It's a familiar title shared with social butterflies – no pun intended – and female leaders, but what does the queen bee do in a hive? While her human "peers" may be known for their active efforts, much of what the queen bee does for her hive is actually pretty passive. The reason she rules the roost is threefold – a ruthless origin story, an extremely friendly flight, and a little better living through chemistry for the tens of thousands of bees in her waxy kingdom. So what is a queen bee, and what is her purpose in the hive?
A Busy Beginning: The Birth Of A Queen
While much of her life will be spent ensconced in her hive, patiently attended to and fiercely guarded, a newborn queen has plenty of work to do. That's because her very first task as a potential queen is a plot ripped right out of Game of Thrones – she must eradicate all of her rivals. This will be the first and only time a queen bee will proactively use her sting, systematically wiping out other would-be queens hatching from queen cells beside her. Unlike the sting of her infertile female worker bees, the queen's stinger does not have barbs, which means that stinging repeatedly does not hurt or destroy her. This is great news for the victorious new virgin queen, but not so much for her rivals!
The Nuptial Flight: A Productive First Date
The queen has far too important a job to do to be tied to one mate – not to mention she's something of a femme fatale. The virgin queen, having defeated her rivals with a little well-timed stinging, will wait for a clear, rain-free day to take her first flight alongside her male drones. Born chiefly to inseminate the queen bee, they will find themselves irresistibly lured by her pheromones and take flight to chase her.
The queen will try her best to evade them, ensuring that only the fastest and strongest drones bring their genetics to the coupling. Once she is overtaken by a drone, he will mate with her, breaking off from flight and leaving part of his body inside the queen. The act will signal the end of his life, but his genetics will carry on in the body of the queen bee, and later her eggs. This act is repeated many times by many drones throughout the nuptial flight, and eventually the queen will have gathered enough genetic material to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life.
Back To The Hive: Raising A "Cellular" Family
Once her flight has concluded, the queen, a virgin no longer, is ready to start a lifelong cycle of egg laying. These eggs are laid in wax cells and tended to by "nurse" worker bees; they will eventually emerge as larvae and become the infertile female worker bees that keep the hive and collect all the food and male drones, ready to impregnate later queens to continue the cycle.
Worker bees live only a handful of months and drones a handful of weeks, making the constant egg-laying cycle a necessity. A single hive, or colony, can contain anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 bees at a time, depending on size – a population size that makes it very clear why the queen's eggs are so important to survival.
Why Workers Stay In Line
Part of the reason that female worker bees don't supplant the queen is that they are unable to fertilize the all-important eggs. They are infertile because of a pheromone exuded by the queen bee (known as the "queen substance") that is given to her female workers. This pheromone, the same one that inspires the drone males to mate with her in the nuptial flight, renders the worker bees' ovaries infertile, thus maintaining hive structure and hierarchy. A tidy two-in-one toll for the queen to obtain and maintain her place of honor in her hive, the pheromone brings order to what would otherwise be chaos and likely destruction within a colony of so many individual bees.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Queens can't live forever, of course, even if their natural lifespan stretches to 5 years in comparison to her workers' short months. New queens are born through a fascinating process that often involves unaffiliated "stranger" hives and colonies. Some of a queen's eggs will be fed a special "superfood" like substance created by worker bees, called royal jelly. Unlike the normal pollen and honey fed to regular eggs, the jelly is ultra-nutritious and packed with even more vitamins. Coupled with a specially-built peanut-like structure called a queen cell, presence of the jelly on fertilized eggs helps create new virgin queens.
The reigning non-virgin queen will occasionally split off from the hive with a retinue of her colony to establish elsewhere, leaving the other part of her colony behind to build a new hive with her daughter-queen. Sometimes newly-hatched queens will also venture out on their own, luring in swarms of unaffiliated, queenless bees during swarming season to create new colonies.
The queen, whose stature is slightly larger than her hive-mates, might not look particularly sensational beside her workers and drones – but she's more than meets the eye. All bee-created products stem from this hardworking matriarch, so be sure to give her a thanks the next time you sweeten your tea with a tasty spoonful of golden honey or enjoy a royal jelly-infused beauty product.
- “Nuptial Flight in Honey Bees.” All About Science, July 30, 2017, http://efficacyfit.blogspot.com/2017/07/nuptial-flight-in-honey-bees.html. Accessed May 2nd, 2019.
- “Queen Bee.” Wikipedia.org, (no publish date), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee. Accessed May 2nd, 2019.
- Kandola, Aaron. Reviewed by Katherine Marengo LDN, RD. “What are the benefits of royal jelly?” Medical News Today.com, January 10, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324152.php. Accessed May 2nd, 2019.
- “Queen substance.” Amateur Entomologists’ Society, (no publish date), https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/glossary/terms/queen-substance. Accessed May 2nd, 2019.