Honey Bee Queen

Although the honey bee queen is thought by many to be the most important member of her colony, honey bee workers sometimes determine when their colony is in need of a new queen. This occurs due to space constrictions, poor performance associated with age and the unexpected death of the queen.

Because the queen is capable of producing up to 2,000 eggs each day, space within a hive can become constrained. A swarm results, wherein the mature queen leaves the colony with half of her workers to establish a new colony. The other half of her workers remain with a new queen and continue to perform their tasks within the old colony.

Alternately, as queen honey bees age, their egg-laying abilities decrease, and they lay their eggs in less organized patterns. When an old queen begins to falter in performing such responsibilities, workers will induce her replacement, or supersedure. The aging queen is killed after the supersedure process.

Lastly, when a honey bee queen suddenly dies, an urgent and unplanned supersedure occurs. Worker honey bees identify several larvae within the proper age range and begin to condition these larvae to become queens. The sole difference between a honey bee worker and a queen is in nourishment received during the maturation process: workers feed prospective queens with royal jelly for their entire lives, while worker bees are fed royal jelly only during the first two days of their larval stage.

Each colony can be ruled by only one queen at a time. When a virgin queen emerges, she locates other virgin queens and eliminates them one at a time. In the event that two virgin honey bee queens emerge simultaneously, they fight each other to the death.

Queens control their workers by releasing pheromones known as the queen’s scent. After the new queen masters the hive, she attends a mating flight at a drone congregation site, where thousands of males wait. Drones discern a queen’s presence through her smell, but they will locate a queen by sight. Drones and queens mate in midair and drones die soon after giving their sperm to the queen. Queens mate with several drones in each mating flight, storing the drones’ sperm in her spermatheca.

The honey bee queen mates at an early age and usually attends only one mating flight, because her sperm reserves allow her to lay millions of eggs throughout her lifetime. Although a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day during active seasons, the amount and pace at which a queen lays her eggs is greatly controlled by weather, food availability and the particular habits of her subspecies of honey bee. The queen’s fertilized eggs become female workers or future honey bee queens. The queen’s unfertilized eggs develop into male honeybees, or drones.