Honey bees are amazing creatures. The more scientists research them, the more they realize just how incredible they are.
The queen bee is arguably the most fascinating of all bees inside the hive. She lives the longest, has the most important job, and strong queens are prized by beekeepers above all others.
I’ve compiled a list of the 15 most interesting queen bee facts I have learned from my time keeping bees.
1. You Can Send Queen Bees In The Mail
In many countries, queen honey bees are raised by specialist breeders.
Breeders transfer young larvae from worker cells into queen cells located inside a queenless hive, where they are raised by nurse bees.
After they have emerged and mated, queens are then placed inside a special protective cage and sent to the buyer via the mail! The buyer can then use the queen to start a new colony.
2. Queen Bees Can Live Up To 8 Years
While most workers live for just a few weeks, queens have been known to live as long as 8 years! More commonly, however, queens live for between 1 – 2 years.
Because honey bees raise a new queen as soon as their existing one dies, and queen bees all look alike, it can be challenging to tell how old most queens are.
Many commercial beekeepers replace queens regularly, because younger queens lay more frequently than older ones – and a larger colony collects more nectar and makes more honey.
3. Queen Bees Make Quacking And Tooting Noises
Most people are familiar with the buzzing noise made by bees. But few realize queens make their own type of sounds.
When a virgin queen bee is ready to leave her cell, she will make a ‘quacking’ noise that signals to worker bees to help her emerge.
After crawling out, she will start making a ‘tooting’ sound. The tooting tells workers not to help other queens emerge from their cells, so she has enough time to seek and destroy them.
By stopping other queens from emerging, it reduces the chances the queen will have to fight others, making it less likely she will get stung or injured.
4. Queen Bees Only Ever Leave The Hive Twice
A mated queen bee doesn’t do much besides lay eggs. That is her primary role inside the hive. Worker bees take care of everything else she needs, so she can continue laying eggs without interruption.
She will only fly on two occasions:
- She must leave to undertake her mating flight when she first emerges as a virgin queen.
- When her colony grows too large for the hive in spring, she will leave with the swarm to start a new one.
A mated queen is quite heavy, so in preparation for swarming, workers will restrict her diet until she loses enough weight to fly.
A virgin queen, however, is quite nimble and has no problem traveling the long distances required to reach the drone congregation area for her mating flight.
5. Queen Bees Look Like Workers, But Their Abdomen Is Longer And Fatter
A queen honey bee looks similar to a worker honey bee. However, some notable differences make it possible to distinguish a queen.
The main difference between a queen and a worker bee is that a queen has a longer, fatter abdomen. This is because her ovaries are fully developed, whereas the worker bee’s ovaries are not.
The abdomen of a queen is also home to the spermatheca, a reproductive organ where she stores sperm after her mating flight. She uses this sperm to fertilize eggs before she lays them.
The color of a queen bee’s abdomen is also different from a worker’s. While a worker has black bands across the abdomen, a queen’s is almost completely yellow.
6. Honey Bee Colonies Only Have One Queen (And She Kills Any Rivals)
For the majority of their existence, beehives only ever have one queen. This queen is solely responsible for laying enough eggs to keep the colony strong and healthy.
However, if a queen becomes too old or too sick to lay eggs, the colony will replace her. When this happens, they will raise more than one new queen inside special queen cells.
The first of these new queens to emerge will seek out and kill the other new queens. She will then leave the hive to mate, before returning to take over.
As for the old queen, no one knows what becomes of her. Some beekeepers say she will be killed by either workers or the new queen, while others say she will live out the remainder of her days in peace.
7. Queen Bees Can Sting Too
Like a worker bee, a queen bee also has a stinger. However, this stinger is only ever used as a weapon when she is a virgin, to kill other queens before they emerge from their queen cells.
A queen bee’s stinger is smooth, not barbed like a worker bee, because she needs to be able to sting multiple rivals without causing herself harm.
After she mates, a queen’s stinger is primarily used to lay and position eggs inside the comb.
8. A Queen Is The Largest Bee Inside The Hive
A queen honey bee typically measures 20 – 25mm long (0.8 – 1 inches). This is almost double the length of a worker bee, which is usually 12 – 15mm long (0.5 – 0.6 inches).
While the head and thorax are similar to a worker’s, a queen bee’s abdomen is significantly longer and wider because they are home to her fully developed reproductive organs.
This means a queen bee’s wings only extend halfway down her body. On the other hand, a worker’s wings usually extend just beyond the stinger.
9. Queen Bees Reproduce By Mating With Up To 50 Drones
Shortly after a virgin queen honey bee emerges from her cell, she flies to a drone congregation area to mate.
A queen can mate with drones from other hives by flying to a drone congregation area. This lessens the chances of mating with a related honey bee, resulting in birth defects.
Queens mate with drones mid-flight. In the process of mating, a drone’s abdomen is ripped open and he dies immediately after.
The queen, on the other hand, stores the sperm of the male inside her spermatheca, which she uses to fertilize eggs. She will continue doing this until she either dies or is replaced.
Until recently, it was widely believed that queen honey bees mated with about a dozen drones. However, research now suggests a single queen will visit the drone congregation area over a period of several days, during which time she may mate with up to 50 drones.
10. A Queen Bee Stores Around 6 Million Sperm Inside Her Body
Visually it can very difficult to spot the difference between a mated queen and a virgin queen. However, once a queen has mated and begins laying, many beekeepers report she has a longer, fatter abdomen. This is because a queen stores around 6 million sperm inside her spermatheca!
The easiest way to tell a virgin queen from a laying queen is her behavior as she moves across the comb. A virgin queen will move faster than a mated queen, and not be accompanied by many other bees.
On the other hand, a mated queen will have a group of workers that follow her everywhere. This entourage is responsible for taking care of the queen and ensuring her needs are met while she goes about her days laying eggs.
11. Queen Bees Can Lay Up To 3,000 Eggs Per Day
It’s believed a queen bee can lay as many as 3,000 eggs in a single day, and could conceivably lay 1,000,000 or more in her lifetime (though most won’t live long enough to do so).
However, studies have shown that the number of eggs a queen bee lays per day varies, depending on several factors. These include external influences such as the weather, time of year, and amount of nectar available to the colony. They also include factors directly relating to the queen, such as her age, health, and body weight.
In general, a queen will lay more eggs during spring because more nectar is available. This provides ideal conditions for raising brood, so a queen will lay more eggs to take advantage of the conditions.
As queens grow older, they lay fewer eggs. A queen honey bee will reach her peak laying ability between 6 – 12 months, after which the number of eggs she lays decreases. This is one of the reasons many beekeepers requeen their hives every year.
12. Worker Bees Sometimes Attack And Kill Queens
Beekeepers often replace the queen inside a hive if she isn’t laying enough eggs. However, this must be done carefully as workers can detect when a queen isn’t theirs.
If a foreign queen bee is introduced, workers will detect her as an intruder and reject her. Dozens of workers will swarm over the intruding queen, creating a ball of bees that surrounds her.
They’ll then vibrate their flight muscles to raise the temperature at the center of the ball, depriving the queen of air until she suffocates.
Some honey bees also use the exact same tactic as a defense mechanism against intruders, such as wasps.
13. Queen Bees Produce A Special Pheromone To Communicate With Workers
Honey bees emit pheromones, which are chemical scents that affect the behavior of other bees when released into the air.
One example is the alarm pheromone, which guard bees emit when they believe the hive is under attack. This alerts other bees in the colony to leap to its defense. It’s why beekeepers use smoke, to subdue this pheromone and stop bees from attacking.
Like workers, the queen bee also emits pheromones. The most important one is the queen mandibular pheromone, which she secrets from her mandibles.
The queen mandibular pheromone contains a powerful combination of compounds that signal to worker bees that the queen is the most matriarch of the colony. It is usually stronger in laying queens than virgin queens.
While the queen mandibular pheromone is present, workers will take care of her every need while she lays eggs. They will groom, feed, and even clean up her poop.
Workers will not raise another queen if the queen gives off high enough levels of mandibular pheromone. Nor will they develop their ovaries enough to begin laying, which worker bees sometimes do after a queen dies.
The pheromone dissipates within minutes of a queen dying, and workers rush to rear replacement queens to take over. Workers will also look to replace a queen if her pheromone signal begins to weaken, which happens when she is either sick or approaching old age.
While it is stronger in mated queens, virgin queens also produce the mandibular pheromone. This scent is what helps them attract drones during a mating flight.
14. The Queen Isn’t Really In Charge Of The Colony
Many people think the queen honey bee is the ruler of the colony… and some even think that there is a king who makes decisions. But neither is true.
Instead, honey bee colonies make decisions based on what’s best for the group. It’s kind of like a democracy.
One example is when selecting a new nest site after swarming. Scout bees will find potential new sites, then return to the swarm to communicate what they’ve found.
Over the course of a few days, more and more scouts will check on the sites, until a consensus as to which is best can be reached.
The swarm will then move to the new site to establish a hive. The queen has no say in the matter, removing any personal bias from the equation.
15. Queen Honey Bees Do Not Hibernate (Unlike Queen Bumble Bees)
In some species of bees, only the queen survives winter, while the rest of the colony dies off. One such example is bumble bees.
Queen bumble bees hibernate when the weather starts to turn cold. They mate, then find a safe spot to burrow down into the ground.
Here, they wait out the winter, lowering their metabolic rate to conserve energy. Once the weather improves, they emerge, find a suitable nesting site, then start laying eggs to build a new colony.
Queen honeybees, however, do NOT hibernate. Instead, they spend the entire winter inside their hive, kept warm by the winter cluster formed by worker bees during the colder months.
During winter, the queen remains inside the middle of the cluster, surrounded by workers who keep her warm, clean and well-fed. They stop laying eggs in late fall (autumn), as it takes a lot of work to keep the brood warm during winter.
The queen honey bee is the most important bee inside the hive – and is treated as such by both bees and beekeepers.
The most incredible thing is that we are learning more and more about them all the time! Who knows how many more interesting facts we will discover about queen bees in the future?