Updated: Sep 21, 2022
The queen bee is a fascinating insect. She is the mother of all the bees in hive, responsible for laying all the eggs that will become female worker bees and male drones. She lives her life inside the hive, attended by worker bees who groom and feed her.
How does a queen become a queen? Why is there only one queen in the hive? Let us tell you about her life.
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 her diet.
When the honeybee colony senses that it needs a new queen, perhaps because the queen is ailing or is preparing to swarm, the worker bees will begin the process of raising new queen bees. This process is triggered by lower levels of queen pheromone in the hive.
Nurse 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.
Each queen bee develops in a special honeycomb cell called a 'queen cell' that looks somewhat like a peanut. This video we took last summer shows a queen bee larva developing in a cell full of royal jelly:
When the queen bee larva is ready to pupate (metamorphosize) into a queen, 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!
She will then chew her way out of the queen cell by cutting all around the bottom in a circle, to create a little hatch door. Here you can see her crawl out right in the palm of my hand
The life of the queen
After the queen chews her way out of her queen cell, she has some dirty work to do...she instinctively sets out to kill her sisters....the other new queens. She will call to them by 'piping' - she calls out repeatedly with a high pitch chirp. The other new queens will pipe back and in this way they can find each other to fight to the death. Even the queens still in their queen cells will pipe back, allowing the queen the ability to sting them to death even before they have hatched.
Once the battling is done, the queen will take a mating flight...a one-time flight from the hive to mate with male drones. This flight will give her the ability to lay fertilized eggs for the next 3-5 years. You can learn more about this by reading our previous post all about honeybee sex which includes the best video we've seen of the mating flight.
After mating, she will return to the hive. If her mother (the old queen) is still in the hive and nearing the end of her life, the new queen will kill her (called 'supercedure'). If the old queen has left with a swarm, the new queen will take over laying eggs.
The queen will live the rest of her life in the hive, attended by the workers. She walks through the hive, dragging her abdomen as she goes. She looks into the bottom of every honeycomb cell of the 'brood chamber' (the boxes in the hive where the queen lives). If the cell is empty, she will drop her abdomen into the cell to lay an egg. In this video, we show you what that looks like:
In the summer, she can lay up to 2000 eggs a day! She will stop from time to time in the hive, to be groomed and fed by the worker bees called her 'attendants.' They form a circle around her, and will also spread her pheromone through the hive. This queen pheromone tells the bees that she is alive and well. She can live for 3 to 5 years. If the beehive is doing really well, she can run out of room to lay eggs, which can trigger the hive to start preparing to swarm.
As she nears the end of her life, her ability to lay fertilized eggs will become more sporadic and the amount of queen pheromone she gives off will decrease. As a result, the bees will start raising new queens as previously described.
The assassination of the queen
The old queen continues to lay eggs up until the end. Meanwhile, the bees start raising new queens, one of which will replace her. When the new queen is ready to take over, she will find the old queen to supercede her by stinging her to death. In 10 years of keeping bees, we have only seen this once...and caught it on video. This is a rare sight:
While difficult to watch, this system within the beehive ensures that the colony lives on. Long live the queen!