Queen Substance

Whereas Royal Jelly is what makes a queen bee, queen substance is what makes a queen bee a queen bee!

Queen substance is a pheromone with powerful effects. It consists mainly of the chemicals 9 oxydecenoic acid and 9 hydroxydecenoic acid and is licked from the queen by her retinue of workers who then pass it on through all the bees in the hive.

So long as worker bees get a certain amount of queen substance per day, it has a calming effect and the hive hums along in a sort of stable frenzy.

Another of the actions of queen substance is to inhibit the building of queen cells by workers. If the daily dosage goes below a certain level the workers become agitated and the building of queen cells may commence. There are two main reasons why the daily dosage of queen substance may go down:

  1.   As the queen ages the amount of queen substance she can produce will begin to ebb;
  2.   If the colony becomes very large there may not be enough queen substance to go round.

If the case is as in 1, then the aim will be supersedure (or queen replacement). If on the other hand it is as in 2 then the aim will be swarming (colony reproduction).

Queen cells are large, downward pointing, cup-shaped cells. In the case of supersedure one or a few will be produced and they will tend to be situated in the middle of the frames. If the bees are swarming there will be many and they will tend to be built at the bottom or sides or along the tops of frames. The queen lays fertilised eggs into these cells.

One of the ingredients of queen substance – 9 oxydecenoic acid plays a role in queen mating by attracting a crowd of eager drones. It is also the substance that holds a swarm together – it tells the bees ‘Mother is here’. Otherwise they all go home.

Regarding queen substance, it should be stressed that while she is the source of it, the queen has as little control over its production as we do over hair growth. While the workers’ reactions to it suggest subservience, their reactions to a lack of it show where the power truly lies. As such, the queen’s control is possible only so long as she continues to serve the colony. This makes the honeybee colony something of a democracy as defined by Chambers: “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people collectively, and is administered by them or by the officers appointed by them”. Communist literature cites the honeybee colony as the near perfect Workers’ Republic.

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