Queen Bee: Head of the hive

Every bee colony has one bee that is instrumental in everything that happens within the hive, this is the queen bee. As the only female bee with fully developed reproductive organs, she has the important task of managing the colony’s population. During the honey production months the queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day! But how does a bee become the queen?

The Making of a Queen Bee

It all starts when a fertilized egg is placed in a special cell called a queen cell. This cell resembles the shape of a peanut. The young worker bees (also known as ‘nurse bees’) will feed the queen larvae a special royal jelly specifically for a queen when she’s in the queen cell. This royal jelly develops a different bee than the royal jelly fed to a fertilized egg that’s placed in a regular honeycomb cell, which develops a worker bee. The nurse bees feed the queen larvae until it’s just over 9 days old, then the cell gets capped and the queen develops in the capped cell and chews her way out of the cell on day 16.

Queen cell
A queen cell

There are many reasons why a hive would need a new queen: they could be preparing to swarm, their queen could be sick or their queen may have unexpectedly died.

With up to 2000 eggs being laid a day a colony will outgrow its current hive. When this happens they will decide it’s time to swarm. The worker bees will start to prepare for the swarm by making several queen cells. They make several cells as not to put all their eggs in one basket and ensure that at least one or more of the queens come out healthy. The worker bees will move eggs into these cells. When the eggs turn into larvae the nurse bees will start feeding them special royal jelly. Leading up to day 9, when the queen cell gets capped, the worker bees will stop feeding the current adult queen so she becomes light enough for her upcoming flight once the new queen hatches. The last step is for the bees to pick the perfect day for the swarm, when the original queen will fly off with approximately half of the colony. They will temporarily swarm until they find a perfect location to start a new hive.

A queen is also replaced when she becomes too old or weak to produce enough eggs. A strong and healthy queen gives off pheromones that let the other bees know she is producing eggs. When these pheromones become less strong the worker bees will know that the time has come to raise a new queen. The old queen will continue to lay eggs, and the colony will place an egg in a queen cell to raise a new queen bee, which will essentially be the current queen’s daughter. The old queen and her daughter will continue to live together peacefully in the same hive.The worker bees will do the same thing they do when they decide they want to swarm, they fill the cell with royal jelly once the egg turns into a larvae. Royal jelly is like a super food and boosts the development of the larvae. It is the only thing that a queen bee eats, even after she hatches. She doesn’t eat nectar like the other bees. The nutritional properties in royal jelly is what makes her grow bigger and stronger than worker bees, and matures her reproductive organs. A mature queen bee measures at around 20 mm long, whereas a mature worker bee is only 11-15 mm long. 

Queen Bee
A queen bee

Once the new virgin queen hatches she’ll go on a single mating flight, where she will mate with up to 18 drones. This is the only time the queen leaves the hives, unless she’s in a swarm.

In the case where two queen cells hatch out at one time in a hive, the queens will fight to the death! Because ultimately there can only be one head of the hive, unless of course it’s a mother and her daughter.

This is just a small glimpse into the reproduction of queens in hives.