During peak season, a well-mated queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day – that’s more than her own body weight in eggs in a day! Queen honeybees can lay up to a million eggs in their lifetime! They can live for up to five years, so that’s potentially a lot of productive years. These girls stay busy to help build a strong colony of honey bees.
In early spring, the queen will begin to lay a smaller number of eggs to begin the build-up for summertime resources. As summer approaches, the queen will ramp up into high gear.
I’ve seen estimates that a queen bee may be able to lay up to 3,000 eggs in a single day! That’s an astounding number, but probably an outlier. But with this ability, you can see how a colony can grow quickly, especially in the spring when they’re building up in preparation for the big nectar flow. This is why a beekeeper should be checking their hives more frequently during the spring and early summer season to make sure a colony doesn’t run out of room. The population of a colony can explode in a short time when the queen is an egg-laying beast!
A queen bee is the only fertile female in a honey bee colony. She plays a vital role in the colony. She lays the eggs to produce all of the honey bees–workers, drones, and even replacement queens. When a beekeeper talks about a queen laying a good pattern, it is when you have a solid frame full of capped brood.
As a queen ages, or if she isn’t well-mated, she could begin to lay fewer eggs. Then the worker bees may decide it’s time to replace. Or, in our case, we seem to have a lazy queen. We watch her mozy around the frame trying to find just the right place to lay each egg. I’ve seen other queens busy laying egg after egg in every available cell. This particular queen who is only a year old takes her sweet time. And her colony has shown no inclination to replace her. They’ve made it through the winter together, so we just choose to let her continue. I find the different personalities of queens, and really entire honey bee colonies, fascinating.
Life of a Queen
Egg and Larval Stage
A new queen bee is raised from a fertilized egg. They are grown in what are called queen cells. They start out looking like upside-down teacups, but they are called queen cells once they are “charged” with an egg. Ideally, if the bees have planned a new queen from the beginning, they will begin growing a queen from an egg and feed the larva an exclusive diet of royal jelly. In the case of an emergency where a honeybee queen unexpectedly dies or goes missing, the nurse bees may switch a young larva’s diet to royal jelly. This can result in a smaller queen cell and sometimes a smaller queen!
Ideally, a new queen larva will be fed royal jelly for the entirety of her development. The nurse bees continue to feed and rapidly develop a healthy queen bee. As the queen larva grows, the vertical queen cell will grow longer.
In about eight to nine days, the larva is ready to transition into the pupal stage. The nurse bees will seal the queen cup with a layer of wax. This is a capped queen cell where the queen will finish her final stages of development. Capped cells look like a cocoon on the frame. She will develop her wings, legs, and eyes in this final stage. When you see a capped cell, you know that it will not be long before the new queen emerges. It takes a total of 16 days to grow a new queen.
The Queen Emerges
Finally, the new virgin queen will chew her way out of the queen cell. It will be another five to six days before the newly hatched queen is ready to go on her nuptial flight. If there are multiple virgin queens, then they could fight for dominance – or – they might choose to leave. A virgin queen and a small retinue of worker bees that favor her could swarm and leave the hive. This could lead to several small swarms that leave a hive. This is why I try to only leave two to three queen cells in a colony to prevent small swarms.
The old queen may still be in the hive, as well. This could eventually lead to having more than one mated queen in the colony if they do not dispatch the original queen. Don’t let this stress you out; the bees know what they are doing.
Once the virgin queen is ready, she will leave the hive for her mating flights. She can travel more than a mile away from the hive in search of drones who are not from her own hive. Virgin queen bees will mate with multiple drones to ensure a diverse genetic pool for the colony. This is why your bees may look a little different even if they are all in the same colony.
After a successful mating flight, a queen should have enough sperm to ensure several successful egg-laying years. Queen bees store the collected sperm in an organ called the spermatheca. She could have up to five or six million sperm stored in the spermatheca! More sperm can be stored in her oviducts. This is what gives the queens the ability to fertilize eggs for several years.
After mating and returning to the hive, the queen will still take another one to three days before she begins laying eggs. Now she would be content to stay in the colony to lay eggs for the rest of her life. She will only ever leave if the colony runs out of space, and then they may swarm to a new location while allowing the old hive to raise a new queen.
A queen bee lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The type of egg she lays depends on the cell size. Fertilized eggs will grow into worker bees while unfertilized eggs produce male drones. The large majority of cells will be worker cells. The worker honey bees, who make up the large majority of the colony, are infertile female bees that take on all of the tasks within the hive. The worker bees will forage for food, care for the brood, and they also guard and protect the hive.
In order for a queen to lay an unfertilized egg to produce a male drone bee, she needs a larger and deeper cell, or drone cells, to lay drone eggs. Because the cell is larger, when the queen lays, the egg does not come into contact with the spermetheca to be fertilized. Drone brood looks very different from worker brood. While capped worker brood looks flat, drone brood is bumpy-looking like popcorn.
Drone bees are the male bees in a honey bee colony. They only have one purpose: to mate with a queen bee from a different colony to ensure the continuation of the colony. Drones do not have a stinger, so they cannot defend a hive. When you see someone throw a bee into their mouth, it is likely a drone because he cannot sting. My children like to grab and hold the drones for fun.
Communication and Pheromones
A queen bee’s pheromones also play a crucial role in the colony. It reassures the workers that their queen is alive and well. It helps maintain the cohesion within the colony. Without the pheromone, a worker bee may begin to lay eggs because they sense that they are missing their vital queen. Since a worker bee is unfertilized, she can only lay drone eggs. This is a colony’s way of ensuring their survival as they will be able to send out drones to mate with other queens to carry on their genetics.
Fascinating Facts about Queen Bees
Longevity and Lifespan
Worker bees have a lifespan of only five to six weeks while a queen bee can live for up to five years! This incredible egg-laying ability helps ensure the survival of the colony.
Some beekeepers will choose to replace their queens every year. This can be especially true for commercial beekeepers so that their queens do not experience a reduction in egg laying. They need to produce a lot of bees to ensure plenty of workers for resources and honey making.
At our honeybee obsessed apiary, we do like to let the queens live out their lives. It’s an experiment to see how they do over time. We’ve had queens who were very productive for a long time! One of our very first queens lived to be about four or five years old, and she produced a lot of splits and new colonies over the years!
The Queen Bee’s Stinger
Worker bees have a barbed stinger, which is why they can only sting once. The stinger can remain behind, and the bee will rip out their abdomen when they try to pull away from the stinger. Queen bees, however, have smooth stingers, which allow them to sting repeatedly. Queen honey bees typically only use their stingers against other queen bees. They are not known to use it to defend themselves, such as stinging humans. They have a retinue of worker bees to protect them. Remember, the queen’s only job is to lay eggs!
Queen Bees Fight for Dominance
When multiple queens emerge in the same hive, it could lead to a fight for dominance. Unfortunately, if the victorious queen is injured in the fights, then there is the potential that she is unable to leave for her mating flight. If a queen is unable to successfully mate, she will become a drone-laying queen. We once realized that we had a virgin queen who could not go out on her mating flight because she was missing her right hind wing. Unfortunately, she could only become a drone laying queen, which meant she had to be replaced.
Long Live the Queen!
Queen bees are fascinating creatures. They are shy by nature, which can make it a challenge to find them. Most queens are busy marching along the frames to lay eggs to support strong, healthy colonies. If you take a closer look, you will find queens also have their own, fun personalities! We have our special lazy queen! We also had a young queen who was newly mated who waggled her abdomen after every egg she laid! It was fun to watch. Unfortunately, she only did this the first time we spotted her. She was just showing off her proud new egg laying abilities!
Whether you’re a beekeeper or a bee watcher, the queens are a very special part of the colony. We’re always excited when we spot the queen, even after growing our apiary to over 50 hives! I hope that either way, you get to enjoy these special creatures. If you want to spend more time just watching and listening to the girls, try out our YouTube channel!
Thank you and enjoy your apiary!