Most people know the queen is the most important honey bee inside the hive. She’s responsible for laying eggs and ensuring the population of the colony continues to grow. But is the queen bee the ruler of the hive? Do honey bees have a leader at all?
No – honey bees don’t have a leader. The queen is important, but she plays no role in making decisions on behalf of the colony. As a matter of fact, no single bee inside the hive does. Instead, bees make decisions as a group, based on what’s best for the entire hive.
The queen bee has no real power over the colony
While she isn’t the ruler of the hive, the queen bee is absolutely vital to the survival of the colony. She’s the only bee capable of laying fertilized eggs. After mating, she stores millions of sperm inside her spermatheca, and spends the rest of her days laying eggs inside the hive.
If a queen dies, workers will immediately raise another one to replace her. That’s because, without a queen, a colony won’t be able to breed new bees to replace the old ones who die. Given most bees only live a matter of weeks, this is a critical job.
Because of their importance, queen bees have an entourage of workers who take care of them. These bees feed the queen, groom her, and clean up after her, allowing the queen to spend all of her time and energy laying eggs.
You might think that, because she has so many bees taking care of her, the queen is in charge. However, it’s really not the case. Queen bees are not rulers. They don’t order worker bees around.
Instead, workers detect a queen’s presence from her pheromones. As long as she stays healthy, and her pheromone levels are high, the colony will take care of her – but it’s more for the benefit of the colony than because the queen orders them to.
If a queen becomes old or sick, worker bees won’t remain loyal to her, because it puts the colony at risk. They will raise a new queen to replace her, in a process known as supersedure. Once the new queen has mated and assumes the role of laying eggs, worker bees don’t care what happens to the old one. They will either kill her, or eventually stop feeding her and leave her to die.
The queen has no power to stop workers from doing this, because they only act in the best interests of the colony, not the queen.
Are male bees (Drones) in charge of the hive?
Male bees, known as drones, have no power inside the hive. They are not in charge of making any decisions on behalf of the colony.
Drones only serve one real purpose – to mate with queen bees. They spend most of their time flying back and forth to drone congregation areas in search of a queen to mate with. When they’re not doing this, they stay inside the hive to rest, and gorge themselves on honey to replenish their energy.
Besides their important role in reproduction, drones are practically useless. They don’t collect food, don’t make honey, and don’t raise young bees. Drones can’t even sting, which means they play no role in defending the hive from predators or robber bees either.
Given their limited uses, it’s no real surprise that drones aren’t in charge of the colony. Why would the rest of the hive listen to them?
Interestingly, worker bees actually kick drone bees outside of the hive as winter approaches. This is because queens don’t mate in winter, so drones aren’t needed to impregnate them. And, given the winter is harsh and difficult for bees to survive, they don’t want to take care of drones who don’t contribute their share of the workload.
Bees don’t need a leader because they make decisions as a group
While bees have distinct roles, they make decisions as a group. It’s why bees are often referred to as a superorganism. No single bee can survive without the colony, and the colony cannot survive without individual bees performing their vital roles.
Here are two great examples of bees working together for the purpose of the hive:
1. The winter cluster
In winter, temperatures drop below the tolerance levels of honey bees. To survive the harsh cold, bees stay inside their hive and form a cluster. The cluster has two layers – an inner layer where bees vibrate their bodies to generate heat that passes throughout the group; and an outer layer, which acts as a shield and prevents the heat from escaping.
Workers take it in turns forming a part of each layer, and will break sporadically to eat honey and replenish their energy. The winter cluster is something bees do to survive, not because a leader instructs them to.
Swarming is a natural means of reproduction in honey bees. When a colony’s numbers grow, the colony will split in two. The old queen will leave the hive with half the colony, while a newly raised queen will stay behind with the old hive.
The swarm will fly a short distance from the hive and cluster at a nearby point, usually on the branch of a tree. Here, they will wait as scout bees go and find suitable sites for their new nest.
Each scout bee returns and performs a dance to communicate the suitability of the site they found. Over time, a popular consensus is reached as to which site is best. This process sometimes takes multiple days to complete.
Once a consensus is reached, the swarm will relocate to the new nest site. This is a decision made by the group – no king, queen, or ruler gets to choose where the hive will go. Instead, the group decides based on what’s best for the colony.
There is no single honey bee that rules over the hive – not even the queen. Instead, bees make decisions as a group based on what’s best for the health of the colony. It’s one of the many reasons scientists study bees, and so many people find them fascinating. Perhaps we humans could learn a thing or two from bees about working together!