Colony bees—particularly honeybees—have a sense of order that is so precise that humans still haven’t learned all their secrets. They use the same accuracy when picking a new queen, and so it becomes her legacy, even destiny if you will. Just as with our monarchies, a queen bee’s life is decided for her before she is even born.
What Are Queen Bees?
You’ll find that the obvious answer to this lacks a lot of information. Yes, she is the biggest and most important, but what exactly makes her a queen bee?
All colony bees have queens, though their behavior will vary according to species. The gist of it though—which is the standard, and based on the structure of honeybee colonies—is that the queen is meant to be the mother of all bees within the colony.
Under her, you will find the female workers, who keep the hive in tip-top shape, and the drones—who don’t do much more than mate (with the queen) before they die.
How Are Queen Honeybees Chosen?
You might think that queen honeybees are the masters (or mistresses, should I say) of their entire hive and that the workers and drones do what she tells them to without question, but that’s a misunderstanding.
In bumblebee colonies, the queen has a bit more power. She decides where to nest and outlives the rest of her colony (who all have immensely short life-spans). In honeybee colonies, we envision the queen as a domineering force, but the truth is that she is quite the opposite.
Honeybee queens don’t control the hives, workers do. Workers have all the power. Queens, in reality, have almost none. It’s the workers that build the nests, feed the colony, and protect what’s theirs. There’s one job that’s usually overlooked, and in many ways, it’s the most important one: workers choose the colony’s queen.
A Queen Honeybee’s Life Cycle
Since workers and queens are both females, they have the same beginnings: unfertilized eggs. Even in this simple step—laying eggs—bees have everything planned out and their choices now make the biggest impact later.
In a hive, the placement of cells is just as precise as everything else. The uppermost cells store honey, in the middle you’ll find pollen and the lower cells are for brood (larvae and eggs).
It’s taken even further, though. Within these brood cells, honeybee workers prepare (just in case) by creating something called queen cups. They don’t use them unless they have a need for them, but these are where potential queens will hatch.
If workers suspect they might need a new queen, fertilized eggs are placed in queen cups and are given special treatment. They’re fed royal jelly, which is intended to boost their growth.
Once the potential queen reaches adulthood, she will hatch from what’s now called a queen cell. She chews her way through it, bigger than other bees, and she will fight for the throne if other potential queens hatch at the same time.
This only occurs when the colony needs a new queen: if the current one is too old to continue her duties, is sick, dying or already dead. When a hive realizes it’s time for a new queen, they’re known to overthrow the current one.
Sometimes it even goes as far as the potential queen fighting the current one to the death so she can take her place.
Check out this interesting video for more.
What Does A Queen Honeybee Do?
Now that you know it’s the workers that have all the power, it raises an important question: Why are queens so special? What do they do for a hive?
The simple answer is that they are specifically raised to be perfect breeders. They do not work for the hive as workers do, and much like the drones, a queen honeybee’s sole purpose is to mate and produce new bees.
When it’s put this way, it does come across as just a little bit unfair that the drones (who are the fathers of the hive) are accused of being useless. After all, a queen can’t mate by herself.
I suppose the difference is that queens are chosen and there can only be one at a time. She can live for up to three years or more (an eternity in the bee world) and will birth thousands of bees in her life.
What Do Queen Bees Look Like?
The easiest way to spot a queen is to look for the biggest one in the hive, but this can be an unreliable method. Sometimes drones match her size and can be even fatter than the queen. If going by size, don’t look for the biggest bee, look for the longest one.
What happens when you don’t have the rest of the colony to compare her to, though? How else can we identify them?
The queen’s abdomen will be a lot sharper than that of the others. Her stinger is also unbarbed, a trait you only find in queen bees. It might be difficult to see, but it’s the most viable way to identify her. Keep in mind that drones don’t have stingers at all.
Her legs will also be more visible than that of the others. Most honeybees hold their legs beneath their bodies. Queens hold them outwards.
If you are able to observe the behavior of the colony, look for the bee that seems to do nothing, but is the center of the hustle and bustle. The rest of the colony will give way to her.
Are Queen Honeybees Vicious?
Queens have a reputation for being “mama bears” that will attack without a second thought. Is there any truth to this statement?
It’s a gray area. Like all other bees, she will become aggressive if she is interfered with and it’s always better to rather be safe than sorry. Queens, as I mentioned don’t have barbed stingers, so they are able to sting repeatedly. This is perceived as an extra risk.
Inside the hive, queens can show aggression too, particularly if she is being superseded and must engage in a deadly battle for the throne. This is likely another reason for her reputation as a flying weapon.
Queens don’t pose as much of a threat as workers though. A queen doesn’t forage or guard the hive and will most typically stay put inside it. Unless you go out of your way to meddle with the queen or the hive, it’s unlikely that you will encounter her.
Queen honeybees are often thought to be the leaders of beehives, but their lives aren’t up to them and it’s actually the workers that control everything. Still, because their sole purpose is to parent the entire hive, they have a special rank in the colony.
Their lives are decided for them by the workers before they’re even born, and once a queen steps up to her rank, the hive will center around her well-being, until she dies.
The queen’s reputation often precedes her, but she’s a lot more than an aggressive warlord. She’s a mother, and so is fully deserving of her special treatment.