You’re probably familiar with the concept of a queen bee: the main she-bee in charge of making baby bees.
You might imagine her more plump than the average bee. A touch snobbier maybe. With, of course, a no-nonsense security entourage.
But have you ever gotten the whole story of why the queen bee is one of nature’s most revered rulers?
Let’s just say that if you ever meet a queen, you may want to take a knee. We’re about to spill the tea about the epic life of a queen bee.
Here are 10 things that might surprise you about queen honey bees:
1. Worker Bees Nurture and Rear Their Queens
Ever wondered how the queen bee becomes queen? Or what happens if the queen is taken out of the picture? Do the worker bees dig up their resumes and start applying to work elsewhere?
When the hive is missing a queen, they raise a new one.
Turns out, all female bee larvae have the potential to become queens. What determines a larva’s destiny is what the bees feed her as she’s developing.
To make a queen bee, “nurse bees” (we know, so cute) choose a larva and feed her exclusively royal jelly, a milky white, nutrient-rich secretion—basically the equivalent of bee breast milk.
Then bippity boppity bee! The royal jelly triggers physiological changes that transform the larva into a queen bee.
2. Queen Bees Aren’t a Little Bigger.
You might think that finding a queen bee in a hive would be a lot like finding a needle in a haystack. But you can spot the queen with your naked eye.
The queen bee is about 2-3x bigger than the average worker bee.
Well for one thing, she’s the only bee with a fully developed and functioning reproductive system. Aside from the all-important task of allowing her to lay eggs, that reproductive system is also responsible for producing powerful pheromones that determine the movement of the entire hive.
For another, after the queen mates the first time, she stores inside her all the sperm she will ever need to lay eggs for the rest of her life. That’s going to take up some space.
3. Queenly Pheromone Powers
We use the moniker “queen bee” to denote a regal, commanding, feminine attitude. (Bee-yoncé comes to mind.) And it’s spot on.
A queen bee can dictate all activity in the hive with her pheromones alone. No memos. No secretaries. No chain of command. It’s every bee for the queen.
Bees have thousands of sensitive receptors on their antennae that can pick up the slightest change in the queen’s… well, mood.
At any given moment, each bee in the hive knows the state of health, reproductive status, and overall disposition of the queen.
One of the key pheromones she produces is called "queen mandibular pheromone," which can even suppress the development of worker bees' ovaries, keeping her ladies infertile and compliant.
4. The Queen Bee Super Diet
The queen is a busy lady, laying eggs all day. So it’s her attendants’ job to make sure she’s fed.
While a worker bee’s diet usually consists of pollen, nectar and honey, the queen will eat royal jelly exclusively her whole life.
Royal jelly is nutrient dense and contains essential proteins, sugars, lipids, vitamins, and minerals. The queen needs this special cocktail in order to continue producing healthy offspring.
Royal jelly also contributes to the queen bee's longevity. It has substances that may have antioxidant and immune-boosting properties, extending her lifespan and enhancing her health and vigor.
And the best part? Royal jelly has benefits for humans too! This complex natural mixture can give you a potential immune and metabolic boost. You can take royal jelly soft gels like you would a daily vitamin.
5. Queen Bees Can Choose the Gender of Their Offspring.
Did you know that 85% of bees (and all worker bees) are female? It’s not by accident.
The queen bee has mind-blowing control over her egg-laying abilities. With her stored-up sperm, she can selectively fertilize eggs and determine whether they will develop into female worker bees or unfertilized eggs that become male drones.
How is this possible? Partially because bees have a genetic system called haplodiploidy.
Female bees develop from fertilized eggs and inherit genetic material from both their mother and father. Male bees, or drones, develop from unfertilized eggs and have genetic material from only their mother.
Because the queen handles all reproduction, male bees are only produced to mate with queens from other hives.
6. Multiple Mates
Once a queen has reached full maturity, job number one is to mate. She has to travel outside the hive to do this. When a queen goes out to “get the goods,” it’s called her nuptial flight.
While with most of the animal kingdom, it’s the male of the species who gets around and mates with multiple females, bees are the opposite.
During her nuptial flight, a queen bee may mate with 10 to 20 drones or even more.
She finds them at drone congregation areas—specific locations where drones from different colonies hang out in large numbers to potentially mate with a queen.
This takes care of genetic diversity within the colony and increases her children's chances of survival.
7. Queen Bee Marathon Flights
While worker bees can only fly short distances, queen bees are known for their exceptional flight capabilities.
This is due, in part, to their superior diet, size, and longevity.
During nuptial flights, a queen can soar up to several miles in search of mating partners.
Once she arrives at a drone congregation area, there is no time to rest. She has to take care of business 10-20 times mid-air, displaying impressive agility and endurance, and then return to the hive.
8. The “Dancing Queen” Bee
Sometimes commands need to be more explicit than a simple pheromone-broadcast status update.
In those cases, queen bees can communicate with worker bees through a "bee dance" called "piping."
Piping involves the queen buzzing her wings to produce distinctive sounds that convey messages to the workers, such as asserting her presence or signaling readiness to mate.
9. Virgin Queen Battles
It’s rare, but it happens: a hive will sometimes produce more than one queen. If more than one virgin queen emerges in the hive, the two may engage in a fierce battle to establish dominance.
This is more common in hives that are being manipulated by a bee keeper to produce multiple queens.
These battles between virgin queens get pretty brutal. Each queen will use tactics like stinging and grappling as they fight to eliminate the other.
10. Queen Bee Succession
So far, we’ve worked up the queen to be pretty bad-A. But the queen bee is not an invincible ruler. Her reign is conditional on her ability to fulfill her queenly duties.
If the colony deems the current queen unfit or if her egg-laying slows down, the worker bees can initiate supersedure—choosing and raising a new queen.
Once the new queen emerges and matures, she takes over the role while the old queen's reign comes to an end.
The old queen sometimes has the option to leave the hive, even taking with her part of the original hive to start a colony somewhere else.
All Hail the Queen Bee
If somebody calls you a “Queen Bee” it’s a serious compliment.
Bees are responsible for ⅔ of the food we (and all other animals) eat. And it’s the queen bees running the show, birthing thousands of little pollinators every day and keeping the food chain on lock.
If you want to pay your respects, plant a bee-friendly flowering plant in your yard or call an actual bee-keeper to safely remove beehives from decks or trees.
Or support these pollinator powerhouses and keep the buzz alive by sharing this post!