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What Happens When the Queen Bee Dies?

What Happens When the Queen Bee Dies?

Long live the queen.

And queen bees do live long – somewhere between 3 to 5 years (although some estimates stretch it to 9). Compared to the worker bee, which reaches the end of her life cycle somewhere around the 42-day mark, she might as well live for a bee-time eon. But whether it’s by disease, old age, natural disaster, or beekeeper murder (which, under certain circumstances, is recommended), at some point or other, the queen must die.

What then? Do the worker bees riot? Does chaos erupt, and the hive plunge into anarchy? After all, the queen bee is the only bee in the hive fully capable of producing offspring (at the upwards rate of one egg per minute, no less). Though worker bees are physically capable of laying unfertilized eggs (which hatch into male drones by way of parthenogenesis), this rarely occurs.

There are two main reasons.

The Queen's Pheromone

The first is to do with the queen’s particular perfume – the spread of which convinces the colony they are “queenright”. It is a powerful pheromone, with various physiological effects – one of which is to cause the eggs inside of all the other females to wither and die (an example of “programmed cell death”). It’s as though she’s putting all her lower-ranked sisters on the pill just by existing.

Worker Policing

Secondly, even for worker bees who do get the opportunity to lay eggs, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever know motherhood. Only about one in about every thousand drones are the offspring of non-queens, and there are rarely more than a few hundred drones in any hive at one time. It comes down to a behavior known as “worker policing” – also present in other insect species like ants.

For honey bees, policing occurs when worker bees chance upon a batch of non-queen eggs. Able to distinguish them as anomalistic (with entomologists still wondering “how”), the bees will promptly gobble them down. In scientists’ lexicon, this practice is known as “oophagy”.

In order to restore normalcy to the hive, survive the winter and ensure that populations are maintained, a new queen is needed. Fast.

A New Queen

Before she can be appointed though, she must first be made. Bees are alerted to an absent or dying queen by detecting differences in pheromone levels in the hive, and the change will hasten workers to prepare for a replacement successor. A handful of eggs of suitable age are found and encased in “queen cells” – which are large, protruding, downwards-pointing and look rather like peanuts.

These cells are surrounded by a substance called royal jelly, which provides nutrition. Rich and B vitamin-packed, this luxury jam comprises of glandular secretions from the heads of worker bees. While royal jelly is fed to all larvae, it is only royal larvae that are fed nothing else.

Two types of queen cells can be made. If the queen dies gradually (or is recognized to be increasingly infertile), then workers will create “supercedure” queen cells. These are located in the center of frames (distinguishable from “swarm” queen cells, which are typically found at the base). If she dies suddenly and without warning, then “emergency” queen cells are made over the top of existing worker larvae. Beekeepers should check their hives regularly for the presence of queen cells, for it may indicate the health of the queen or that the colony is preparing to swarm.

It is purely the shape of the queen cells (allowing for extra-long abdomens to grow) and a super-nourishing diet which determines the destiny of the larvae. If the eggs had been left to develop in a normal cell, they would have been born, lived and died as humble workers.

Only One Will Survive

Of course, there can only be one queen. In a gestation race, it is typically the first bee to emerge that claims the throne (or more accurately, a long and unrelenting future of being an egg-laying machine). To secure her status, the young queen bee will destroy her competition by stinging all the other developing grubs to death.

After three days of nursing by young worker bees, the virgin queen will be ready for mating. She will launch from the nest followed by a gang of virile drones, and an orgy will take place around 30 feet in the air. About ten males will be selected – lucky in that their DNA will be passed on to future generations, not so lucky in that the sex act rips off their genitals (with sperm still pumping into the queen). Unsurprisingly, these drones do not survive.





When Succession Fails

Succession doesn’t always succeed however. When this happens, the colony is effectively doomed. Although the absence of the “ovary inhibiting” pheromone means worker bees can spring into reproductive capacity, the resultant mass-laying will produce only more drones, since none of the eggs are fertilized. Eventually, with no replacement females in the population, a final batch of male drones will be born, and then every bee will die.

Doom? Yes. Gloom – not so much. In the lead up to the colony’s demise, the hive will continue to organize and support itself as best it can. While it was previously thought that a queen-less hive rendered bees lazy, unruly and irritable, recent studies indicate this just isn’t the case. Instead, there is more role-sharing and multi-tasking, with reproductive workers just as likely as non-reproductive workers to both forage for food and defend the hive.

What's a Beekeeper to Do?

If you’re a beekeeper, it is likely you will find at least one of your hives without a queen bee somewhere along the line. Perhaps you have even chosen to remove the queen yourself, finding her unproductive or genetically weak (some pundits recommend replacing your queen every two years). However it is you came into your predicament, you have two choices: you can either let nature do its thing as described above, or you can introduce an already-mated foreign queen, whose fertility has been established, and whose “stock” (you’ve been assured by whoever sold her to you) is of the premium kind.

Against the temptation of metaphor, the honey bee queen does not “rule” the hive. Her function is singular: to reproduce. Whether by human intervention or evolutionary impulse, most queens are replaceable. Without her, the hive can’t last.

By Kate Prendergast


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Danish - February 15, 2024

Thanks for this info

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