Queen honey bees are interesting creatures. Their main role is to lay eggs and ensure the survival of the colony. They rarely do anything else.
In fact, worker honey bees will tend to the queen’s every need. They’ll groom her, feed her and even clean up her waste.
Worker bees will also defend the queen and the hive from outside attacks. The primary weapon of a worker bee is their stinger, which they use to puncture the skin of any creatures trying to harm their hive.
But what about queen bees – do they sting?
Yes, queen honey bees can sting. However, unlike worker bees, they don’t use their stingers to defend the hive. Instead, they use it to sting and kill rival queens. They also use their stinger to help position and lay eggs.
Virgin Queen Bees – Only One Shall Rule
Generally, there are two occasions where a honey bee colony will raise a new queen. They are:
- Swarming. Swarming is a natural means of reproduction that takes place during spring when the colony becomes too big for its existing hive. The laying queen will leave the hive, along with about half of the worker bees, and start a new one. Before swarming, worker bees will prepare queen cells to allow larvae to develop into new queens.
- Supersedure. Supersedure is when the laying queen dies or is nearing death (due to illness or old age). The colony will raise new queens inside queen cells, or modify an existing brood cell if the laying queen has died suddenly.
In both instances, the colony will raise more than one queen to reduce the risk they are left queenless. The queen is vital to the survival of the hive – without a queen to lay brood, the hive will soon die.
Once a new queen bee emerges from her cell, she will then turn her attention to killing her rivals. She will seek out the remaining queen cells, use her stinger to puncture a hole in the wall, and kill the queen inside.
When more than one queen bee emerges at the same time, they will fight each other, with the victor becoming the new matriarch.
Queen Bees Use Their Stinger To Destroy Rival Queen Cells
In a fight between two virgin queen bees, there is a risk that both will be killed or badly wounded by their opponent’s stinger. Studies have shown that the more mature of the two queen bees is most likely to win.
However, it is the preference of a new queen bee not to have to fight another live rival. This is because it is far easier to destroy unhatched queens than a live one who will fight back.
Because of this, a newly emerged queen will selectively destroy cells that house broods that are about to emerge before those that are not yet ready. In other words, if there are five other queen cells, a virgin queen will identify which ones are closest to emerging and destroy those first.
In this way, the queen is able to reduce the chances she will have to fight another live queen for the crown.
A Queen Bee Knows When Another Queen Is Almost Ready To Emerge
Some experts have suggested that queen cells emit queen-pheromone-like chemicals that may reach the highest level just before emergence. This enables them to locate and attack cells close to emergence using their stingers.
Others have pointed out that worker bees recognize queen cells by specific fatty acids – and that the ratio of the compounds change according to the stage. In other words, worker bees can recognize the stage of queen cells and how close the brood is to emerging, and therefore queen bees could probably do the same.
Queens may also use physical stimuli – for example, vibrations or sounds coming from inside the cell – to tell when a new queen is almost ready to emerge. Greater levels of activity would indicate a queen is closer to emergence.
Laying Queen Bees Don’t Need To Sting
While virgin queen bees use their stingers to kill other rivals, mated bees have no such need. This is because when there is a healthy laying queen, queen rearing is normally prevented.
If the typical inhibitions that prevent a colony from raising a new queen break down and queens cells are raised unnecessarily, the laying queen will use her stinger to destroy the brood inside. Because a new queen takes about 16 days to emerge, this gives the laying queen plenty of time to do so.
If a colony raises new queens in preparation for a swarm, the laying queen will typically leave the hive shortly before the virgin queens emerge. This eliminates the possibility of any conflict occurring.
As for supersedure, if the old queen is still alive after the new one has mated, sometimes the two of them will remain in the hive together.
However, more commonly, the old queen disappears soon after the new queen returns from her mating flight. It’s not known whether she is left alone to die a natural death (because supersedure happens when the queen is old or sick) or if she is attacked and killed by the new queen or worker bees.
A Queen Bee’s Stinger Is Different From A Worker’s
The stinger of a queen bee not only looks different from that of a worker bee, but it’s also used for different purposes.
The main purpose of a worker honey bee’s stinger is to defend the hive against attackers. The stinger is attached to a venom sack, so a bee is able to introduce venom into anything they sting.
The end of the stinger is barbed so that it will become lodged into the skin of the attacker. This way, the stinger will keep its venom sack and continue to release venom.
The barbs prevent a worker bee from removing its stinger. Instead, as it tries to pull the stinger out of the attacker, it is ripped from the worker bee’s body, and it dies within minutes.
A Queen bee’s stinger, on the other hand, is not barbed. This enables it to sting multiple times without dying – which it does when killing rival queen bees soon after emerging from its cell.
While a queen bee does use it to kill rivals, the main function of her stinger is not as a weapon. It is actually a modified ovipositor – an organ used to lay and position eggs. It’s a highly functional tool that enables eggs to be carefully placed inside brood cells, before the cells are capped by workers.
After mating, a queen bee undergoes significant physiological and morphological changes. Her abdomen swells and fills almost completely with her ovaries, making it far more difficult for her to sting.
Queen Bees Don’t Die When They Sting (Unlike Workers)
Queen bees don’t die after stinging because their stingers are not barbed like that of a worker bee. Therefore, when a queen bee stings, her stinger does not become lodged inside her victim. That’s why a virgin queen is able to destroy all other queen cells without harming herself.
If a queen bee did die after stinging, she wouldn’t be able to eliminate other rivals after emerging, without also killing herself. This would be disastrous for the colony (and the survival of the species), as there would be no queen left standing to take over the hive when needed.
Do Queen Bees Have Venom?
Like workers, queen honey bees also have venom glands. These glands are anatomically similar to workers – though they have some differences.
The main variation is the size. The venom reservoir of a queen bee is three times larger than that of a worker, and they store up to five times more venom. Queens also have longer bifurcated branches and excretory ducts.
Queens start producing venom just before they emerge from their queen cell. Their venom gland is active once they emerge, ready for use in order to kill off other virgin queens.
After mating, the queen’s primary function is to lay eggs. Because it’s no longer needed, the protein content of her venom decreases over time – reducing by 90% after her first week of life.
Do Queen Bees Sting Humans?
Queen bees can sting humans. However, getting stung by one is highly unlikely because they almost never leave the hive.
When queen bees do leave the hive, it’s not to defend against attackers – so even when they’re outside, there’s almost zero chance of a human getting stung by one.
The only exception to this rule would be queen breeders, whose job is to breed and raise queen bees. They frequently handle queens as part of their work.
I have read stories online from queen breeders who have been stung by a queen bee before – though even in this scenario it is not common.
Is A Queen Bee Sting More Painful?
Having never been stung by a queen bee, I can’t say from personal experience whether or not their sting is more painful than a worker bee. However, as I mentioned above, I have read stories of breeders being stung by queens before.
The general consensus is that, because the stinger is not barbed, being stung by a queen bee is not as painful as it is by a worker. The stinger goes straight in and out. It doesn’t become lodged inside the skin, and there is no venom sack attached to continue pumping venom inside.
Can A Queen Bee Sting Kill You?
If you are allergic, a queen bee sting could be fatal. Queen bees are actually more venomous than worker bees.
However, the protein content of the venom decreases by 90% shortly after a virgin queen emerges from its cell. That means that the venom from an old queen that has been laying for over a year is at least 15 times less lethal than the venom of a virgin queen.
Because their stingers are not barbed, a queen bee could sting you multiple times, which could increase the probability of a severe allergic reaction (although the venom sac wouldn’t become detached with the stinger, unlike it does with worker bees).
However, as I mentioned above, it’s incredibly unlikely you would ever be stung by a queen bee (unless you’re a breeder) because they rarely do anything other than lay eggs. They have more important things to do than to sting human beings like you and me.
Queen bees do have stingers. However, they are mainly used to lay and position eggs inside brood cells in the hive. They’re never used to defend the hive.
The only time a queen bee uses her stinger as a weapon is when she first emerges from her queen cell. She uses her stinger to kill other virgin queens so that she can be the only one remaining and take over the hive. As such, it’s highly unlikely a human being will ever be stung by a queen.