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The honeybee queen - there is only one!

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

People are fascinated by honeybees and it's the queen that seems to fascinate the most.

A picture of a queen honeybee on comb - surrounded by worker honeybees
A honeybee queen and her retinue of worker bees

In high summer, there are about 60,000 bees in a honeybee colony. The vast majority of these are worker bees - all female and all sisters. As their name suggests, the workers do all the work inside and outside the hive. There may be about 1,000 drones. These are the males. Their sole aim is to mate with a virgin queen from another hive. Apart from this, they hang about - just waiting for good weather to fly and mate. Amongst all of these bees, there is one other female - the queen. All of the bees in the hive are her sons and daughters.

Being queen sounds glamorous and important - that's part of her fascination. She is the most important bee in the hive but she definitely doesn't have a life of leisure.

Through a trick of evolutionary biology, whilst a worker can produce a male, she can never produce a female. Only a queen can produce the many thousands of female workers the hive needs to function. Just as importantly, only a queen can produce a future queen. So, a colony without a queen is doomed.

Honeybees have a clear division of labour - the workers work and the queen lays eggs. During spring and summer, a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. She is built for this purpose. Her abdomen is much longer than a worker female and is full of egg-making machinery. A small group of worker bees (her retinue) feed her and clean her - making sure that she has all she needs to keep laying eggs.

The queen secretes a range of chemicals (pheromones). The process of cleaning and feeding her distributes her pheromones around the colony. They subtly control the colony's behaviour. They promote some activities (brood rearing, foraging and comb building) and prevent others (her daughter workers laying eggs).

If the queen's pheromone drops too low - perhaps the queen gets older or the hive grows so large that her pheromone doesn't reach all the bees - the controlling effects of her pheromone are reduced. This affects the workers and they begin to raise a new queen from one of the queen's eggs. If the queen is getting old, they will raise a new queen as her replacement. Once the new queen emerges, the old queen won't be fed by her workers and will slowly fade away - making way for her daughter. In the other scenario, if there are lots of bees, the colony will prepare to swarm - they will raise a new queen. She will inherit the hive whilst the old queen flies away with over half the bees (each full up with honey) to start a new colony.

So, the queen is not quite the supreme ruler you might imagine. She is certainly the most important bee in the colony but in some ways, she is also the colony's servant.

If you'd like to know more about the queen bee and the amazing social life of honeybees, check out The Buzz about Bees by Jurgen Tautz.

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