There are some moments in the bee yard that you never forget. For me, one of the most surprising moments was witnessing two queens in a fight to the death on a frame of honeycomb - a true battle royale - an incredibly rare sight.
In all my years keeping bees, I've only seen this once and managed to film it. As I inspected the colony and looked at one frame of comb after another, something caught my eye. Low and behold there were two queen bees wrestling. Astonished and with the frame of honeybees in my hands, I quickly rushed to the truck to grab my phone. Here is what I saw...
Why were these two queens fighting? It was an act of supercedure - a newly hatched queen bee replacing the older queen by stinging her to death. It is the first and final act in the life cycle of queen bees.
Why queen bees fight?
A colony of honeybees only has one queen. If there is more than one, they will fight to the death.
The queen is the only bee in the hive that can lay eggs and is the mother of all the other bees. She can live between 3 and 5 years. As she approaches the end of her life, and slows down laying eggs, she will produce less queen pheromone. The bees sense this and begin the process of raising a new queen to replace her. The new queen that is born will kill her mother and any other newly hatched queens.
How bees raise a new queen bee
When the honeybee colony senses that it needs a new queen, the nurse bees will begin the process of raising new queen bees. These bees will select 10 to 20 newly hatched female larvae and begin feeding them a strict diet of royal jelly, a milky white substance that be bees secrete from the tops of their heads. The exclusive diet of royal jelly turns on the female larva's reproductive system, turning her into a queen. Royal jelly is high in protein, simple sugars, fatty acids, B vitamins, trace minerals, and antibacterial and antibiotic components. Female worker bees and the queen bee have the same genes...and any female larva has the potential to be a queen. What makes the queen different is this royal jelly.
Each queen bee develops in a special honeycomb cell called a 'queen cell' that looks somewhat like a peanut and is filled with royal jelly. Here's a video we took that demonstrates
Watch: Queen bee larva in a queen cell full of royal jelly
How queen bees are born
When the queen bee larva is ready to pupate (metamorphosize) from a larva into a queen bee, the worker bees will cap the cell and she will transform inside it. At day 15, when she is fully developed, she will chew her way out of the cell with the help of a few worker bees. In this next video, you can see the queen sticking her tongue out of her queen cell - she is being fed by the workers before hatching!
The supercedure of the old Queen
Once the new queen hatches, she instinctively sets out to take over the colony by killing the other new potential queens. She often will then take a mating flight and will soon start laying eggs. During this time, the new queen and the old queen may peacefully co-exist until the new queen is up to speed. Then the day comes when the new queen takes over by superceding the old queen bee.
To learn more about the queen, check out our other post about about the life and death of the queen bee