How Many Queen Bees Are In Each Hive?

For the vast majority of their existence, honey bee colonies only have one queen bee. However, there are some occasions – during supersedure, emergency queen rearing, and at the conclusion of swarming – when the colony raises multiple queens. During these times, it is possible for there to be two or more queen bees inside the hive.

One queen bee on a frame surrounded by over a dozen workers

Honey bee Hives Only Need One Healthy Laying Queen

A honey bee colony only needs one healthy laying queen bee. This queen’s sole purpose is to lay eggs in order to ensure the survival of the hive.

The rest of the time, the queen bee does little else. She relies on worker bees to take care of everything she needs. They groom her, feed her, and even clean up her poop.

A queen bee can live up to 8 years, though on average they typically live for 2-3. When the laying queen dies, becomes too old or sick to lay enough eggs, or leaves the hive, the colony must raise a new queen to replace her.

Because of the importance of the queen bee, the colony will always raise more than one. This can lead to multiple queens in the hive at the same time. On occasion, the old queen is still present when new queens emerge, too, again leading to more than one queen bee in the hive.

In the rare instances where there is more than one queen bee, it doesn’t last long. This is because the colony only needs one laying queen. Excess queens who are not needed are usually killed, leaving a single queen in charge.

Breeding multiple queens and then killing them may sound inefficient and odd to some people. However, I’ve learned most honey bee behaviors, even if they seem strange to us, have a specific purpose that helps maintain the colony’s natural order.

Supersedure: Old Or Sick Queen Bees Are Routinely Replaced By A New Queen

Supersedure is when a honey bee colony replaces its laying queen. This happens because she is either too sick, or too old, to continue laying eggs at a fast enough rate.

Workers are able to tell that a queen is ailing or becoming less productive based on a change in the pheromones she produces.

The colony will then raise between 1-3 new queens inside queen cells. These cells are built over intervals of a few days, and the existing queen lays an egg into each one.

When the first healthy queen emerges, she will use her stinger to destroy the other queen cells. She will then leave the hive to travel to a drone congregation area, where she will mate with up to 50 drones from other nearby hives, before returning to her colony, ready to lay.

The new queen and old queen will then sometimes remain in the same colony together for several months until the old queen dies. However, often the old queen will disappear soon after the new one takes over. Whether this is because the new queen kills the old one, or she dies a natural death, is unclear.

Emergency Queen Rearing: Honey bees Raise Multiple Replacements If Their Laying Queen Dies

When a queen honey bee dies unexpectedly, the colony faces an emergency. They need a healthy queen to continue laying eggs so that there are enough workers to maintain and feed the hive.

If they wait just a few days, it will be too late to raise a new queen, because they no longer have a fertile queen to lay eggs – nor will they have larvae young enough to develop into queen bees (once they reach a certain age, it becomes too late to feed larvae the correct diet required to develop into queens, so they become worker bees instead).

As soon as the laying queen has died, and the mandibular pheromone disappears (the pheromone the queen releases to prevent queen replacement), workers will start to raise multiple new queens. This can happen within 50 minutes of the laying queen’s death.

In an emergency, there is no time to build queen cells. Instead, worker bees will modify existing cells that are normally used to raise other workers, so that they are large enough to accommodate a queen. The larvae in these cells are then fed a diet rich in royal jelly so they develop into queens.

Like with supersedure, the virgin queen bee that emerges first seeks out the remaining cells housing queens and destroys them, using her stinger to kill off any rivals before they can emerge.

Sometimes, a second queen will emerge before the first has had a chance to destroy all remaining cells. On these rare occasions, there will be two queen bees inside the hive for a short period of time. These two queens will seek each other out and fight to the death, with the winner taking over the hive as the sole matriarch.

Swarming: Honey bees Will Raise A New Queen To Take Over The Hive After A Swarm

Swarming is a natural means of reproduction that occurs during Spring when a honey bee colony becomes too large for its existing hive.

Rather than force the entire colony to leave and find a bigger home, the colony will split in two. Half the bees remain, while the other half leave to find a new hive.

The old queen will leave the hive to become the matriarch of the new colony. Along with thousands of workers, she will fly a short distance and cluster on a nearby tree. Scout bees will then go out and find a suitable location to establish a new hive.

Swarm of bees gathered on a tree branch

Before the old queen leaves, the colony will raise multiple new queens so there is one to take over the hive. The workers prepare queen cells, into which the existing queen lays eggs. After a few days, the eggs will hatch into larvae, which are then fed the royal-jelly-rich diet needed to develop into queens.

The laying queen leaves the hive just before the virgin queens emerge. This eliminates the possibility of any conflict occurring between the old and new queen.

However, as with emergency queen rearing, sometimes a second virgin queen emerges before the first virgin has time to destroy all other queen cells. That means there are two queens inside the hive until they fight each other to crown a winner.

Sometimes Beekeepers Might Be The Cause Of Multiple Queen Bees In One Hive

When rival queens fight, there is a risk that even the victor will be injured, putting the colony’s survival at risk. Therefore, it’s rare that beekeepers will ever place more than one queen inside a hive.

However, on some occasions, it does happen. One such example is when a beekeeper combines two bee colonies into one. This is a task often performed before Winter when one or more colonies are too weak to survive the cold.

When this happens, the beekeeper will often locate the queen from the weaker hive and kill her before uniting the hives.

However, sometimes it can be difficult to find the queen, so they simply combine the two colonies without first removing one of the queens. There will therefore be two queens inside the one hive until the weaker one is killed.

Final Thoughts…

There is almost always one queen honey bee inside a hive. However, because queen bees frequently swarm, die, or their laying ability diminishes, the colony often has to raise a new queen to take over.

During these instances, the colony will raise more than one queen. It is simply too high a risk not to – if they only raise one queen that doesn’t develop properly or dies before they can take over, the colony’s survival is put at risk.

Because they raise multiple queens when replacing the existing one, sometimes there are two inside the hive at once. There can also be more than one queen inside the hive after supersedure – both the new queen and the old one that is being replaced. However, in both of these instances, the situation is short-lived.

Enjoy reading about queen bees? Then find out more about them in this article.

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