The queen honey bee is the most important bee in a honey bee colony. Her sole purpose is to lay eggs to keep the colony strong and healthy. Queen bees are naturally shy and want to stay in the cool shade of the hive. Queens will only leave the hive for one of two reasons: mating and swarming.
A young, newly-born queen will leave the hive for her mating flight. After that, she could happily spend the rest of her life in the colony. However, if the colony senses that they are running out of room, they will raise swarm cells and prepare the queen to leave as a swarm to find a new home.
Queen Bee Lifecycle and Role in the Hive
Birth and Development
A queen begins like all of the honey bee workers: as a fertilized egg. However, the difference is that she receives a special diet of royal jelly to turn her into a queen. Ideally, the bees will feed the queen royal jelly from the beginning as a very young larva. But in the event that the current queen unexpectedly dies, then the nurse bees may be forced to switch the diet of older larvae to royal jelly to create a queen. In this case, since the queen has not received royal jelly from early on, she may be smaller in size. In these instances, the queen may not be as successful as a queen that has been planned from the time she was an egg.
This is one reason why when I see countless supersedure cells in a colony, I will squish the smaller-sized cells.
A virgin queen will need to leave the hive for her mating flight. She will travel up to six miles away to find male drones from other colonies to mate with. The queen’s goal is to mate with multiple drones to ensure that the colony has a healthy and fertile queen.
Unfortunately, the mating flight can also be dangerous for the queen. There are predators such as dragonflies and birds that could eat her during her journey! In some cases, she will fail to return.
There are cases where the virgin queen never leaves the hive for her mating flight. I’ve found a virgin queen, and two weeks later when I check, I can see she is still not mated. For whatever reason, she has not left the hive. I once found a virgin queen with an injured wing, so she also never successfully left and mated. She became a drone-laying queen. Since she was unable to successfully mate, she could only lay unfertilized eggs, which would become male drones. Unfortunately, she had to be dispatched, and the colony was paper combined with another healthy colony.
When inspecting a hive with a potential virgin queen, you will be looking for a queen with a smaller abdomen. She will not have the large abdomen that you normally see until after a successful mating flight.
The entire process from egg to a mated, laying queen can take three to four weeks. After I split a colony, or when I’m waiting for a colony to requeen, I try not to touch the hive again for that three to four week time to let them work through the entire process. My hope is to find an egg laying mated queen the next time I get into the hive.
When a bee colony needs a replacement queen, the honey bees will typically raise multiple queens. When there are multiple queen cells, I try to only leave 2 to three cells in a colony. I will either squish the additional cells, or I will split them into a new colony. I do this because when you have several young queens in the colony, some may choose to leave with a contingent of bees that like her. In this case, you could have several small bee swarms leaving your hive.
You also can run the risk of the young queens fighting it out to the point that the winning queen may be injured and unable to then take her mating flight. Then you will have a drone-laying queen.
In some cases, you can find both the first queen and her mated daughter in the same hive. They do not always immediately dispatch the old queen. Don’t be surprised if you do have two queens in your hive for a time.
Egg-Laying and Reproduction
The queen’s primary role is to lay eggs, which develop into future worker honey bees, drones, and new queen bees when the need arises. After successful mating flights, the queen’s spermatheca stores the sperm, allowing her to fertilize eggs throughout her life. She spends her days laying eggs, and her unique queen pheromone also spreads through the colony to help the bees become a cohesive unit to maintain and carry on with their necessary functions for a successful colony.
Worker bees will surround and take care of the queen. They will feed and groom her so she never needs to stop her job of laying the eggs to keep the colony strong and healthy.
Health and Lifespan
A healthy queen bee can live for up to five years. A well-mated queen will be able to continuously lay eggs to ensure the well-being of her colony. As a beekeeper, if you choose to allow the queen to continue, she can give you many productive and successful years! One of my very first queens lived to be about four or five years old, and she was always very productive! When I saw supersedure cells one spring, I knew her time was probably coming to an end. She was older and laying fewer eggs at this point. I split the colony and removed the cells from her original colony. A month later, I found a queenless colony with emergency queen cells, which told me she did die. It was a bittersweet moment. I appreciate that she was able to live out her life. Her colony successfully requeened after her death.
Many beekeepers will replace queens every so often, in some cases even every year. In our honey bee obsessed apiary, we do grow attached to the queens and like to let them continue. I have many new colonies who are daughters and granddaughters from the original queen, and they all seem to be as successful as their predecessor.
Why Bees Swarm
Besides the mating flight, the only other time a queen leaves her colony is in the case of a swarm.
When honey bees sense they are outgrowing their current hive, they will plan to divide the colonies. They will grow swarm cells on the bottom of the frames, and when the new queens are about ready to hatch, the original queen will leave with a large group of worker bees that choose to follow her.
Before this big flight, the worker bees will run the queen around to slim her down for her flight. Otherwise, she will not be able to fly! As it is, she can only fly for a short time. This is why when they swarm, the bees may first congregate on a nearby tree branch or pole as the queen is adjusting to the flight. Scout bees will search out new potential homes, and when they decide on the best location, they will lead the queen to their new location.
New Hive Formation
Once the swarm settles into its new site, the bees will begin building a new hive. The old queen will start laying eggs, and the worker bees will collect nectar and pollen to help the new colony grow. Back in the original hive, the new queen bee will emerge and mate with drones from a different colony. After a successful mating flight, she will replace the old queen and continue building the colony by laying eggs.
Watching a swarm of honey bees is an amazing sight! It’s even better if that swarm of bees is moving into one of your old hives or swarm traps. Some of the best swarm traps in our apiary have been the unexpected ones: stacks of old, dilapidated hives that we no longer intend to use seem to attract the most swarms!
Queen bees like to stay in their hive. They prefer the cool shade and avoid the light. They do not leave the hive unless they must for a mating flight, or in the case of a swarm. Queen bees are naturally shy creatures, which is why it can be a challenge to find the queen during inspections.
As beekeepers, we often try to prevent swarming because we don’t want to lose our original queens. But if the bees do swarm, it is the sign of a healthy, strong colony. Swarming is how bees multiply and continue to grow to ensure their existence for the years to come.
We love our bees, and we do get attached to our queen bees. My husband hasn’t met a queen bee that he doesn’t like, so unlike some beekeepers, we do tend to let our queens live out their long lives. It is fascinating to watch and see what these creatures do through the years. Don’t be afraid to experiment, try what you want, and enjoy your apiary!
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens if the queen leaves?
Queen bees will only leave the hive for one of two reasons: for mating or swarming. Virgin queens will take their nuptial flights to mate with multiple drones from other colonies. For swarming, a queen will leave with a large contingent of worker bees to create a new colony.
Can queens return to the hive?
After mating flights, queens return to their hive, and they are content to never leave again. If a queen leaves during a swarm, though, she won’t return to the original hive because she establishes a new colony while a new queen will hatch, mate, and replace her in the original colony.
Can queens survive alone?
Queens cannot survive alone. They depend on worker bees for food and to raise their brood. A queen bee’s primary function is to lay eggs, so they need a colony to support them.
How long do queens live?
Queen bees can live for up to five years, which is much longer than worker bees who live for six weeks. A queen bee can lay millions of eggs during her life span.
Do queen bees sting?
Yes, queen bees can sting. However, they primarily use it against rival queen bees. Unlike worker bees, queen bees have a smooth stinger without barbs, which lets them sting multiple times without dying. While it’s possible, they really aren’t inclined to sting people.