The Honey Bee Queen

Updated: 4th February 2020

The honey bee queen with workers.The honey bee queen with workers.

Quick Facts About The Honey Bee Queen

  • The honey bee queen is the largest of the bees in a honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony, measuring around 2 cm - that's about twice the length of a worker - drones are slightly larger than workers.
The honey bee queen is the largest of the bees in a honey bee (<I>Apis mellifera</I>) colony.The honey bee queen is the largest of the bees in a honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony.

  • For the human eye, despite being larger than the workers, honey bee queens are difficult to spot among thousands and thousands of worker bees.  For this reason, beekeepers mark queens with a dot of special paint on the thorax, as can be seen in the photograph above.

  • As she establishes her colony, she may lay 2000 to 3000 eggs per day(1) – more than her own body weight in eggs!

  • If a queen is not performing very well (for example, if she is not laying enough eggs), the colony may decide to replace her with a new queen.  This is called supersedure.
  • In a colony of 50,000 bees, there will be only 1 queen, and perhaps around 300 drones (males) and the rest will be female worker honey bees. At exceptional times, there may temporarily be 2 queens, but not for very long.  More about this below.

How Are Queen Honey Bees Different From Workers?

Apart from being significantly larger than workers, the roles that queens perform is very different from that of other members of the colony.

The role of the queen honey bee is:

  • to mate with drone bees (males),
  • produce eggs,
  • give off pheromones that influence the behaviour of the rest of the colony,
  • and to help form new colonies through swarming.

This is in contrast to the role of workers.  In an active colony of honey bees, depending on age, workers perform a range of activities.

The role of worker honey bees includes:

  • foraging for food
  • building honey comb, which includes secreting wax from their abdomens
  • keeping the nest clean
  • defending the nest from predators
  • feeding the larvae.

The main role of drones is to mate with honey bee queens and thus ensure future generations of honey bees.  They also help to control the temperature in the hive or nest (2).

Worker honey bee foraging on rose.Worker honey bee foraging on rose.

How Do Honey Bees Become Queens?

Despite the difference between herself and the female workers, what may surprise many is that she is produced from eggs that are in every way identical to those eggs producing workers. The difference, however, is that larvae of potential queens are fed only a special substance called ‘royal jelly’.  Drones and worker larvae are only fed royal jelly for 3 days.

Mating Behaviours

About a week after a new queen emerges from her cell, she will take several flights in order to mate. She may mate with as many as 20 drones, all while in the air! (The drones, unfortunately, die after mating). However, when the honey bee queen returns to lay her eggs, she will only rarely leave the colony after that.

Inside her, she will have enough sperm (which she stores in her sperm pouch – or spermatheca), so that she may continue to fertilise her eggs for the rest of her life.

When she returns to the colony from her nuptial flight, and now impregnated, the workers begin fussing over her.

They feed her so that her abdomen swells, and lick her – a process which transfers a chemical (pheromone), used to regulate the colony.

The Queen Pheromone And Communication

Pheromones are produced by the drones and workers, as well as the queen, who produces a ‘queen pheromone’.

The queen pheromone encourages workers to tend to her and the brood, whilst at the same time, inhibits the production of more queens.

So efficient is the pheromone for communicating within the colony, that if the queen is removed from a hive, within 15 minutes, all of the bees will know about it, and will frantically begin the task of creating a replacement! 

If the honey bee queen is removed from a hive, within 15 minutes, all of the bees will know about it, and will frantically begin the task of creating a replacement!

See more Honey Bee Facts.

When colonies become very large so that workers cannot (due to the distance between themselves and the queen), detect the queen pheromone, then this encourages part of the colony to create a new queen.  A new colony will then be formed.

A swarm of honey bees.A swarm of honey bees.

This initiates 'bee swarming'. A clump of workers surrounding a queen honey bee might be seen resting temporarily on a tree branch or post whilst 'scout bees' are looking for a suitable place for a permanent nest. You can read more about this fascinating event here.

However, it is the ‘old queen’ that will leave to find a suitable new nest, rather than the new one!

Honey bee queens live much longer than workers and drones. (You can learn more about this by reading about the honey bee life cycle).

If the queen performs well in the colony, she will probably live two or three years, but possibly as many as four or five - or even longer. However, if she produces too few eggs, she may be replaced by a new queen - as stated above, this is know as 'supersedure'. The new queen will be pampered with food and affection, whilst the old queen is left to waste away.

(1) Fratini et al:  Royal Jelly: An ancient remedy with remarkable antibacterial properties; Microbiological Research Volume 192, November 2016, Pages 130-141.

(2) Kovac H, Stabentheiner A, Brodschneider R. Contribution of honeybee drones of different age to colonial thermoregulation. Apidologie. 2009;40(1):82-95. doi:10.1051/apido/2008069.

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