The life of a queen bee
The queen bee, as you might presume from her name, is a very important bee in a colony. For her to fulfil her role as queen it will also take the hard work of the whole hive. You might think that the queen bee has an easy life, lounging around in luxury every day, while thousands of worker bees take care of her every need but the role of queen bee comes with some big responsibilities.
To understand the queen bee life fully, we must also understand how all the bees function in the hive as a continual cycle. In a hive the female bees called workers, do all the work. They build the hive, protect it from intruders, collect the food, care for the young, clean and look after the queen. The male bees, called drones, are essentially a continual drain on the hive, using up valuable resources without helping out at all. The male drones do of course play a role that is vital to the continuation of the hive, that being their role in reproduction (that we will get to later) and for that reason they are tolerated by the female workers.
As the queen bee is the only female bee in the hive that has a fully developed reproductive system, her primary job is laying eggs to create new bees. Fully mated and well fed queens can lay between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs a day which together would add up to more than her own body weight!
Life stages of a honey bee
Honey bees have the same development path as other insects and pass through the same four stages. Starting as an egg, then onto larva, pupa and finally an adult bee.
The worker bees only take around 3 weeks to go through the whole metamorphosis from egg to adult honeybee. The male drones take a few days longer, while a queen can be produced in just a little over 2 weeks! The queen has the shortest development time in the whole hive- this could be because of the special attention she receives.
How a queen bee is created
The bee colony can produce a new queen bee from a fertilised egg or young female larva. There are different situations that might lead to this. One is a routine queen replacement when the current queen gets old, but sometimes the creation of a new queen could be more of an emergency. The queen bee may have died or gone missing from the hive, or no longer able to lay fertilised eggs. If this happens then workers will have to choose a suitable larvae and create a queen from it. The processes involved in creating a queen bee has to begin early in the bees' development. Once a larvae is more than a couple of days old, it will no longer make a good queen. If she is missing, the colony becomes aware very quickly and will get to work finding a suitable replacement.
Once the eggs or larvae are chosen the colony will build special cells around them and feed the developing larvae inside high-quality food called royal jelly. This ensures they develop into a queen bee with a full reproductive system unlike the rest of the female worker bees. Unfortunately there can only be one queen bee in the hive, so when a new queen emerges from her special cell the first thing she will do is seek out any other developing queens and kill them.
Now as the only queen in the hive, she can begin her life as the queen bee of the hive. She will eat, grow and be attended to by many worker bees. At this point she will indeed be treated like a queen, she will be given food and her waste will be disposed of by the workers. Her pheromones will also be collected and distributed which acts as an inhibitor against workers starting other queen cells.
The nuptial flight
Once the queen bee has become fully developed she will prepare for her nuptial flight, where she will mate and collect the all the sperm she will need to produce the millions of eggs she will lay in her lifetime. On this day the hive will be literally buzzing with activity and excitement. Worker bees will feed, pamper and groom her and when she is ready she will leave the hive accompanied by a few workers. She may fly a mile or more away from the hive and high into the air to waft pheromone scents around areas that drones congregate in.
As soon as this scent is picked up by the males from other colonies they will start to chase the queen for a chance to mate with her. The queen will dart around and fly as fast as she can to make sure that only the fittest and healthiest males will have the chance to mate with her. If a male drone can catch the queen he will mate with her in mid air.
Not only is this an important day for the queen it is also an important day for all the male drones. In the world of bees the drone males are really only good for one thing and this is it. So much so that after mating with the queen the male drone will die and fall from the sky having served the purpose he was born for. The queen will continue to fly around testing the prowess of drones who seek to mate with her, and each one that is successful will meet the same fate.
The queen will mate with many drones on her first nuptial flight. When she returns to her hive she will be exhausted and heavy with sperm. The more drones that have successfully mated with her the happier the workers will be, as it is vital to the continued success of the hive. She may take several mating flights over the next few days if needed. Once she is full of sperm the queen will live the rest of her life in the hive laying eggs until she dies or it's decided she needs to be replaced.
A queen bee can chose whether an egg will produce a female or male bee. If she chooses to fertilise the egg it will grow into a female worker bee, if not it will grow into a male drone. At some point even the best mated and most healthy queens will run low on the sperm needed to create female worker bees. When this happens she will start to lay a lot of male drone eggs and from the point of view of the workers a bunch of drones that contribute practically nothing to the hive are just more mouths to feed and more work.
When it gets to this situation the colony may choose to raise a new queen and send the old one packing! If she leaves, up to half of the workers in the hive will follow her to find a new place to live and create a new colony elsewhere.
Life Span of a Queen Bee
Although the queen bee has the capacity to live for many years, that rarely happens and typically most will fail in a couple of years or less. As beekeepers, this is just one of the challenges we face, having good queens in our hives is essential to the overall health of the colony, especially when life of the current queen comes to an end.