The Life of the Queen Bee in the Honey Bee Hive
The queen bee is the mother and monarch of the honey bee (Apis mellifera).hive.The life cycle of the queen bee and her affect upon the hive is fascinating. This article answers 10 questions that together tell the story of the life of a queen bee.
The Queen Bee
1. How Is a Queen Bee Created?
The queen begins her life as an ordinary egg. She becomes a queen because the “nurse bees," the worker bees who tend the brood (bees in the egg, larva, and pupa stage) give her a special diet of royal jelly. The queen will be fed royal jelly throughout her life
Royal jelly is an enriched form of honey produced by the nurse bees which contain the protein called royalactin. The nurse bees make the royal jelly from glands on their heads.
All bee larvae get royal jelly for three days, but the larvae designated to become queens are fed only royal jelly until they emerge.
The other bee larvae, after the first three days, will be fed with ordinary honey and pollen (bee bread) until they emerge, the same diet they will have throughout their lives.
The royal jelly diet enables the queen bee to emerge sooner than other bees because she goes through each of the phases of development faster than the other bees. The queen has a developmental period of only 16 days, whereas worker bees take 21 days to emerge.
2. How Many Queen Bees Are in a Hive?
There is only one queen bee per hive.
The first queen to emerge will locate the other potential queens who are still in the pupa stage and kill them. If two queens emerge simultaneously, they will fight to the death. The survivor becomes the queen of the hive.
3. How Large Is a Queen Bee?
The queen bee is larger than the other bees. She is about 18 to 22 mm long (about 3/4 of an inch) and weighs about 200 mg (about /150 of an ounce).
Most of the bees in a hive are the female worker bees which are 12-15 mm long and weigh about 100 mg.
Drones, the male bees, are a little bit larger than worker bees, but there are relatively few drones in a hive—200 to 300 in a hive of 50,000 bees.
The Relative Size of a Worker, Queen, and Drone
4. How Does the Queen Bee Mate?
The queen bee mates only once in her life when she is about a week old. The mating occurs during a "nuptial flight." As many as 20 drones will mate with her in the air. The queen stores the sperm she receives during this time in a special organ called the spermatheca.
A male drone mounts the queen in mid-air and inserts his endophallus, ejaculating semen. After ejaculation, a male honey bee pulls away from the queen, and in the process, his endophallus is ripped from his body. It remains attached to the queen’s body. The next male to mate with the queen removes the previous endophallus and then inserts his own.
Each of the successful drones dies quickly after mating. The removal of the endophallus has ripped open their abdomens .Even drones that survive their nuptial flight may be ejected from the hive and left to die—they no longer have a purpose.
5. What Happens After the Queen Bee Mates?
After her nuptial flight, the queen bee returns to the hive and usually never leaves it again.
If the hive becomes over-crowded or the bees find it unsuitable in some way, the queen will leave, and the other bees will follow in a swarm. This swarm creates a new hive.
The bees that remain in the old hive will produce a new queen.
6. How Many Eggs Does the Queen Bee Lay?
The queen will lay about 1000 to 2000 eggs per day. The number of eggs laid and the pace of egg-laying is determined by food availability. If there are no flowers from which to obtain nectar which is used to make honey to feed the hive, as in the winter months in cold-weather regions, the queen will not lay any eggs.
The queen can lay unfertilized eggs of fertilized eggs. She fertilizes the eggs using the sperm obtained from the drones during mating.
The unfertilized eggs contain a unique combination of the queen’s genes. They become haploid drones—bees with only one chromosome instead of two. The fertilized eggs become female bees--worker bees and potential queens.
The queen lays her eggs in a careful pattern inserting each egg into a cell of the honeycomb constructed by the worker bees. She starts in the center and moves outward. This allows the worker bees to prepare each cell and seal it with wax after an egg has been deposited.
7. How Long Does the Queen Bee Live?
The queen lives for about two to five years, usually three to four years.
In contrast, worker bees hatched in the spring and summer live about six to seven weeks. Worker bees hatched in the autumn live through the winter and so have a life span of four to six months.
Drones can live for up to four months, but if food is scarce, the worker bees will eject the drones from the hive. And as previously noted, drones die immediately after mating with the queen. It seems the male honey bee, just can’t catch a break.
The Queen Bee Surrounded by Her "Court"
8. How Does the Queen Bee Reign Over the Hive?
Honey bees have one of the most complex pheromonal communication systems found in nature. They have 15 different glands that produce an array of compounds which affect the behavior of the other bees in the hive. The queen produces pheromones known as “the queen’s signal.”
The primary component of the queen’s signal is “Queen Mandibular Pheromone” (QMP). It affects social behavior, maintenance of the hive, suppression of queen rearing, the inhibition of ovary development in worker bees, and all the daily worker activities such as cleaning, building, guarding, foraging, and brood feeding.
The queen is always surrounded by her "court." These bees act as her body guards. They form a circle around her with all their heads pointing towards her. They walk backwards so that their heads are always pointing towards the queen.
If a queen is old or sick, she will emit a low pheromonal signal. The diminished signal stimulates the bees to produce new queens. Without the queen’s signal, the hive will become dysfunctional and die.
If a bee hive becomes too large, the communication between the queen and the bees that are furthest from the center of the hive may be disrupted. This will trigger swarming—bees will leave the hive along with the queen. It is the scent of the queen that keeps the bees together in a swarm as “scout bees”find a location for a new hive.
When the queen leaves along with the swarming bees, a new queen replaces her.
9. How Does a Hive Get a New Queen Bee?
As a queen ages, she starts producing fewer eggs and/or starts laying them in a less organized way. Or perhaps her queen signal is weakening. Either way, it’s time for a “supersedure”— he process of replacing an old queen. A new queen is produced and the aging queen is killed after the supersedure process.
The Queen Bee as an Idiom
10. Why Do We Use the Expression “Queen Bee”?
When we call a woman or girl a queen bee, we do it because she is at the center of a female social circle. The others in this circle cater and defer to her.
The queen bee of a honey bee hive is at the center of a hive and she is surrounded by other bees that have the specific task of caring for the queen. They feed her and tend to all her needs.
The queen bee of a honey bee hive is an amazing creature that dedicates her life to the well-being of the hive, unlike the human queen bees who only seek self-aggrandizement.
A Unique Book for People Who Love Bees
I just love this book. I’ve never seen anything like it. The photographs of bees are not ordinary photographs; they are taken with an electronic microscope that magnifies up to 5000X. The text is minimal, but the photos tell the story. The book starts with full body pictures and then "zooms in” to show specific parts as you have never seen them before. Each photo is a stunning work of art.
© 2017 Catherine Giordano