Most people know that the queen is the most important honey bee in the hive. She is the largest bee inside the colony, lives the longest, and has the most critical role – to lay eggs.
Without a queen, colonies cannot continue to produce new bees. If the queen dies and they don’t replace her, the colony will perish. Because a queen is so important, many people wonder if there is a king bee too. And if so, what do they do?
The truth is there is no king bee inside the hive. There are male honey bees, known as drones. However, they are no longer needed after mating with the queen and play no active role in the colony other than helping to reproduce.
Why Isn’t There A King Bee?
For human beings, the king is seen as an important role. Many countries still have a king who rules over the population and makes decisions in how the country is run. In most societies where a king exists, he is the leader and outranks everyone else, including the queen.
However, in the insect world, queens are usually more important than kings. This is definitely true when it comes to honey bees – so much so that king bees don’t even exist.
That’s because honey bees don’t need a king to make decisions. Instead, they act like a democracy, making important choices and performing necessary roles together.
Bees don’t need a king to continually mate with the queen either. After mating, a queen stores up to 6 million sperm inside her body, which she can use to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life.
Bees Don’t Need A King Or Queen To Rule
Contrary to what many believe, honey bee colonies make decisions as a group. They don’t do what their monarch wants them to do. In fact, honey bees even kill the queen in certain situations if that’s what is best for the colony.
Perhaps the best example of this group decision-making is when bees swarm.
Swarming is a natural means of reproduction that typically happens in spring. With nectar in plentiful supply, many colonies will outgrow their current hive.
When this happens, the queen will leave, along with half the workers, to start a new one. They’ll first stop at a nearby resting place, such as the branch of a tree. Here, scout bees will leave the group to find suitable locations for a new hive.
Scouts will return, one by one, and perform a dance to tell the swarm about their chosen site. Each makes their case for why their location should be chosen.
Other scout bees will then choose one of these sites to inspect themselves, based on which one sounds the best. If they like what they see, they’ll return to the swarm and perform the same type of dance to indicate approval.
The swarm then selects the best one based on the information that has been relayed. They move together as a group to start a new hive in the chosen location.
The swarming process is exhaustive and takes days. By gathering a lot of information about potential nesting sites, the colony is able to select the very best location for their new hive.
This task is crucial to their survival, because the new site must tick a number of boxes – proximity to water, ease of access, protection from weather and predators – in order to be chosen.
If a king or queen interfered in this process, they might make a biased decision based on their individual preferences.
By making decisions as a group, the bees are able to select a location that’s best for the entire colony. That’s why there is no need for a king or queen to rule over them.
What Do Male Bees (Drones) Actually Do?
So if male bees aren’t needed to be king, what do they do? Drones play a very specific role in the colony, one that is different to both queen and worker bees:
- A mated queen is responsible for laying eggs. Other than that, she rarely does anything.
- Worker bees have a number of vital jobs. They collect pollen and nectar, make honey and bee bread, guard the hive against predators, help raise young, and take care of the queen.
- Drones don’t work or make honey. Their sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen. It’s a vital role because without drones, honey bees could not continue as a species.
Because it is their sole purpose, drone bees are only reared in spring and summer when it is time to mate with queens. They spend the majority of their time eating and resting inside the hive, except when they leave the hive to travel to a drone congregation area.
Drone congregation areas are special sites that virgin queen bees go to mate with drones. Queens will visit the site several times over the course of a few days, mating with up to 50 drones.
After mating, a drone’s abdomen is torn open, and he falls to the ground and dies. Even if they did have a purpose after mating, like you’d expect a king to, they’d no longer be alive to do it.
The queen stores the male’s sperm inside a special reproductive organ called a spermatheca. She will then use the sperm to fertilize eggs and continue laying for the rest of her life.
Because of the spermatheca, queens don’t need to mate repeatedly throughout her life. As such, there’s no need for a king to be present to continually produce eggs.
As winter approaches, drones are no longer needed. Any remaining drones who have not mated with queens will be kicked out of the hive by workers and left to die.
Honey bee colonies have no need for a king bee, which is why there aren’t any. Males bees, known as drones, only have one job – to mate with the queen. After they’ve completed their task, they die.
Queens are able to store millions of sperm inside their bodies, so they don’t need a male bee (or ‘king’) to continually produce fertilized eggs.
Further, because the bee colony makes decisions as a group, they have little need for a king bee to serve as any sort of ruler.