Table of Contents
A bee becomes a queen through the following process:
- Larva selection: Worker bees choose a young larva to become a potential queen.
- Royal jelly feeding: The chosen larva is exclusively fed with royal jelly.
- Queen cell construction: Worker bees build a special wax cell called a queen cell for the developing larva.
- Pupal development: The larva transforms into a pupa within the queen cell.
- Adult emergence: The fully developed queen bee emerges from the queen cell.
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?
How Is A Queen Bee Chosen Within A Hive?
The selection of a queen bee within a hive is a fascinating and intricate process. It begins when the current queen’s productivity declines or she is no longer present in the hive due to death or swarming. Worker bees then take action to ensure the colony’s survival by choosing and raising a new queen.
The Role of Royal Jelly
The key to producing a queen bee lies in the specialized food called royal jelly. Royal jelly is a highly nutritious substance secreted by nurse bees that is fed exclusively to larvae designated to become queen bees. This substance is rich in proteins, vitamins, and lipids, which play a critical role in the development of a queen.
The Selection Process
When the need for a new queen arises, worker bees will choose several young larvae that are less than three days old. These chosen larvae are then moved into specialized queen cups, which are larger than the average worker cell. The nurse bees feed these larvae copious amounts of royal jelly throughout their developmental stage, which lasts about 5-6 days.
As a result of this nutrient-rich diet, the larvae that are destined to become queens develop differently than worker bees. They grow larger, their reproductive organs fully mature, and they develop the ability to lay eggs.
The Emergence of a New Queen
Once the queen larvae have fully developed, they pupate and transform into adult queen bees. The first queen to emerge from her cell will seek out and eliminate her rival queens by stinging them in their cells. This ensures that she will be the only queen in the hive. In some cases, if two queens emerge at the same time they may engage in a battle to the death, with the victor claiming the role of the hive’s queen.
After the new queen establishes her dominance, she will embark on a mating flight to mate with multiple drones from other hives. Once she has successfully mated and stored enough sperm, she will return to the hive and begin laying eggs to repopulate the colony. The new queen bee will then reign over her colony, with her subjects working tirelessly to support her and ensure the hive’s continued success.
What Factors Determine The Development Of A Queen Bee?
The development of a queen bee within a honeybee colony is a fascinating process that is influenced by several key factors. These factors work together to ensure the survival and prosperity of the colony.
1. Availability of Royal Jelly
The primary factor that determines the development of a queen bee is the availability of royal jelly. All larvae, including potential queen bees, are initially fed royal jelly for the first few days of their lives. However, only the selected larvae destined to become queens continue to receive royal jelly exclusively throughout their development while the others are switched to a diet of honey and pollen. The continued nourishment with royal jelly allows the chosen larvae to fully develop into queens.
2. The Presence of Queen Pheromones
Queen pheromones play a crucial role in the colony’s dynamics. The current queen bee emits specific pheromones that suppress the development of new queens. If the queen is old, weak, or has died, her pheromone levels decrease. This signals the colony that it’s time to raise a new queen. In this case, worker bees will begin feeding select larvae with royal jelly, triggering their development into queen bees.
3. Colony Size and Population
The size and population of a colony can also influence the development of a queen bee. In larger colonies, there is a higher likelihood that swarming (a natural reproductive process where a portion of the colony leaves to establish a new hive) will occur. Prior to swarming, the colony will start raising new queen bees, ensuring that the remaining bees have a queen to take over after the swarm has left.
4. Environmental Conditions
Environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and the availability of food can impact the development of a queen bee. Optimal conditions are necessary for the healthy growth and development of larvae. If the colony is experiencing stress from unfavorable conditions, they may be less likely to invest in the development of a new queen bee.
How Do Worker Bees Contribute To The Birth Of A Queen Bee?
Worker bees play a crucial role in the birth of a queen bee. They are responsible for feeding and nurturing the queen larva, which ensures its proper development into a healthy and strong queen. The process begins when the current queen lays fertilized eggs in specially constructed, larger cells within the hive. These cells, known as queen cups, are where the future queen bee will develop.
Royal Jelly: The Secret Ingredient
The key factor that differentiates a queen bee from her worker siblings is her diet. Worker bees have specialized glands called hypopharyngeal glands, which produce a substance called royal jelly (discussed above). This nutritious, protein-rich substance is the exclusive food for queen larvae. In contrast, worker bee larvae only receive royal jelly for the first few days of their lives before they are switched to a diet of honey and pollen, also known as bee bread.
Tending to the Queen Larva
In addition to providing the queen larva with royal jelly, worker bees also take care of other essential tasks to ensure the successful development of the new queen. They constantly clean and maintain the queen cell, regulate temperature and humidity within the hive, and even remove waste produced by the developing larva. These tasks are vital to the overall health and well-being of the future queen bee.
Swarm or Supersedure: Choosing the Next Queen
Worker bees also play a role in choosing the next queen through a process called swarm or supersedure. In the case of swarming, the old queen leaves the hive with a portion of the worker bees to establish a new colony. The remaining worker bees then raise a new queen to take her place. In a supersedure, the workers will replace an aging or failing queen by raising a new queen within the same hive. In both cases, the worker bees feed and nurture the queen larvae, ultimately ensuring that the strongest and healthiest individual will emerge as the new queen.
How Does a Queen Bee Become ‘Pregnant’?
The process by which a queen bee becomes “pregnant” is a unique and extraordinary natural phenomenon. In the following section I will delve into the steps leading up to her fertilization and explain how she’s able to lay thousands of eggs throughout her lifetime.
The journey begins when a virgin queen bee, usually around 5-15 days old, takes her nuptial or mating flight. This flight is a crucial event in her life as it’s the only time she’ll mate. During this flight, she’ll be pursued by hundreds or even thousands of male bees from various colonies. These drones are attracted to the queen’s pheromones, which signal her readiness to mate.
Drone Congregation Areas
Drones from different colonies gather in specific areas known as drone congregation areas (DCAs). It’s here that the queen bee will mate with multiple drones during her mating flight. These areas are typically located hundreds of feet above ground and can span several hundred meters.
While in the DCA, the queen bee will mate with 10-20 drones in mid-air. During this process, the male drone’s reproductive organ, the endophallus, is inserted into the queen’s sting chamber. Upon successful mating, the drone’s endophallus is ripped off, and he dies shortly afterward. The queen bee collects the sperm from each drone in a specialized organ called the spermatheca.
Fertilization and Egg Laying
Once the queen bee returns to her colony, she starts laying eggs. With the sperm stored in her spermatheca, she can selectively fertilize her eggs as needed. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day and will continue to do so for the duration of her life, which can last between 3 to 5 years. The fertilized eggs become female worker bees while the unfertilized eggs develop into male drones.
How Does a Bee Become a Queen – Conclusion
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.
- Queen bee selection occurs when the current queen’s productivity declines, or she is no longer present due to death or swarming.
- Royal jelly, a highly nutritious substance secreted by nurse bees, is critical for the development of a queen bee.
- Worker bees choose several larvae less than three days old and move them into specialized queen cups, feeding them royal jelly throughout their development.
- Queen bee larvae grow larger and develop reproductive organs, enabling them to lay eggs.
- The first queen to emerge eliminates rivals by stinging them in their cells, or battles to the death if two emerge simultaneously.
- The new queen embarks on a mating flight, mating with multiple drones before returning to the hive to lay eggs.
- Factors that influence queen bee development include royal jelly availability, queen pheromones, colony size and population, and environmental conditions.
- Worker bees contribute to queen bee birth by feeding her royal jelly, tending to her cell, and choosing the next queen through swarm or supersedure.
- A queen bee becomes “pregnant” by taking a mating flight, mating with drones in Drone Congregation Areas, storing sperm in her spermatheca, and selectively fertilizing eggs as she lays them.
Q: What is the main difference between a queen bee and a worker bee? A: The primary difference between a queen bee and a worker bee is their role and reproductive abilities. The queen bee is the only sexually mature female in the colony and is responsible for laying eggs, while worker bees are sterile females that perform various tasks like foraging, caring for larvae, and maintaining the hive.
Q: How is a queen bee created? A: A queen bee is created when a fertilized egg is laid in a specially designed, larger cell called a queen cell. The larvae inside these cells are fed exclusively with royal jelly, a protein-rich substance secreted by worker bees. This diet triggers the development of the larvae into queens.
Q: What is royal jelly? A: Royal jelly is a protein-rich substance produced by the glands of worker bees. It is fed to all larvae in the hive for the first three days of their lives. However, only potential queen larvae receive royal jelly throughout their entire development.
Q: Can a worker bee become a queen bee? A: No, a worker bee cannot become a queen bee. Once a bee has emerged from its cell as a worker, it is sterile and cannot change into a queen. Only larvae fed with royal jelly in queen cells can develop into queens.
Q: How long does it take for a queen bee to develop? A: From the time an egg is laid, it takes approximately 16 days for a queen bee to fully develop, emerge from her cell, and begin her role in the colony.
Q: What happens to other queen larvae in the hive? A: When multiple queen larvae are present in a hive, the first queen to emerge usually kills the other developing queens in their cells by stinging them. Occasionally, two queens may emerge simultaneously and fight to the death, with the victor taking control of the colony.
Q: What is a virgin queen bee? A: A virgin queen bee is a newly emerged queen that has not yet mated with any drones. Virgin queens will typically take one or more mating flights to mate with multiple drones before returning to the colony to start laying eggs.
Q: What is a drone bee, and what is its purpose? A: A drone is a male honey bee, and its primary purpose is to mate with virgin queens. Drones do not have stingers, do not forage for food, and do not contribute to the maintenance of the hive.
Q: How does a queen bee mate? A: A queen bee mates during a mating flight, where she leaves the hive and flies to a drone congregation area. Here, she mates with multiple drones mid-flight. After mating, the queen returns to the hive and begins laying eggs.
Q: How long does a queen bee live? A: A queen bee can live for 3 to 5 years, but her egg-laying abilities may decline after 2 to 3 years. At that point, the colony may replace her with a new queen through a process called supersedure.
Q: What is supersedure? A: Supersedure is the process by which a colony replaces an old or ailing queen with a new queen. Worker bees create new queen cells, and once the new queen emerges and mates, she takes over the egg-laying duties.
Q: How does a bee colony communicate the presence of a new queen? A: A new queen emits pheromones that signal her presence to the colony. These pheromones help maintain the social structure within the hive and suppress the development of ovaries in worker bees, preventing them from laying eggs.
Q: What is the role of the queen bee in a colony? A: The queen bee’s main role is to lay eggs and maintain the colony’s population. She also produces pheromones that help regulate the behavior and social structure of the hive.
Q: What happens if a queen bee dies? A: If a queen bee dies, the colony will attempt to create a new queen by selecting a few young larvae and feeding them with royal jelly in queen cells. If a new queen cannot be raised, the colony will eventually die out due to a lack of reproduction.
Q: Can a bee colony have more than one queen? A: Typically, a bee colony has only one queen. However, during a brief transitional period, a mother queen and her daughter (the new queen) may coexist in the same hive until the old queen leaves the colony in a process called swarming.
Q: What is swarming, and why does it occur? A: Swarming is a natural process in which a portion of the colony, led by the old queen, leaves the hive to establish a new colony. Swarming occurs when a hive becomes overcrowded or when a new queen is about to take over. It is a way for honey bees to reproduce on a colony level.
Q: Can a bee colony survive without a queen? A: A bee colony cannot survive long-term without a queen, as she is responsible for laying eggs and maintaining the population. If a queen is lost or dies, the colony will attempt to raise a new queen. If they fail to do so, the colony will eventually die out.
Q: How do beekeepers manage queen bees in their hives? A: Beekeepers manage queen bees by periodically checking the hive for signs of a healthy queen, such as eggs and larvae. They may also mark the queen with a small dot of paint for easier identification. If the queen is not performing well or nearing the end of her life, beekeepers may introduce a new queen or allow the colony to raise a new queen through supersedure.
Q: Can you purchase queen bees for your hive? A: Yes, queen bees can be purchased from reputable beekeeping suppliers. These queens are typically mated and ready to be introduced to a colony that needs a new queen.
Q: How do you introduce a new queen bee to a colony? A: Introducing a new queen bee to a colony involves placing her in a special cage or queen introduction device that protects her from being attacked by worker bees. The worker bees will gradually become accustomed to the new queen’s pheromones, and after a few days, the queen can be released into the colony to begin laying eggs.
Image credit: Developing queen larvae – CC BY-SA 3.0- Waugsberg- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Waugsberg