Let's meet the queen - the queen bee!

21.03.2020. 17:00

These days there is a lot of buzz about bees and the need to protect them. Their numbers are declining and scientists are trying to find ways to combat this. Due to climate change, some flowers bloom earlier or later than usual, which leaves bees with fewer food sources at the beginning of the season. Moreover, loss of habitat, lack of bee-friendly flowers, and neonicotinoid pesticides also play a significant role in the decline of bee numbers. Since bees play a vital role in our ecosystem, prevention of their decline is essential. Bees pollinate most plants, which also includes many human food crops. As bees move from flower to flower while searching for nectar, they leave behind grains of pollen. Transfer of pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part is what allows plants to grow and produce food. In fact, bees are so good at pollination that farmers often like to have beehives close to their crops to ensure their pollination. A bee colony is made up of an organized caste system where everyone has their role in keeping the colony healthy and happy. But, there is a special bee that has the most important role - queen bee. The colony’s queen bee influences many things in the life of other bees, so it’s time to meet it a bit more.

The honey bee caste system

There are many species of bees, and not all of them are social and living in colonies. But, we will focus a bit on honey bees and their social structure in order to get a better view of how bees live. To get a feeling of how other types of bees live, we will also slightly touch the topic of bumble bee colony, but that is a story for the next chapter. Here we will focus only on a honey bee colony and their social structure as an intro to the queen bee role in the colony. The success of the colony relies on a highly organized social structure that has intrigued scientists and artists for centuries.

The colony itself resides in the hive and the bees go out for food and water. One honey bee colony can have thousands of bees, which requires some fine-tuning considering work in and outside of the hive. Taking care of so many bees requires hard work and good organization, so nature has found a way to manage it. Each bee has a special role in the colony, and their responsibilities are organized into three castes - queen bee (egg producer), worker bees (infertile females), drone bees (mating with a queen bee). 

Queen bee

The queen bee is the highest-ranking adult in the colony and she is the mother of most the bees in the colony. As we already mentioned, her primary role is producing eggs. She mates with many drones until she is fertilized and then lays up to 1500 eggs each day during spring and summer. Laying many eggs ensures that the colony will grow and also that there are enough bees to do all that needs to be done in the hive. Moreover, a queen bee releases pheromones which stops the development of ovaries in worker bees and maintains the stability in the colony.

A queen bee can colonize a hive for up to five years, but once she cannot produce enough eggs the colony chooses a new queen to take her place. 

Worker bees

Worker bees are what keeps the machine running. They are constantly busy with jobs such as finding food and water, building honeycomb, feeding drones and protecting the hive. Their defense is based on using their barbed stinger, which is only has a one-time use since it gets stuck in the target and mostly kills the bee. Worker bees also play a role in deciding to move the colony to a new location if needed. An essential task of worker bees is to maintain the optimal temperature in the hive, which is done by collecting and depositing water throughout the hive and then fanning the air using their wings.

Drone bees

Drone bees are the result of an unfertilized egg and can be recognized by having bigger eyes than the rest of the colony. Unlike worker bees and the queen bee, drones don’t have the stinger so they cannot defend the hive and don’t have pollen baskets to collect pollen or nectar which makes their role very limited. They have only one task - reproduction. The mating with the queen occurs in the air and is called “mating flight”. But a drone successful in mating dies soon after because their penis is connected to the abdominal tissue, which get torn from his body during intercourse. 

This structure of the labor force divided into three distinct castes relies upon each bee to do its tasks to ensure the survival of the colony.

The lifecycle of a queen honey bee

The life of any honey bee starts with an egg. During warm parts of the years, drones mate with a queen bee and, if successful, they fall to the ground and die. The queen bee laying eggs is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays by selectively releasing sperm from her spermatheca as the egg passes through her oviduct.

Any fertilized egg has the potential to become a queen, what determines whether the bee will develop into a queen or a worker depends on the diet in the larval stage. The future queens are only fed royal jelly, a secretion from glands of the heads of young worker bees. Larvae determined to be workers are fed bee bread, a mixture of pollen and nectar. 

For the first few days all bee larvae are fed royal jelly, but only queen larvae are fed royal jelly exclusively. Because of the difference in diet, only the queen will develop into a sexually mature female. 

Queens are raised in queen cells, which have a peanut-like shape and texture. In the beginning, queen cells are queen cups larger than the cells of normal brood comb. Also, they are oriented vertically, unlike brood cells which are oriented horizontally. Once the queen has laid an egg in a queen cup, then worker bees will further build up the queen cup. Usually, the old queen starts laying eggs into queen cups when conditions are right for supersedure or swarming. 

When the queen larva pupates with her head down, worker bees cap the queen cell with beeswax. When a young queen is ready to come out, she chews a circular cut around the cap of her cell. The old queen honey bee usually leaves with the prime swarm before the first virgin queen comes out of a queen cell. 

Virgin queen honey bee 

A virgin queen bee is a queen that has not mated with a drone. Their size is usually somewhere between worker bees and mated queens, but they are more active than the laying queen. Virgin queens can often be found clinging to the walls or corners of a hive. 

Virgin queens are often not recognized as queens by worker bees, which could be the result of them having little queen pheromones. A few hours after the virgin queen bee emerges she can be put into the entrance of a queenless hive and the acceptance is usually good. However, the mated queen bee is seen as a stranger and can be killed by worker bees. 

Virgin queen seeks out virgin queen rivals and attempts to kill them by stinging them. Unlike worker bee stinger, queen bee stinger isn’t barbed so she can sting multiple times. Virgin queen bees will even kill unemerged queens by opening their cell on the side. 

If the prime swarm has a virgin queen and the old queen, the old queen usually won’t be killed and will be allowed to continue laying eggs until her natural death in a couple of weeks. When the old queen dies, the remaining mated virgin queen will take her place.

The lifecycle of a queen bumble bee

Bumble bees can easily be recognized for their black-yellow stripes and fuzzy body, but did you know that they used to be called ‘humblebees’ by Darwin? The name originates from the sound they make when flying. The name bumble bee only came around after World Wars One and Two when sleek planes became mainstream and they made the bumble bees look confused and bumbling. 

When the first flowers show their face, the queen bumble bee ends her hibernating sleep which started in late summer. Now she is hungry and looking for a place to make the nest. Usually, a pile of dead leaves or an abandoned rodent burrow are great places for a bumble bee nest. Unlike honey bees, bumble bees build a new nest every year. When the queen bumble bee finds a place for a new nest, she collects pollen and nectar from flowers to make a ball of pollen and wax. Then she lays about six eggs from which grubs hatch and attempt to fight through their pollen protection. 

This process of adding pollen and wax to keep the grubs from going out until they are developed enough can take up to 21 days. When grubs finally emerge, they are fully developed worker bees and can help with building the nest. As with honey bees, worker bumble bees are always female and they are hatched from fertilized eggs. Male bumble bees, drones, are hatched from an unfertilized egg. Since that moment a queen bumble bee becomes a prisoner of her nest and only lays eggs for the rest of her life. A queen bumble bee emits pheromones which suppress the development of ovaries in worker bees. But, sometimes a worker bee will resist these hormones and will lay eggs. To remove her rival, the ruling queen will eat worker’s eggs, use pheromones to assert dominance, or fight her with her stinger. Because of this brutal reproductive competition, bumble bees are classified as “primitively social” creatures. The queen will do anything to stay in charge. 

In late spring worker bees are ready to start collecting pollen and nectar, and to construct the nest. Bumble bee colonies are usually made up of about 50 bees, so the completed nest is usually the size of a grapefruit. The nest built with wax is insulated with fibrous plant material or animal fur, and inside you can find oval-shaped cells where bees store pollen, nectar, or eggs.

During summer and beginning of fall worker bees and the queen keep living and working in the colony. But when the first frost comes, most of the colony and the old queen die which will leave their nest abandoned. Only the newly mated queen bumble bee will survive and start a new colony in the Spring.

How to identify a queen bee?

A queen bee is an essential member of the colony whose health and presence is what makes the colony thrive. To maintain the health of their hives, beekeepers have to know how to recognize a queen bee and mark it. For anyone looking to learn more about queen bees, we have made a list of things to look for when trying to identify the queen.

Check the size of a bee body

Look for the largest bee as she will usually be the largest bee in the colony. Sometimes drones can be the biggest bees, but you can tell them apart by thickness since the queen will be longer and narrower than the other bees. 

Check for pointed abdomen

The queen’s abdomen has a pointed shape, unlike worker bees who have a blunt abdomen. 

Look for a bee standing with splayed legs

The queen bee has legs that splay outward which makes their legs more visible than legs of worker and drone bees whos legs are directly under their bodies. When looking from the top, the legs of the worker and drone bees are barely visible. 

Check the barbs on a stinger

A queen bee has a smooth stinger with no barbs. If you aren’t sure if the bee is a queen be, just gently lift the bee by its thorax and inspect her stinger under a magnifying glass. Worker bees, drones, and virgin queens all have barbs on their stinger so you can easily find the queen this way. 

Find the larvae

Finding the larvae is useful because a queen bee is usually nearby. You can find the larvae by gently removing each hive frame and looking for small white grubs. They are usually in piles next to each other. 

Look for bees moving our of the way

When the queen bee is on the move, worker and drone bees will always move out of the way until the queen bee passes.

Check for one bee being fed by worker bees

The queen bee’s only duty is laying eggs and the rest of the bees attend all her needs. A bee being fed and shown attention to could also be a virgin queen or a young bee, but the odds are good that the bee is a queen bee.

 

After you identified a queen bee, for every beekeeper it’s useful to mark the queen in order to recognize her more easily next time when you are checking the hive.  

Marking a queen bee

When you decide to mark the queen, it’s wise to choose the correct paint color. The different colors are used to identify queens born in specific years, which helps you to figure out if your hive will need a new queen soon. For marking the queen you can use any acrylic-based paint. Popular choices are paint pens and model paint.

The colors for the corresponding years are as follow:

  • White paint for years ending in 1 or 6

  • Yellow paint for years ending in 2 or 7

  • Red paint for years ending in 3 or 8

  • Green paint for years ending in 4 or 9

  • Blue paint for years ending in 5 or 0

Before you go into the process of marking the queen, be sure to have all the tools ready before you pick up the queen. If you hold a bee for too long, it can get agitated or injured which you definitely want to avoid.

Gently pick up the queen by the wings or thorax and hold her over the hive in case you drop her. Mark her by putting a small dot on her thorax, immediately between her two front legs. Put enough paint to make it easily visible, but don’t use too much because you could gum up her legs or wings with dried paint.

A queen bee - the most important member of the colony but doesn’t rule alone

Like we mentioned before, a bee colony is heavily dependant on a queen bee to secure that there are enough members to keep the colony strong. However, unlike what is often believed she isn’t the only one responsible for making decisions regarding the colony. Worker bees are the ones making many decisions, such as deciding on the gender of new bees by building cells of different sizes, deciding when the swarming starts and where the new swarm will go. As we can see, a queen bee has a vital role of maintaining stability in the colony by laying enough eggs and releasing enough pheromones, but worker bees are the ones who decide what happens with the colony. If a queen bee starts lagging in her tasks, then worker bees will begin the process of replacing the old queen by nurturing young queen bees. The happiness of the whole colony depends on having a healthy and productive queen, so make sure to check up how your queen bees are doing from time to time.