How Long Will a Colony Survive Without a Queen?
Ask the Expert!
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Justen Cenzalli writes:
How long can a colony survive without a queen?
Rusty Burlew replies:
Even without a queen, a honey bee can complete her normal adult lifespan of about four-to-six weeks. However, the colony she belongs to will not be able to survive more than a couple months unless the queen is quickly replaced. Without a new queen, the colony will dwindle as the members die one-by-one.
Since the queen is the only bee that can lay fertilized eggs, her presence is absolutely essential to maintain the colony. In addition, her pheromones—which are the distinctive odors she produces—help to keep the colony orderly, productive, and working as a unit. The queen produces her pheromones continuously, and as the worker bees rub against her or groom her, they pick up some of the scent and pass it to other bees who pass it to still more bees. As long as her scent permeates the colony, all is well.
But if the queen dies or becomes ill, the scent diminishes and the colony members become upset. Many beekeepers can hear the difference. Instead of a contended hum, the colony seems to roar like a roomful of people who have just received bad news. You can imagine them all “talking” at once and wondering, “What will we do now?” In addition, some bees may appear aggressive, flying and dipping erratically in the vicinity of the hive.
Some researchers say it takes approximately 15 minutes for the entire colony to learn of a missing or dead queen. As soon as they get the word, the bees begin to select larvae of the right age for raising replacement queens. Given good larvae, the colony can raise a queen in about 16 days, but it may take another two or three weeks for her to mature, mate, and begin to lay her own eggs. There is no time to lose.
If no eggs or young larvae are present when the queen dies, or if it is winter and a virgin queen cannot mate, the colony is out of luck. After all the queen’s pheromones disappear, the workers’ ovaries begin to develop, allowing them to lay eggs. But since workers cannot mate, the eggs they lay will produce nothing but drones. With no way to raise a new queen, the colony will soon perish.