What Is A Queen Bee’s Role In The Hive? A Beginner’s Guide To Queen Bees

Queen bee's role in a hive

Updated on March 19th, 2022

Honey bees are known for their complex social structure. They live in colonies, where individual bees have specific roles but work together as a superorganism. Unlike other bees that share responsibilities, the queen bee stands alone in her position in the hive.

A queen bee’s role in the hive stems from being the colony’s only fertilized female. Her primary roles are egg-laying for population growth and the production of pheromones to guide colony behaviors. Though she does not rule the hive, a healthy queen bee is critical to the hive’s survival and productivity.

Determining if your queen is healthy, and knowing what to do if she isn’t, are important beekeeping tasks. The queen’s condition significantly impacts the health and productivity of the entire colony. 

This article is a beginner’s guide to understanding how a queen’s role in the hive, how a queen develops, assessing the health of your queen, and more.

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What Is A Queen Bee’s Role In The Hive? A Beginner’s Guide To Queen Bees

A Queen Bee’s Role In The Hive

As the only fertilized bee in a hive, the queen bee has two functions, which other bees cannot fulfill: egg-laying to expand the colony’s population when needed and production of pheromones (chemical substances) that affect the behavior of the other bees.

Unlike other females in the colony, the queen bee does not perform worker bee duties such as guarding the hive, nursing brood, foraging, or converting nectar to honey. However, her role is highly critical.

What happens if the queen dies? A hive without a queen, and limited means to create a new one, will not survive for long. See our article Is Your Hive Queenless? Or Queeright? for information on how to check and manage the queen status of your colonies.

Egg Laying (A Queen’s Role In Population Control)

Queen bees can live longer than any other bee in the colony – as long as 7 years. However, her egg production peaks during the first three years of her life.

Despite her potentially long life span, the beekeepers or the colony may replace the queen to maintain peak health and productivity in the hive.

According to estimates, a healthy, mated, young queen bee lays between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs per day during the peak spring season.[1] [2] The queen changes her egg-laying activity based on the seasons and conditions in the hive.

For example, she may slow down during a nectar dearth when the food sources are limited and reduce production in the fall to prepare for winter. Likewise, a queen may stop laying completely in cold winters weather.

Between periods of laying eggs, the queen rests, and as many as a dozen worker bees attend to her needs. This “retinue” of workers grooms the queen, feeds her and removes her waste. (It’s good to be queen sometimes.)

While caring for the queen, workers contact the queen and pick up her pheromones. These bees then transmit the queen’s pheromones to other workers.

A honey bee colony builds cells of different sizes to receive the queen’s eggs. Larger cells are designed to hold the bigger male drones. By controlling cell sizes, the colony influences the sexual makeup of the colony.

However, the queen also influences the colony’s makeup of female and male bees by deciding which eggs to fertilize.

Fertilizing an egg with sperm produces a female worker bee; an unfertilized egg becomes a male drone bee. Exercising this control, the queen may seek out specific size cells to “tip the gender balance of the hive.” [3]

As the sole egg-laying bee, the queen eventually becomes the mother of the entire colony as bees she inherited have a shorter life span and will die off.

The Role Of Queen Bee Pheromones (Or Queen Substance)

 “[H]oney bee pheromones represent one of the most advanced ways of communication among social insects. Pheromones are chemical substances secreted …that elicit a behavioral or physiological response by another animal of the same species.”[4]

A queen bee’s pheromones are the primary influence over colony behaviors such as:

  • Attracting drones for mating,
  • Preventing the development of replacement queens (self-preservation?),
  • Signaling workers to attend to her needs,
  • Keeping swarms together, and
  • Stimulating other functions such as building comb, foraging, guarding, and cleaning.
Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes
Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes

How Is A Queen Bee Made?

A queen bee starts out as a fertilized egg like any other female worker bee. After three days, an egg hatches, becoming a larva, the next phase in a honey bee’s life cycle.

Any larva from a fertilized egg can become a queen. Workers build “queen cups” where the queen can deposit a fertilized egg.

Unlike regular brood cells, a queen cup hangs on the side of the comb with a downward-facing opening. The cup is elongated to accommodate the larger queen larva if the bees begin to raise a queen.

A queen cup with an egg is called a “queen cell,” even though a queen may not be produced.

A Royal Jelly Diet For Queens

The difference between a queen bee and a worker bee results from the diet fed to the larva.

All larvae receive royal jelly for about three days after hatching. Royal jelly is a high-protein, milky white bee secretion.

 After the first three days, the diet of workers and drones is changed from royal jelly to beebread, a mixture of pollen, nectar, and honey. However, queens receive royal jelly during the entire larval stage.

In the final days of the larval stage, the sugar content of the queen’s diet increases with the addition of honey plus high levels of a hormone called juvenile hormone (“JH”). JH causes the “female larvae to differentiate into a queen.”[5]

JH induces “proteins and enzymes specific to queens, which affect the developing tissue and thus produce a queen.”[6]

Open brood and eggs
Grublike larvae are seen on the left in pools of creamy white royal jelly.
Waugsberg (talk · contribs) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

That change in diet is how a bee becomes a queen bee. Queen bees fully develop in about 16 days.

When she emerges as an adult, she is a “virgin queen.”

What Is A Virgin Queen Bee?

An unmated, new queen is a virgin queen. Not having mated, her reproductive system is still undeveloped. After mating, she increases in size as her ovaries develop.

A virgin queen roams the hive upon emerging, eating, and building her strength. But her primary goal is seeking out other virgins to fight for dominance.

Virgin queens (even in the queen cells) make a quacking or tooting sound called piping that is generally considered a call to battle for other virgins.

The surviving virgin queen will have killed off her rivals and any queens yet to emerge, in addition to destroying queen cells.

After several days of orientation flights, the virgin queen is ready to mate.

What Is A Mated Queen Bee?

About a week after emerging, a surviving virgin queen is ready for a mating flight when conditions are favorable. She will find partners in a drone congregation area (“DCA”)

Bees mate in midair. Thus, DCA’s are specific spaces about 15 to 125 feet (5 to 38 meters) above ground where sexually mature drones gather.

Drones spread out to different DCAs not far from their hive. Only a few of these drones will have the opportunity to mate.

Queens fly further from home where they can mate with drones from other colonies, minimizing the chance for inbreeding.

How Many Bees Does A Queen Bee Mate With?

Over several days, the queen mates with 10 – 20 drones drawn to her by unique sexual attractant pheromones and visual contact. After mating, the drone dies as his abdomen ruptures while separating from the queen.

The mated queen returns to the hive with enough sperm to fertilize eggs for years. After that, she will not mate again and only leaves the hive if swarming to a new location.

Within several days of returning to the hive from mating, a queen will begin laying eggs to build the colony’s next generation.

When Do Bees Make New Queens? (Queen Replacement)

Honey bee colonies decide to make a new queen in three circumstances:

  1. Swarm preparation,
  2. Replacing an ailing queen, or
  3. Replacing a missing/dead queen.

Replacing a queen is a process called “supersedure.”

Swam Preparation

Honey bees swarm to expand their population, particularly if their nest has little room for expansion. When they swarm, about half the colony leaves with the queen to start a new colony.

In preparation for the queen swarming, the bees build queen cups mostly on the bottoms of frames. These queen cups are referred to as “swarm cells.”

These swarm cells, if left intact, will produce a queen that will inherit the colony and brood left behind by the swarm.

Replacing Ailing Queens

An ailing, failing queen is evident to the colony by her diminished pheromone production.

The colony dispatches the queen by forming a tight ball around her to die from overheating. This activity is called “balling” (of course).

From the queen cells selected by the colony, a new queen will take over.

Supersedure queen cell on the side of a frame.

Replacing A Missing Or Dead Queen

As with an ailing queen, the colony recognizes the queen is absent by the lack of pheromones.

A queen can go missing or die for various reasons, including a beekeeper’s error. However, as long as the colony has enough resources (recent fertilized egg or larvae from one), the bees can begin making a new queen.

Beekeepers need to recognize when a queen is missing and whether the colony can handle the loss without intervention.

What Does A Queen Bee Look Like?

A mated queen is the largest bee in the hive. However, her shape and coloring help her stand out among the other bees.

She has a long, slender abdomen that is uniform in color and lacks the colored bands you will see on other bees. Her wings are not large enough to cover her abdomen.

Quick View of the Queen

Will A Queen Bee Sting You?

Queen bees have smooth stingers. Without the barbed end of a worker’s stinger, a queen can sting multiple times without dying.

However, queens seldom sting people. Instead, the queen’s stinger is her weapon when battling other queens for dominance of the hive.

Does The Queen Rule The Hive?

It is a common misconception that a queen bee rules the hive. Although she plays a prominent role in determining what the bees do, the thousands of bees divide up responsibilities and collectively make many decisions.

Honey bee colonies are often called “superorganisms.” A superorganism is a social unit where individuals who cannot survive on their own divide up labor for the benefit of all.[7]

For an interesting read on how honey bees collectively select a new home when swarming, check out Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley, available here on Amazon.

Your First Queen Bee

You will most likely buy your first queen as part of a nuc or bee package when you begin beekeeping. Then, you get a mated queen ready to start laying eggs in either case.

In a nuc, the queen was accepted by the colony. She will already be laying eggs in the included drawn comb.

A bee package includes a caged, mated queen and some attendants. The bees and the queen are unrelated. If not for the cage, the bees would ball her.

Three hole queen cage
Three hole queen cage; candy filling in the right hand hole

When you install the package in a hive, the queen remains caged for several days while the bees adapt to her pheromones, accept her, and release her from the cage.

Since the package queen is mated, she is ready to begin egg-laying immediately after release if comb cells are available.

Conclusion

Although she does not rule the hive alone, she is critical to the survival of a honey bee colony by laying eggs and guiding other bees with her pheromones.

With a healthy, productive queen, the colony functions as a cohesive unit for its own benefit and the continuation of the species.

As a beekeeper, monitoring the health of your queens is one of your most essential tasks.

This article is part of our beginner’s guide to the honey bee. See our related articles about worker bees and drone bees.

 Additional Reading

 In Hive or Castle, Duty Without Power by Natalie Angier in The New York Times.

 A Closer Look: Piping, Tooting, Quacking by Clarence Collison in Bee Culture magazine.


[1] Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Dewey M. Caron with Lawrence John Connor published by Wicwass Press, LLC – October 2018 – Chapter 9

[2] An Introduction to Queen Honey Bee Developmentby Kate Anton and Christina Grozinger, PH.D. – PennState Extension

[3] Queen Bees Control Sex of Young After AllScience.org

[4] Bortolotti L, Costa C. Chemical Communication in the Honey Bee Society. In: Mucignat-Caretta C, editor. Neurobiology of Chemical Communication. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2014. Chapter 5. 

[5] Elekonich MM, Jez K, Ross AJ, Robinson GE. Larval juvenile hormone treatment affects pre-adult development, but not adult age at onset of foraging in worker honey bees (Apis mellifera). J Insect Physiol. 2003 Apr;49(4):359-66. doi: 10.1016/s0022-1910(03)00020-9. PMID: 12769989.

[6] The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition by Diana Sammatro and Alphonse Avitabile, Chapter 1 – Understanding Bees.

[7] Superorganism – Wikipedia

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