The Honeybee Queen

A smoky frame. Left to right: worker-sized cells, peanut-shaped queen cell not yet capped, droned-sized cells. (Photo by Steve Kennedy)

The honeybee is an amazingly popular topic of conversation among the general public these days—even starring on the cover of Time magazine in 2013. No one is more acutely aware of this than beekeepers like myself. In any given audience, all I have to do is mention I’m a beekeeper, and I’m pretty much guaranteed to launch into at least a 10-minute conversation about honeybees.

“Do you make your own honey?”

“How do bees live through the winter?”

“Is it possible to handle bees without smoke?”

These are just a few of the questions the public is fascinated, even mesmerized, to learn more about. And then, of course, there’s always this request:

“Tell me about the Queen!”

Okay, since you asked (wink, wink).

It’s common knowledge that a honeybee colony is made up of mostly worker bees (the girls), maybe 5–15 percent drones (the boys, only present during the warm season), and a single queen.

A queen starts as a female egg, which, to humans, seems indistinguishable from every other female egg. On the third day, when the egg hatches, the nurse bees begin to feed the larva royal jelly. In fact, every honeybee larva—male and female, worker and queen—is fed this same royal jelly diet on days four, five, and six. But on day seven, an important change takes place. If the egg is destined to become a worker, the diet changes from royal jelly to a mixture of bee bread and honey. If the egg is destined to become a queen, the royal jelly feedings continue for days seven, eight, and nine. It’s during this time that the queen is distinguished from a worker.

The queen larva is raised in a wax comb cell that’s much larger than a worker cell, about the shape and size of a small peanut. On the ninth day, the queen cell is capped. At this point the larva is completely enclosed in the cell. It then begins the process of spinning a cocoon and transforming into a queen pupa.

By day 16, the pupa has completed the transformation and is ready to emerge as a new virgin queen.

Now that the new queen is free from her enclosure, she begins searching the combs for other competitor queens, her sisters. When she finds them not fully developed and still enclosed in their cell, she stings and kills them right there. When she finds them emerged and walking around on the comb, a fight to the death is imminent. The survivor will then assume the queen’s duties.

Think of the virgin queen as an adolescent at this stage. She needs to mature for about one week before she’s ready to fly—and then it’s time for mating. The queen has about two weeks to complete her mating flights. Within that time she needs about four sunny, warm days without a lot of wind. On such a day, she will find a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) about 60 feet in the air. This is where the drones wait for their chance to pass on their genes to the next generation. Before she’s finished, the queen will mate with 10 to 20 drones. The phallus is torn away from the drone’s body upon mating with the queen, and this usually falls away later in her flight. Sometimes, however, it remains lodged in her body, and she must fly home to get help from the workers to remove it before she can fly again.

The queen’s short period of mating prepares her for laying for her entire life. As C.P. Dadant notes in First Lessons in Beekeeping, first published in 1934,  there is no “next mating period” for honeybee queens; they lose their desire to mate after the first three weeks of life.

After her mating flights are complete, the queen is ready to begin laying. Though queens sometimes delay for a few days, they must begin fairly soon to keep the colony—a superorganism—alive and healthy. Once she does begin, she won’t fly again. She will gain weight, and her abdomen will become extended and fat. These are the visual signs of a healthy queen. According to Dadant, a prolific queen is capable of laying as many as 3,000 eggs in a single day. She lays regularly from February to October, depending on the climate. Her laying will be more copious when food (nectar and pollen) is plentiful.

Although her name implies royalty, a queen’s condition is closer to that of a serf. She’s not the boss of anything. She is, in fact, completely subject to the will of the hive mind. The workers tell her when and where to lay eggs, and feed her and remove her waste. They also know how to replace the queen, if necessary. They monitor her performance and will eliminate her if she fails. She never leaves the hive. Eating and laying eggs are her main functions in life. The pampering and relatively light workload may lead to a potentially multiyear lifespan (much longer than workers and drones), but a longer life as a slave is still a slave’s life.

There may be one exception to “she never leaves the hive,” and that is if the hive mind chooses to swarm. The word swarm frequently invokes the idea of fear in our society. This is sad in the case of honeybees because nothing could be further from truth. A honeybee swarm is the birth of a new colony. They are not angry, they simply seek a new home. In fact, this is their most docile state. A honeybee’s instinct to sting is all about defending their home. During the swarm event, they have no home to defend. Therefore, they are very unlikely to sting. Unlikely doesn’t mean “they will not sting,” but fear about stinging with respect to swarms is mostly unfounded.

As the bees prepare to swarm, the queen is forcibly run around and around the frames to make her lose weight. Workers also withhold food until the queen achieves the desired weight. This is all to prepare her to fly, which she has not done since her mating flights.

When swarming day comes, it’s the old queen that gets “the boot.” She will fly with a large portion of the bees in the colony, perhaps 50 percent. Her companions will be mostly young worker bees. Young bees have wax glands ready to create new wax comb, which is the first order of business when they arrive at their new home.

They leave behind new queens developing in capped queen cells. Frequently, the swarm launches on the day new queen cells are capped.

And so begins the cycle again. The new queen, when she emerges, inherits the old hive previously occupied by her mother.

Now that you know about honeybee queens, maybe it’s time to learn about drones and workers. Maybe you’re inspired to learn more. Maybe you’re now on your way to becoming a beekeeper. It could happen—maybe even today.


Don Studinski

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado’s first Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) apiaries: LSI in Golden and Cottonwood Farm in Boulder. As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States, teaches classes and performs public speaking events. He authored Beekeeping Mentor in a Book and writes extensively about beekeeping on his own website and for a variety of others, including Bee Culture magazine, Peak Prosperity and Honeybee Haven.

Related Topics

backyard farming | honeybee health | sustainable agriculture

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