How a Bee Becomes a Queen – What You Need to Know


African honeybees around the queen

In a colony of honeybees, there is only ever one queen bee. She is responsible for laying eggs and maintaining order within the hive by releasing calming pheromones. Without the queen, the colony would be in disarray and the other bees would begin to die off one by one. Without the queen to lay more eggs, the colony would not survive. So how does a bee become a queen? Can any bee become a queen?

Who Chooses the Queen?

A queen bee can live for a number of years, unlike other bees in the colony that only live for a few months at most. But sometimes a queen will leave a hive and take some of the bees with her. This often happens when the number of bees within a hive becomes too large and the conditions become uncomfortable. This process is known as swarming. The rest of the bees must then quickly try to replace the queen. A new queen must also be chosen when an old queen dies.

How is a Queen Raised?

Sometimes a beekeeper will replace a queen with a new one, but the other bees will usually spring into action as soon as they find themselves without a queen. The first thing they do is identify newly hatched larvae (under three days old). They will usually select around ten to twenty of these female larvae and place them in what are known as queen cells. These cells are larger than the others and designed specifically to hold growing virgin queens.

All bees are fed royal jelly for the first few days of life, but potential queen bees are fed exclusively on this milky white substance. It is this diet that activates the queen’s reproductive system. Royal jelly is high in protein, fatty acids, simple sugars, and B vitamins, and it also contains antibiotic and antibacterial properties.

After about sixteen days, the virgin queens will have pupated in their cells and will be ready to emerge. Once they do emerge, they will fight each other until there is only one remaining. This queen will then kill all other virgin queens that have not hatched from their cells yet. As already mentioned, there can only be one queen in a colony.

Developing queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly
Developing queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly

How Does a Queen Bee Become ‘Pregnant’?

The one remaining queen must now take a mating flight where she will leave the hive and mate with the male drones. Although the queen will only ever take one mating flight, she will mate with a number of drones, which will provide her with enough sperm to fertilize eggs for up to five years (although there are some queens that have lived longer than this). The mating flight is in actual fact quite brutal and usually causes fatal damage to the drones.

Once back in the hive, the new queen begins the process of laying eggs. The queen chooses which eggs to fertilize. These will then hatch into female worker bees. Any eggs that she does not fertilize will become male drones. The queen is capable of laying between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs in a day at her peak.

Is There a King Bee?

There is no king bee. All male bees are known as drones and there only job is to mate with the queen. Once they have mated with the queen, they will die. Those that have not mated, will be ousted from the hive by the female bees once the colder weather arrives.

Why Do Bees Reject a Queen?

Although a colony cannot survive without a queen bee, she is not the ruler. In fact, the colony works in unison as a group and in certain situations they may reject a new queen. If the queen has been placed in the hive by the beekeeper, the other bees may not accept her. They may see her as unfamiliar and an invader. If this happens, they will group around her and sting her until she is dead. This is known as balling (because they form a ball around her). Bees are far more likely to accept a queen that is genetically related to them and that they have raised themselves.

Summary

Queen bees can live for up to six years or longer but when they become old and die – or if they swarm – a new queen is needed. Sometimes a beekeeper will replace a queen, but this can result in the other bees rejecting and killing her.

Without a queen in the hive, the colony cannot survive. The bees know this so as soon as one queen dies or leaves, they will set about raising another one. They do this by placing newly hatched larvae in special queen cells. Until they have mated, these queens are known as virgin queens.

Once the virgin queens hatch, their first instinct is to kill their sister queens. They will fight to the death until only one remains. This remaining queen will also kill any other queens that have not hatched yet.

The new queen then takes a mating flight before taking over where the old queen left off – laying eggs. At her peak, she can lay up to 2,000 eggs in one day.

Image credit: Developing queen larvae – CC BY-SA 3.0- Waugsberg- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Waugsberg

Anthony

Anthony is a content creator by profession but beekeeping is one of his great passions.

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