queen bee

Queen Bees - A Complete Guide

Queen bees have one of the most important roles in the colony. They’re the founders and main egg producers, ensuring the survival of the hive. The queen bee also faces a lot of threats, some of which include parasites, other queen bees, and even execution.

It’s not often that we get to see queen bees up close, being that they mostly sit in the middle of the hive. This is a shame, since they probably have the most fascinating lifecycle of all the bees in the colony. Today we’re going to find out all about the queen bee’s appearance, role, and behavior.

What Is the Role of a Queen Bee?

Queen bees, as mentioned above, are generally the founders of a colony. They either take over the old hive (honeybees) or they establish their own (bumblebees). Their general role in the hive is to produce more workers and, eventually, males and new queens.

The workers surround the queen to keep her protected and tend to her every need. The main role of a queen bee, however, differs between species. There are many bee species around the world, and we keep discovering new ones, but today we’ll focus on three.

Role of the Honeybee Queen

Honeybees are one of the most famous species of bees. They’re known for their honey-producing abilities, providing us with tasty treats, such as honeycomb and, of course, honey.

honey on hive board

Honeybees are also categorized as social bees, meaning that they live in colonies, ruled by a single queen. Because of their social nature, the hive is well organized with the queen being the sole producer of eggs. She mostly lays worker eggs consisting of other females incapable of reproducing.

After a new virgin queen emerges from her cell, she’s just another bee. She waits about five to six days before finding drones (males) to mate with. Once she has collected enough sperm, the other worker bees begin to tend to her so she can lay the eggs.

The sperm she has collected allows her to lay an unlimited amount of eggs. It will actually last her about two to four years before she begins to run out. When this time comes, she’ll likely produce a new queen and the colony will replace her.

During her egg-laying years, she can lay up to 1,500 eggs each day. This does vary, depending on the season, weather, available cells, and, of course, workers. Other than producing eggs, her task is to ensure the survival of the colony.

Honeybees sometimes perform what is known as a swarm, where the queen decides it’s time to leave the old hive. This is either because the colony has exhausted the space, or they want to spread their roots. The queen gathers over half of the colony who then follow her, leaving behind some workers and a new queen.

large bee swarm

Role of the Bumblebee Queen

Bumblebee queens are somewhat different to honeybees. Although they’re also considered social bees, the colony can actually survive without their main queen.

Sometimes it happens that a cuckoo bumblebee female overthrows the true queen and takes over her duties. The remaining bumblebee workers will then tend to the cuckoo brood.

Bumblebees don’t live nearly as long as honeybees. The virgin queen emerging from her egg has to find a mate and, once mated, she then hibernates for the winter. When spring comes around, she wakes up, finds a spot for her nest, and proceeds to lay her first batch of eggs.

A bumblebee queen also doesn’t produce nearly as many eggs as the honeybee queen. Honeybee colonies can include as many as 20,000 bees, where bumblebee colonies only grow up to a couple hundred.

The queen often chooses to nest on the ground, or close to it, generally under sheds, in moss, or in burrows. She may even choose an old birdhouse. Then she begins to build the foundation of the nest.

bumblebee nest

She rakes together suitable supplies nearby, such as old fur, dry leaves, or tall grass. Then she secretes a waxy substance to lay her eggs in. When the first batch of workers emerge, they’ll take over the foraging and will then feed the queen.

The bumblebee queen readily emits a range of hormones that prevent the other females (workers) from producing eggs. Sometimes, however, it happens that one female will resist this, which can trigger a competitive phase. This usually ends in the death of the nest.

Role of the Sweat Bee Queen

Sweat bees, in general, are quite different from honeybees and bumblebees. There are approximately 1,000 species of sweat bees in the US, Canada, and Central America. Of these, some are solitary and others are social.

The solitary species don’t live in colonies and, therefore, don’t have a queen. Social sweat bees, on the other hand, live in colonies, much like the bumblebee. The queen is the founder and main egg producer, where she shares quite a few similarities with the bumblebee queen.

Her role is to find a suitable nesting place where she’ll lay her eggs. This is usually a burrow or other place underground.

The sweat bee queen, unlike the bumblebee queen, can actually dig her own burrow. A bumblebee queen depends a lot on abandoned places to take over, whereas the sweat bee queen readily makes her own.

Inside her nest, she’s responsible for producing new workers and males. Eventually, she’ll also produce eggs that will become new queens.

How Do Bees Choose Their Queen?

This is quite interesting because, again, it varies between species. Let’s take a look.

Honeybees

Honeybees are very focused on the survival of the colony and it’s the workers who primarily choose their new queen. Honeybees have different larvae cups where the queen lays her eggs. The cups where a new queen is produced are called queen cups.

One of the only times the queen chooses to produce a replacement is when she’s planning to swarm. Otherwise, it’s the workers who will place one of the queen’s eggs into a queen cup. They will generally do this when the queen’s egg production decreases, if she’s sick, or if she dies.

Inside the queen cup, the workers place a magical potion called royal jelly. This is basically a very strong blend of proteins, water, and sugar, produced by the young workers.

The royal jelly transforms the larva into a larger bee, fitted with reproductive organs. It will also grow faster and has the capability of surviving much longer than its siblings. Once the new queen emerges, she’ll have to mate before being able to take over the throne.

Bumblebees

Once again, bumblebees like to do things a little differently. You see, inside the nest, the queen is the one deciding when she produces new virgin queens.

The bumblebee queen lays two types of eggs—fertilized and unfertilized. After mating, the queen stores all the sperm inside her vagina in a tiny container known as a spermatheca. Once she’s queen and decides to lay eggs, she chooses whether or not to fertilize the eggs.

The fertilized eggs are what becomes workers (females) and the unfertilized eggs develop into males. The queen rarely lays unfertilized eggs, except toward the end of her reign.

Once she produces the first batch of unfertilized eggs, it indicates that the end of the colony is near. Following the males, she’ll likely lay one last batch of fertilized eggs, but these won’t develop into workers.

The laying of male eggs signals to the other workers that they should raise the female eggs as queens. During her reign, the queen produced a pheromone that instructed the workers to raise all eggs as new workers. Once the male eggs are ready, the queen switches off the secreted chemical, thus indicating that new queens are coming.

Sweat Bees

Sweat bees are much like bumblebees, as it’s the queen who decides who gets to become a future ruler. One interesting fact about sweat bee queens, or females, is that the solitary species often produce more males than females. The eusocial sweat bee queen, on the other hand, readily chooses to bring up more female workers.

The queen bee then chooses which female egg is to be queen by feeding it more than the others. The extra food and nutrition helps the larva develop the traits of a queen and it grows to a larger size than the others.

How to Identify a Queen Bee

Queen bees, in general, are always larger than their workers and males. Specific differences to look for will depend on the species. Let’s find out what they are.

The Honeybee Queen

The honeybee queen is probably one of the most difficult bees to locate. This is mostly because she’s surrounded by 50,000 to 60,000 bees. Which is also why some beekeepers mark her with a colored pen.

When looking inside the hive, try to locate a larger, darker bee with a long body. Her abdomen is extended and ends in a sharp point. Her wings are also quite short and only cover half of her body.

Another way to identify her is by looking at the way she walks. The queen is heavy, she’s carrying a lot of sperm and food. This makes her waddle instead of walking gracefully.

What you may also notice is how the other worker bees constantly turn their heads toward her wherever she goes. Their role is to tend to her every need, so she’s got their full attention.

The Bumblebee Queen

The queen bumblebee looks very similar to her workers. They sport the same colors and share the same body type. Their legs are wide and both have pollen baskets, which the male bumblebees don’t have.

One way to identify the queen from her daughters is by looking at the size. The queen is much larger than her workers.

Telling the queen apart from males, however, is quite easy. Male bumblebees are smaller than the queen, but their antennae and bodies are longer. Males have seven body segments and 14 antennae segments, whereas the queen only has six and 13.

The Sweat Bee Queen

Much like the bumblebee, the sweat bee queen is almost identical to her workers. Depending on the species, they share the same colors and traits, even pollen baskets, or hair on their hind legs.

The queen, however, is much larger. She’s been fed a nutritious diet, designed to increase her size when she was just a larva.

When telling the queen apart from males, you’ll see that the males have a much more slender body than the queen. They are also noticeably smaller.

Common Queen Bee Behavior

As the queen bees are responsible for the colony population, they lay eggs and assign each worker to different tasks. Here are some common behaviors:

Instructor

Bees navigate and work on their sense of smell. The queen bees have the ability to secrete different pheromones that instruct the workers to behave accordingly.

Like we established above, the bumblebee queen, for example, uses this when she needs to raise new queens. The honeybee queen will also use pheromones to dictate what task the individual worker will have.

Dominance

There can only be one queen, but it seems that most queens, at some point, face a threat. This is especially common for bumblebees, and their queen can get quite aggressive if needed.

Toward the end of her reign, other females may begin to develop ovaries and lay unfertilized eggs. The queen may show more aggression to oppress these potential traitors.

The sweat bee queen, again, is commonly known for restricting the food for her first brood. This way, the workers are smaller and thus easier to dominate.

If we take a look at the honeybee queen, she’s at the center of attention 24 hours a day. Her workers will constantly tend to her and move out of her way if she decides to take a walk.

Summary

Queen bees have one of the most important roles in the colony. They’re the mothers to most, if not all, of the workers and drones, and everyone will tend to their needs. They’re often larger than the workers and can, in that way, gain dominance over the hive.

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