Biology of Queen Bees

Biology of Queen Bees,
By Bill Hesbach

In today’s world, there’s no question that the queen bee is, in fact, female but oddly enough, honey bee queens were formerly known as “kings” bees until the 1660’s when a Dutch scientist, Jan Swammerdam, dissected the King bee and discovered ovaries. Since that enlightening event, the queen is often discussed as the single reproductive female in the colony because the specializes in egg laying, while the remaining female “worker” perform all other colony duties. But the royal implications of her title couldn’t be farther from the truth. The queen bee in a colony is more like an indentured servant, laboring tirelessly every day.

The amazing part about the biology of the queen is that she starts life from a fertilized egg just like any other female bee. The process by which she is then transformed into a queen is based on how she is fed. A queen larva is fed a special food which consists of fats and proteins secreted from glands located in the heads of nurse bees. The mixture, referred to as royal jelly, has more carbohydrate, and different vitamins than the food fed to worker larvae.

Queen larvae are fed lavishly, and float in a pool of creamy white jelly, from which they feed and develop their reproductive organs, elongate their bodies and emerge as fully developed virgin queens. Even after a queen emerges she’s fed royal jelly and is continually fed royal jelly for her entire life.

When a colony is raising a new queen, they normally develop more than one. The first queen to emerge will sometimes kill all the rest while they are still in their cells. But sometimes two or more queens emerge at the same time, and in that case, they engage in a royal battle until one is the victory. In any case, the  colony ends up with one virgin queen that will then mature and mate. Queens emerge as adults 16 days after their egg is laid and are usually ready to begin their mating flight by day 20. Before a queen ventures out to mate, she’ll first take orientation flights around the hive location to ensure her safe return, and then choose a nice sunny day to leave the colony and find a drone congregation area (DCA) to mate. a DCA is a location where drones from many different colonies gather to colonies gather to wait for virgin queens. Most apiaries form DCAs, but a virgin queen will fly away from her own apiary’s DCA, which helps ensure some genetic diversity.

Once at the DCA, the mating pursuit begins, and the queen will mate with an average fo 12-15 drones and can collect up to 5 million sperm, which she stores in a special organ called a spermatheca. Her spermatheca will nourish the sperm and keep them healthy for her entire productive life. After mating, she returns to her original colony and begins the task of laying eggs. A properly mated queen can lay between 1000 and sometimes 2000 eggs every day. Before she lays in a cell, she uses her front legs to determine the cell’s size, if she’s measuring a worker cell, she lays an egg and uses some of her stored sperm to fertilize the egg, which produces a female bee, If she’s positioned over a male drone cell, which is larger, she doesn’t fertilize the egg. She continues to lay eggs, and if she remains healthy, the colony grows and everything fine

During the process of laying eggs, and for her entire life, nurse bees are meeting her every need. They surround the queen and feed her, clean away her waste and sample her odors for pheromone. The bees attending the queen will spread her pheromone to every corner of the colony so, at all times, the entire colony is assured that the queen is stable and functioning. Should anything happen to the queen’s pheromones it’s usually an indication that she queen is failing and the process of replacing her will begin almost immediately. The job as beekeepers is to observe the queens, or at least their work, and learn how to evaluate her health and productivity.

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