The ´bee kingdom´ is ruled by females, and on top of the hierarchy is the queen bee. Despite of her title, the queen bee is not the ruler of the hive. The ´bee kingdom´ is a well-organized democracy. Her status is entirely based on her reproductive ability.
The Queen Bee – Pampered Communicator
The queen is a well pampered diva that only leaves the hive to mate or in an emergency. Inside the hive, the worker bees attend to all her needs and feed her. They groom and clean her. Thus, by spreading the queen bee´s pheromone (queen substance), they communicate to the other bees that the colony is healthy. Pheromone is a chemical produced by honey bees to allow communication by ´sending´ or ´receiving´ messages to each other.
Did you know that bees can also consciously vote as a democracy by using pheromones? When a decision needs to be made (for example choosing a nesting site), each bee purposely votes by releasing either a primary or a releaser pheromone.
The Queen Bee – Spoon Fed Diva
According to many textbooks the queen bee is unable to feed herself. This is only partially correct. According to observations from numerous beekeepers, virgin queens seem to be able to feed themselves. They do so until their pheromone level output reaches enough bees in the hive to attract attendants. A laying queen bee is always fed by her workers. They mix her diet for her, thus either stimulating egg laying, or retarding egg laying.
The queen bee feeds exclusively on Royal Jelly throughout her entire life. This superfood produced by worker bees is highly nutritional and has prophylactic and therapeutic properties. The proteins in Royal jelly are similar to those in blood serum and stimulate growth. They consist of ca. 400 substances, including carbohydrates like glucose, fructose, and sucrose as well as mineral salts and trace minerals. It is also packed with vitamin A, D, C, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, B15, H, E, PP, and pantothenic acid.
The Queen Bee – Reproducing Homebody
The queen’s sole and most important role in life to reproduce! Most queens are ready to mate between the 5th and 14th day after emerging from their queen cell. The queen bee wins the title of being a homebody because she usually only leaves the hive once in her life to mate. The only other occasion is if she needs to find a new home when the hive becomes overcrowded.
She only mates with drones from other hives and mates several times with different drones to ensure a healthy gene pool. The mating trip is short. It typically lasts between 5 minutes to half an hour, depending on how quickly she encounters suitable partners.
Although the queen doesn’t rule over the rest of the hive, she has the amazing ability to control the sex of her offspring. She decides whether or not an egg is fertilized depending on the current situation of the colony. Fertilized eggs become female workers and potential queens, unfertilized eggs turn into drones. When it comes to laying eggs, the queen’s stinger is used to position the egg into the cell.
She starts to lay eggs in early spring until fall. Her reproductive time is linked to the time when pollen is available. Her productivity usually starts to decline after the first year or two before she is replaced either by her workers or the beekeeper.
The Queen Bee – Anatomy
The queen bee is the largest bee in the colony with a length of approx. 20 mm. Although compared with worker bees that are almost half the size, the queen is not as easy to identify as one would think. Beekeepers often mark the queen bee with a colored dot on her thorax so she can be easily identified. The color of the dot also acts as an identifier of the queen´s age. The beekeeper uses different colors every year.
There are other physical differences between her and the workers and drones: The queen has a much larger abdomen and thorax than the other bees. The worker bee’s wings are tinged with brown, while there is no color on the Queen’s body besides black or yellow. Another difference is that the queen’s stinger is smooth, allowing her to sting multiple times to survive.
Her longer body with her longer legs and her heavier weight combined with her shorter wings explain why she’s not a great flyer.
The Queen Bee – Reproductive System
Although all female bees have ovaries, the queen´s ovaries are very large. She has around 120-200 ovarioles compared to female workers that only have 2-12 ovarioles. An ovariole is a tube of which the ovaries of insects are composed. The most important difference to the others is that she has reproductive organs like the spermatheca, a special ‘sac’ that can store sperm to allow a timed fertilization.
The queen utilizes egg marking pheromones to distinguish her eggs from those laid by the worker bees. This signal is crucial in guiding the worker bees to differentiate between the two types of eggs. The egg-marking pheromones are a blend of chemicals that are unique to the queen and serve as a form of communication within the colony. These pheromones not only assist in identifying the queen’s eggs, but also play a role in regulating the behavior and development of the worker bees. Without the queen’s egg marking, the colony would struggle to maintain order and productivity.
The queen bee can store up to 6 million sperms in her oviducts and in her spermatheca. She ‘harvests’ from this sperm throughout her entire life. Scientists are still uncertain how the sperm is kept alive. About 5 days after her first mating trip, she starts laying up to 2,000 eggs a day in the summer at the peak of her productivity. That is more than her own body weight in eggs!
An interesting fact is that the decision of when, where and how many eggs the queen bee lays is decided by the workers.
The queen’s state of health and productivity is passed to the workers by the release of a pheromone that she secrets. When the queen no longer produces the pheromone, or her scent becomes too weak, it signals to the workers to prepare for a new queen. If two queens hatch at about the same time, they fight using their stingers until one of them dies.
When the queen is coming towards the end of her reproductive life and only produces sterile males, the worker bees kill her by not tending and feeding her once a new potential queen has hatched.
The Queen Bee – Life Cycle
The metamorphosis from egg to adult honey bees is the same for all honey bees; i.e. egg, larva, pupa and adult. Queen bees have the shortest development time (16 days) of any bee in the colony. On average, workers need 21 days to develop into an adult and drones 24 days.
She also has the longest life span compared with workers and drones. Domestic queen bees usually live 1 to 2 years on average. The oldest recorded life span of a queen bee was 8 years (Bozina 1961). Workers live an average of 15–38 days in the summer and 150–200 days in the winter, while drones have an average life span of 55 days. The life span varies with seasonal conditions.