that, she only leaves her hive when swarming — flying out with a group of worker bees to form a new colony.
When a bee colony needs a new queen bee, worker bees will raise a few at the same time. They’ll feed the female larvae — newborn baby bees — with special food called royal jelly. This is secreted from the glands of the bottom part of the honey bee’s throat, the hypopharynx.
The Queen Bee Rivalry
However, worker bees aren’t the ones to decide on who’s going to be the queen of their hive. The queen herself does that.
If only one virgin queen bee emerges at once, she’ll seek out other queen cells and destroy them. In the case of more queen bees emerging at the same time, there will be a true queen bee fight. The ultimate queen bee will kill all her rivals with her stinger.
What Does a Queen Bee Do?
A queen bee is well taken care of. She’s fed, groomed and cleaned by her sisters. Contrary to popular belief, she’s not even the decision-maker. Worker bees decide on when they’ll split their huge colony into two and swarm.
Before swarming, they make sure their queen bee loses enough weight to fly with them; therefore, they start feeding her less.
What the queen bee does decide on, is when she flies out to mate. This usually happens a few days after winning her title. She won’t fly into the other hives, though. The worker bees there would kill her.
How Does a Queen Bee Lay Eggs?
After returning to her hive, it’s egg-laying time. Even then, the queen bee must follow worker bees’ instructions. Depending on the colony’s needs, worker bees prepare empty cells for the eggs.
Moving across the hive, the queen bee needs to measure them carefully. If the colony needs more drones, bees will clean and prepare more drone-sized cells. These cells are big enough to fit an unfertilized egg inside. If more worker bees are needed in the hive, bees will prepare more worker-sized cells. The queen bee will use those cells after the eggs are fertilized in her body.
Worker bees reach their adulthood in 21 days, while male drones take 24 days to mature. The queen bee’s development is much faster — she emerges from her cell in 16 days.
Does Royal Jelly Consumption Make the Queen Bee?
Queen bee develops from a fertilized egg. Compared to other female bees in the colony, the queen bee’s the only fertile one. Due to her long abdomen, she’s bigger than other females. She also lives longer — up to a few years. Although, she can be replaced as a queen bee sooner if her colony decides so.
For a long time, it was believed her special diet — only consuming royal jelly — was responsible for the queen bee’s development. Nowadays, honey bee epigenetics reveals that it may not be what the queen eats that makes her fertile. Instead, it’s what she doesn’t eat that enhances her fertility.
By solely eating royal jelly, the queen bee avoids consuming various natural chemicals present in honey and pollen. New research is pointing out those chemicals are castrating other female bees.
Royal jelly may have several benefits for the queen bee, but it’s not the key reason for her to be able to produce eggs. It’s the absence of harmful chemicals in her body due to her special diet that allows her ovaries to develop.
Can a Queen Bee Be Replaced?
Queen bees are recognized by other colony members by their special odor, as they constantly emit pheromones. Every queen will start emitting fewer pheromones in time. The colony will, therefore, raise a new queen bee and send the old one away with the swarm, unless she dies first.
Sometimes, beekeepers introduce a new queen bee. As she will smell differently, worker bees will feel threatened. To counter this, she should be put in a secured box until the hive gets used to her smell. This usually happens within a week.
It’s All About the Queen Bee
It’s the worker bees who decide how many male and female bees they need in the nearest future. When the first female bee emerges from her cell, it’s her job to establish her queen role, though. She isn’t the decision-maker before or afterward — yet, she’s the one without whom a colony can’t exist.
Humans and bees have coexisted for thousands of years. Still, we don’t know all the secrets of this amazing and incredibly complex species. The queen bee, for sure, has some secrets.