Premature queen loss is one of the most common reasons for colony failure noted by beekeepers in both the United States and Europe.
The queen honeybee has an essential role in the colony. She is the only member that can lay fertilized eggs to produce more worker bees.
As the colony’s mother, a queen’s characteristics greatly influence the colony’s performance and fertility potential.
So, what happens if you kill a queen bee? What will happen to other members in the hive? Will they raise a new queen or abandon the hive altogether?
Queen Bees And Colony Organization
Queens in social species like ants, wasps, and honeybees send signals that ensure she is the only one with the ability to reproduce among workers.
These signals are called primer pheromones. They inform workers of the queen’s presence and inhibits reproduction in workers. If the queen is removed, workers will start raising a new queen or laying eggs themselves.
In honeybees, the queen mandibular gland pheromone (QMP) is the main primer pheromone that prevents queen replacement.
This pheromone moves from the queen to the rest of the colonies through messenger bees that surround the queen and lick or use their antennae to capture the pheromone and distribute it to other workers.
In the absence or reduction of this pheromone, workers start developing ovaries after a short time and begin laying eggs. This can happen within 6 to 30 days, depending on what kind of bee they are.
However, these laying workers cannot guarantee the growth and survival of the colony because they can’t produce fertilized eggs that will result in more worker bees.
The eggs from worker bees are always unfertilized, so the bees that hatch from these eggs are only males, also known as drones.
Eventually, a colony without a queen or eggs to replace her will die.
How Long Will Bees Stay In A Hive Without A Queen?
When a colony of honeybees loses the queen (and fails to replace her), queen-laid eggs no longer exist. This means no new workers will be raised, and the old ones will start to reach the end of their life cycle.
The lifespan of a worker depends on the time of the year. They usually live two to six weeks in the summer and up to 20 during winter.
This means the colony’s size can decrease significantly if there’s no queen bee laying more eggs. If a colony is left queenless, the colony could disappear entirely only a few months after the last egg was laid.
Worker Bees Drift To Other Colonies After Their Hive Is Left Queenless
Besides developing reproductive organs in workers, some leave the hive and move to a new colony.
A 2017 study looked into how worker honeybees’ fertility and drifting behavior can be influenced by the presence and relatedness to the queen in both their colony of origin and other surrounding colonies.
In the experiments, researchers had colonies under three different queen states:
- Queenright colonies – had their queen, who was left untouched.
- Temporary queenless colonies – had their queen removed when brood was placed in an incubator and later raised a new queen.
- Hopelessly queenless colonies – the queen and all queen cells were removed to prevent the colony from raising a new queen.
The queen state of the colonies was an important factor in emitting drifting workers and receiving drifting honeybees.
Most workers that drifted were from queenright or temporary queenless colonies and were more likely to join a hopelessly queenless colony.
Consistent with previous research, workers that came from queenright colonies showed the least ovary activation. However, they received very few drifting bees, even though they emitted about one-fourth of drifted workers in the experiment.
The temporary queenless colonies showed many fertile worker bees, and half of all the drifting workers came from this colony. Most of these bees ended in hopelessly queenless colonies.
Additionally, they found that the physical distance between colonies affected drifting behavior significantly – drifting workers tended to go to those colonies closest to their own.
So, what does all of this mean for your beehives?
Shortly after they become queenless, you might notice a reduction in the population of worker bees, not only because there isn’t a queen laying new eggs but also because some of them will choose to drift to other colonies, especially if you have beehives at a short distance from each other and is also queenless.
Will A Queenless Hive Raise A New Queen?
A queenless colony of honeybees can raise their own queen without the help of a beekeeper if there are fertilized eggs present. But if there is no brood, the days of the colony are numbered, and a new queen will have to be introduced through human intervention.
Because the queen bee has a vital role in guaranteeing the colony’s survival, honeybees have ways to avoid finding themselves queenless. As soon as they notice a problem with the queen, they will start rearing new queens.
Nevertheless, depending on the time of the year, letting the colony raise a new queen by themselves could mean risking having a weak colony before the cold weather arrives.
Some beekeepers choose to requeen once a year to ensure the colony always has a strong queen laying eggs.
If requeening your hives is not for you, make sure always to check the status of the queen during your inspections so you can help your bees if they find themselves queenless.
It is also a good idea to keep an eye on the brood and their different stages of development. This can end up making your life easier – more on that later!
How Long Before Bees Realize They Are Queenless?
A 2004 study looked at how worker bees change after the queen bee was removed from their colony. It showed that workers react to the absence of the queen in less than 50 minutes.
Why 50 minutes?
Given this interval is similar to the maximum time the queen is away when she’s mating (45 minutes), researchers believe it’s an adaptation mechanism.
The prolongation of the queen pheromone for 50 minutes can avoid false alarms on the few occasions the queen has to leave the hive.
After this time, worker bees will start selecting brood to be raised as potential new queens or lay eggs themselves as a last, yet ineffective, attempt to ensure the colony’s survival.
In other words, bees want to be absolutely sure the queen is gone for good before they take any drastic measures!
How Long Does It Take To Raise A New Queen?
When there is brood, workers in a queenless colony will start raising new queens shortly after. They will choose a few cells and begin nurturing the lucky ones with royal jelly.
Even though they use brood of all ages to raise new queens, research determined they are more likely to make queen cells around brood that were three days old when they became queenless.
Between days 4 and 5, queen cells are capped, and at around days 12 to 13, a new queen virgin emerges. A week after, the virgin queen goes out to her first nuptial flight and starts mating with drones.
So, the time it takes for a new queen to start laying eggs and secure the colony’s future can be at least 20 days from the time they become queenless.
Whether this is soon enough or not to save the hive will depend on the time of the year and the health of your colony.
While the sudden loss of a queen is usually an adverse event in the life of a beehive, becoming queenless shortly before the colder months can be catastrophic.
Always keep in mind how much time you and your bees have before winter before deciding whether to introduce a queen or let them raise their own.
How Do I Know If My Hive Is Queenless?
It’s common to wrongly assume a hive is queenless because of how difficult it can be to locate the queen.
Here are signs that will help you determine whether your colony is queenless or not:
- Presence of queen cells. If you see a structure that looks like a peanut shell or simply a larger-than-usual cell around the middle of the comb, then it’s likely emergency queen cells are being built.
- Absence of eggs and brood. Queen bees can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day during summer, so if there is a significant decrease in the number of eggs and brood in the hive, there’s a chance the hive is queenless. Keeping a journal during your inspections can help you record this type of data. Then, whenever you think there is something wrong or different, you will be able to confirm and cross-check the information in your journal.
- There are more drones than usual. This can indicate your workers are laying eggs due to lack of queen mandibular pheromone maintaining reproductive control in the colony.
- A general decline of worker bees. If your colony seems smaller than before, and you know they didn’t swarm, your colony could be queenless.
- Your bees are suddenly aggressive. If you notice a sudden change of behavior in your colony, chances are your hive is queenless. Honeybees act differently when they are queenless as the queen influences reproduction and behavior within her colony.
Summing Up… What Happens When You Kill A Queen Bee?
The queen plays an essential role in every honeybee colony. Not only do they regulate reproduction, but they also influence the behavior of all the bees in the hive.
When a queen bee dies, worker bees will try to raise a new queen from the brood. It will take workers around an hour to determine whether their queen has gone missing, and they will begin building emergency queen cells to raise a new one.
When there is no brood available to rear a new queen, worker bees will start laying eggs.
Unfortunately, these will be unfertilized, meaning they can only result in drones. Therefore, the colony’s survival is under threat and your timely intervention as a beekeeper is crucial.
Depending on the time of the year, you may decide whether letting your bees requeen themselves is a good idea or not. As a rule of thumb, the closer it is to winter, the more urgent replacing the queen will become.