Honey queen bee life cycle

A healthy and disease-free queen honey bee, well-received by the colony, typically lives for about 2 years, but she could extend her lifespan to 3 or 4 years, or even longer. The queen’s longevity is influenced by factors such as the beekeeper’s decisions or the colony’s choice to replace her. The colony’s act of dethroning the queen is known as “supersedure.”

In a colony of 50,000 bees, there is usually one queen, around 300 drones (males), and the majority are female worker honey bees. Although larger than workers, queens are challenging to spot amidst the multitude of bees, prompting beekeepers to mark them with special bee paint.

If a queen is removed, the entire colony rapidly becomes aware and initiates the creation of a replacement within 15 minutes. A productive queen can lay an impressive 2000 to 3000 eggs per day, surpassing her own body weight in eggs. If a queen underperforms, failing to lay sufficient eggs, the colony may opt for supersedure to replace her with a more efficient queen.

How Are Queen Honey Bees Different From Workers?

The honey bee queen, measuring approximately 2 cm, stands out as the largest member of a honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony, doubling the length of a worker, with drones slightly larger than workers. Beyond her substantial size, the queen’s roles diverge significantly from those of other colony members.

The queen honey bee engages in four pivotal activities:

  • Mating with drone bees (males),
  • Producing eggs,
  • Emitting pheromones that shape behavior and communication within the colony
  • Playing a crucial role in the formation of new colonies through swarming.
How Do Honey Bees Become Queens?

The remarkable aspect of the honey bee queen is that, despite her distinction from female workers, she originates from eggs that are identical to those producing workers.

However, the key divergence lies in the exclusive diet of potential queen larvae, who are fed a unique substance known as ‘royal jelly’ throughout their development, from larva to adulthood.

In contrast, adult drones and worker larvae initially receive ‘drone’ or ‘worker’ jelly for 3 – 4 days, after which workers transition to a modified jelly with reduced protein content.

Mating Behaviours:

About a week after a new queen emerges from her cell, she will take several flights in order to mate. She may mate with as many as 20 drones, all while in the air! (The drones, unfortunately, die after mating).

However, when the honey bee queen returns to lay her eggs, she will only rarely leave the colony after that.

Inside her, she will have enough sperm (which she stores in her sperm pouch – or spermatheca), so that she may continue to fertilise her eggs for the rest of her life.

When she returns to the colony from her nuptial flight, and now impregnated, the workers begin fussing over her.

They feed her so that her abdomen swells, and lick her – a process which transfers a chemical (pheromone), used to regulate the colony.

The Queen Pheromone And Communication:

Pheromones play a crucial role in honey bee communication, being produced by both drones and workers, with the queen emitting a unique ‘queen pheromone’. This pheromone prompts workers to care for the queen and brood while inhibiting the development of additional queens.

The efficiency of the queen pheromone is such that, if the queen is removed, the entire colony becomes aware within 15 minutes, instigating urgent efforts to create a replacement.

In large colonies where the queen pheromone is challenging to detect due to distance, the colony may generate a new queen, leading to the formation of a new colony through a process known as ‘bee swarming.’

Although worker bees may temporarily rest with a queen on a tree branch during this period, it is the old queen that seeks a new nest location. Queens, with a longer lifespan than workers and drones, may live up to two to five years, depending on their performance.

If a queen proves less productive, the colony may undergo ‘supersedure,’ replacing the old queen with a new one, a process involving attentive care for the emerging queen and gradual neglect of the old queen.

To aid identification, beekeepers often mark the queen with a distinctive spot using special bee paint. Queens are difficult for beekeepers to identify among the thousands of workers in the hive.

Size of honey bee drone, queen, and worker:
queen honey bees

Continue reading about honey bee cycle, to: Worker and drones