Bee Basics – the Queen Bee

The queen bee has three duties:

  1. To get herself mated;
  2. To lay eggs;
  3. To provide social cohesion or stability via the production of pheromones.

Mating

The queen mates when she is between 10 and 21 days old. From the time she matures at about 4 days old, the virgin queen endures increasingly aggressive behaviour from the workers, who may even physically eject her from the hive if she shows no inclination to go out and find a mate. This seems harsh but there is a good reason – after 21 days she is incapable of mating properly and the colony is doomed.

She mates on the wing. Once outside the hive, she flies up to the drone-layer which is the name given to the area of the sky where the drones congregate about 30-90ft above ground level. The drones are attracted to her by a pheromone, or chemical messenger (9 oxydecenoic acid). The first drone to reach her is stimulated to mate with her by another pheromone – composition unknown. She mates with up to 15 drones during 1, 2 or even 3 mating flights or until the little vessel in which she stores sperm, the spermatheca, is full.  Each successful mating results in the death of the poor drone.

Egg-laying

The queen begins egg-laying within two to three days of mating and continues apart from a brief winter rest, for the rest of her life – 2-3 years. In the early spring she will lay just a few eggs per day but in the height of summer this may rise to as many as 3,000 per day. This is more than her own weight so consequently her food needs are correspondingly large and are supplied to her by her retinue.

She produces two sorts of egg, fertilised and unfertilised. Fertilised eggs become workers and unfertilised eggs become drones. Worker eggs are laid in worker cells and drone eggs are laid in the larger drone cells. The mechanism by which she decides whether or not to fertilise the egg with a little squirt of the stored sperm is unknown but it is thought that she can gauge the size of the cell with her forelegs and acts accordingly. When new queens are required especially large cells are made by the workers and she lays fertilised eggs into them.

Apart from periods of winter quiescence, she will continue to lay until the end of her life. The sperm stored in the spermatheca must last for all of this time because she will not mate again. However, if she could not find sufficient fertile drones or if the drones she did find were firing blanks due to the ravages of Varroa or pesticide build-up her spermatheca may run dry in which case she will be able to lay only unfertilised eggs producing drones regardless of which sort of cell she lays in. If this happens, the queen is known as a drone-layer and the colony will fail because they need a fertilised egg to make a new queen with.

Phermones and Social Cohesion

The queen bee is the source of many of the pheromones in the colony and it is these that bind the thousands of bees together into a cohesive unit – but not until she has mated. Once mated, she begins to emit a new pheromone, queen substance, which is soon recognised by the aforementioned aggressive workers whose response is a radical attitude change to one of adulation. As she makes her way around the hive the workers she moves towards turn to face her so that she is constantly surrounded by a circle of bees. These bees are known as her retinue. However as she passes on, those in the rear of the retinue are left behind while new bees are recruited from the front so although constantly surrounded, the retinue is ever changing.  Retinue bees alternately lick and feed the queen; the former is important because it is the licking of the queen by her retinue and their subsequent pass-it-on behaviour that distributes queen substance – a sort of social glue – throughout the colony.

When there is not enough social glue to go round – swarming will begin.

Click here for photos of fighting queen bees.

Click here to listen to queen bees piping.

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