- Each colony of honeybees has three types of bees: worker bees, drones, and a queen.
- Queen bees are responsible for the health and future of the hive. Hundreds of drones (male bees) mate with the queen to produce future colony members.
- To keep a queen bee healthy, you must ensure the hive is healthy. By caring for our bees properly and avoiding unnecessary intervention, we ensure our hives are healthy and thriving.
The Matriarch Behind the Buzzing Colony: Understanding the Queen Bee
Bees are excellent team players. After all, without each colony member pulling their weight and contributing, the hive can fail — meaning no honey, which can mean a shortage of colony-sustaining food.
With that said, as important as the colony members are, without a queen bee, the hive population would decline and eventually dissipate.
We ensure our bees are cared for but not overwhelmed. As such, we give our honeybees all the resources needed to thrive while letting nature do its thing.
However, if you aren't sure what the queen bee does, you're not alone. People generally know she’s powerful, but most people don’t quite know why.
So, let’s dive deep into the duties of the queen bee, and how she keeps the entire colony intact. First, let's start with a brief bit about why honeybees matter.
What Makes Honeybees Special?
Honeybees are genuinely unique insects; unlike solitary creatures (including most species of native bees), they’re highly social and can carry out intricate tasks such as advanced nest construction and coordinated defense strategies.
A common misconception surrounding honeybees is that each hive member is responsible for gathering nectar and producing honey. However, each honeybee colony has three types of bees: workers, drones, and a queen.
There’s always only one queen, but the number of drones and workers can vary. Not all hives are the same size, either; thriving hives can have upwards of 80,000 bees during the summer. Even smaller hives usually have at least a few thousand members.
All worker bees (nectar collectors) are females, while drone bees are males. Drone bees do not have stingers, while the female and the queen do. The females’ duties are collecting the nectar and pollen, while the males’ only job is to mate with the queen bee.
The amount of work each bee contributes depends on its age and the state of the hive. Honey hives can be more prosperous depending on the time of year and the type of beekeeper handling them.
Honeybees are advanced communicators and — like humans — even have a social structure to their hives. The queen bee regulates social norms and sets the tone for the rest of the hive's behavior.
As the queen bee manages the hive, she communicates with her pheromones (i.e. through chemical distribution). The pheromones are spread and transferred during communicative “dances” that pass these signals between bees. So, let's take a closer look at the queen bee's job.
Everything To Know About Queen Bees
Commonly referred to as the mother of the hive, the queen bee has many responsibilities. Overall, mating and laying eggs are her main and most important duties. In fact, the queen is the only female bee that is mated with.
She spends her days within the hive being fed and groomed by the drones and workers — which, to most, sounds like a pretty great life! Yet, there's more than what meets the eye here.
How Is a Queen Bee Chosen?
Every female egg in the hive has the potential to become the next queen. The genetics of all female bees are the same. Yet, what makes the queen different is her diet.
Bees are intuitive and can sense when it’s time to appoint a new head of the hive. Once the colony sees their queen may die or leave the nest, they start raising a new queen. The diet of a newly appointed queen consists of royal jelly, a white substance that comes from young worker bees’ heads.
The queen bee is selected from 10 to 20 newly hatched female bees. Nursing bees will work diligently for the next few days feeding the larvae the milky substance. This highly nutritious blend of proteins is thought to synergize with the bee's digestive system and initiate the young female's reproductive system.
Each of these well-fed and newly hatched females is moved to a unique honeycomb called a queen cell; on the 15th day, once the female is fully mature, she chews her way out of the peanut-shaped comb.
After the new queen bee is out of her cell, she must seek out the rest of the 10 to 20 females in the queen cells and terminate them. The hive only has room for one queen. This means that the female bee that develops first will be the queen.
What Does the Queen Bee Do?
Once the selection process has concluded, the queen bee takes flight — this flight will commence her mating duties. With this one “mating lap,” the queen bee can lay fertilized eggs for three to five years.
During the mating lap, the queen breeds with hundreds of drones (male bees) and stores the sperm in her body. As she lays eggs, she will decide which eggs to fertilize and which not. Fertilized bee eggs will become females, whereas non-fertilized eggs are drones.
What Is the Supersedure Process?
The next step for the new queen is to find the old one; if the old queen is nearing the end of her life, the new queen will terminate her — this process is called supersedure.
While being attended to by the rest of the colony, the new queen will begin her egg-laying. She will slowly walk around the hive seeking empty honeycomb cells to lay her eggs. For the next three to five years, if there is adequate room within the hive and the hive has nectar and pollen nearby, the queen can remain in the same hive and lay up to 1,500 eggs daily.
She will break periodically to be groomed and fed by the other bees. During this time, the rest of the bees will swarm her and spread her pheromones throughout the rest of the hive. These pheromones alert the other bees that their queen is healthy.
As the queen ages, her pheromones decrease, resulting in a more sporadic laying pattern. Shortly after the queen’s laying abilities decline, the colony will notice and begin raising a new queen.
What Causes a Queen Bee To Die?
Sometimes the queen will die from natural causes, such as age. But other times, the colony will collectively decide it’s time to raise a new queen, even if the current queen is still alive. The circumstances that cause the colony to seek out a new queen are related to performance issues and hive crowding.
The queen lays over a thousand eggs daily. However, if the hive becomes too cramped, in a process called swarming, some bees choose to leave in a group to seek our more space.
When there isn’t adequate room in the hive, the old queen will gather about half the worker bees and take flight. They will begin a new hive and colony with the original queen while the old hive begins raising a new one.
Can the Queen Affect the Quality of the Honey?
While the queen bee doesn’t leave the hive, collect nectar, or have anything to do with the actual honey-making process, that’s not to say she can’t affect the quality of the honey. The queen runs the entire colony, and her pheromones affect their productivity.
Having a healthy and happy queen bee is crucial to the health of the entire hive.
Keeping the queen content is the first step to maintaining a happy and healthy hive. Sometimes you can’t prevent the queen bees' death or the hive from swarming as nature has a course to run. But, if you care for your bees properly and avoid unnecessary intervention, you should see wonderful results within your hive.
At Manukora, to help us achieve the richest, most potent, and highest quality Manuka honey, we allow our hives to develop naturally — we don’t interfere. Working with Mother Nature, not against her, is essential.
We give our honeybees extra care when needed, but that’s seldom necessary, considering we always place our hives in optimal locations where there’s plenty of space (and sweet nectar) for our colonies to thrive.
Whether you’re a seasoned apiarist or completely new to the beekeeping world, these tips can help you achieve delicious honey. At Manukora, we stand by our beekeeping practices and pride ourselves in putting the well-being of our bees first.
While our Western honeybees only produce Manuka honey, these important guidelines work on virtually all honey hives.
To preserve our raw Manuka honey's natural and optimal state, we place our bees in the most remote forests in New Zealand and ensure they are free of sprays, GMOs, and antibiotics.
We also allow our bees to dehydrate their honey naturally, meaning it’s not heat-processed after we harvest it, which helps it retain its most important nutrients.
Bees are unique creatures that are much more intricate than most people realize. The journey most insects go through is intense, and this is especially true for the queen bee.
Whether you’re a beekeeper seeking more knowledge, a honey enthusiast who wants to ensure you’re purchasing the cream of the crop, or an avid bee-lover who’s simply curious about these interesting insects, we hope we answered all your questions about the queen bee!
To learn more about the intricacies of honeymaking, especially Manuka honey, you can explore the rest of the Manukora blog here.