Fascinating Queen Bee Facts for Today’s Beekeeper

Q&A About The All-Important Queen Honey Bee

Fascinating Queen Bee Facts for Today’s Beekeeper

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By Josh Vaisman – Queen bees are fascinating and sophisticated creatures. Before starting your honey bee farm, there are some queen bee facts you must know in order to be a successful backyard beekeeper.

Do Queen Honey Bees Sting?

As anyone who has accidentally stepped on an unsuspecting bee can attest, all the worker bees in a bee colony have a stinger. As a beekeeper myself, let me tell you, if you’ve never experienced a bee sting, those little ladies can pack quite the punch! The queen honey bee also has a stinger (more on that below).

Do you know why worker bees have a stinger? I’ll tell you! It’s to defend the hive. You may ask, “then why did I get stung when I stepped on bee miles from her hive?” Well, if you had a knife sticking out of your behind while a giant unceremoniously stepped on you, wouldn’t you use it too?

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Here’s another interesting queen bee fact you may or may not know. When a worker bee stings you, she has essentially signed her own death certificate. Worker bee stingers are barbed. When they attach to soft flesh, the bee lacks the strength to remove them so, when she pulls away or flies off, the stinger detaches from her along with her insides. As you can imagine, this fact predisposes the honey bee to discretion in choosing when to sting. But I digress.

Considering the queen honey bee is never charged with defending the hive you might wonder, “Why does she have a stinger and does she ever use it?”

As we learned in my previous article on supercedure cells, when the colony decides to make a new queen, they will raise several virgin queens. The first to emerge is overcome with a desire to be the queen to “rule them all” and so she seeks out the other not-yet-emerged cells and, using her stinger, kills the growing queen inside.

Supercedure cells. Photo by Beth Conrey.

On very rare occasions, almost always during some sort of handling (such as placing a newly purchased queen in a colony), the queen will sting the beekeeper. The good news here is twofold; first, it is extremely rare (I’ve never been stung by a queen) and, second, the queen is the only bee without barbs on her stinger so a sting from her does not necessarily result in her death.

Do Queen Bees Leave the Hive?

Why yes, queen bees do leave the hive, on occasion! While the actual act of leaving the hive is quite rare for the queen, there are four common times it will happen.

1) Mating Flights: When a new queen emerges from her supercedure cell or emergency cell she is a virgin capable only of laying infertile eggs destined to become male drones. She must mate with several drones from other colonies to become fertile. To do this, she takes mating flights.

These mating flights typically begin 3-5 days after she emerges from her cell and can persist over a period of up to a week depending on weather and her success rate. Once completed, she will return to the hive and begin her life-long job of laying as many eggs as possible. For many queens, this is the only time in their lives they leave the hive.

2) Swarming: If we think of a colony as a single, large organism, swarming is how the colony reproduces. When a swarm occurs, the current queen will leave the hive along with approximately half of the workers and go find a new home to build a new hive. Left behind will be many workers and many swarm cells, one of which will become the hive’s new queen.

Small swarm. Photo by Josh Vaisman.

3) Death/Illness: Sometimes a sick or injured queen will leave the hive on her own or, in some cases, be ejected by several of the workers. Whatever the reason, when a fertile queen is outside the hive on her own, her demise is soon to follow. Buzz your way here to learn more about what happens when the queen bee dies.

4) Absconding: Absconding is the term used for a mass exodus of all bees, including the queen, from a hive. This happens from time to time for one of a variety of reasons typically related to the bees determining the hive is no longer suitable or healthy for their needs. The varroa mite, left unchecked, can cause a form of absconding called parasitic mite syndrome. In parasitic mite syndrome, the bees have basically had enough with the unsanitary and unsafe conditions the mites have created in their hive — rather than stick around and die from a losing cause, they all leave, presumably to look for greener pastures.

As far as I can tell from the scientific literature I’ve encountered, no one knows what actually happens to bees after they abscond. With parasitic mite syndrome, this tends to happen toward the end of summer/beginning of fall. In Colorado, where I live, you can imagine how challenging it might be for a colony to re-establish a healthy hive in the dearth of that time of year.

What Does a Queen Bee Eat?

Much like you and I, all bees, including the queen bee, need water, carbohydrates, and protein to survive. In a honey bee farm, bees obtain these critical resources in the form of water, nectar, and pollen. Nectar, the bees’ source of carbohydrate, is collected from blooming flowers. It is stored for transport in a specialized stomach where enzymes begin to act upon it. The bees return the nectar to the hive, regurgitate it, and store it in cells where they begin the process of dehydrating it into honey. Honey, as it turns out, is an incredible source of carbs for the long dearth of winter as it cannot spoil (nectar can!).

Pollen is the bees’ source of protein. This is why they collect pollen from the flowers they visit. As an aside, bees will collect EITHER pollen OR nectar on a particular foraging trip, not both. Additionally, they will collect their resource exclusively from the same type of plant. When we consider they are slightly inefficient in their efforts — that is, they tend to drop just a little pollen as they work — it makes sense why this is beneficial in pollinating the plants they visit.

So, to answer the original question, the queen eats nectar, honey, and pollen to survive. However, she is so incredibly busy with the work of laying upward of 2,000 eggs each and every day, she doesn’t have time to eat! So, workers in her retinue tend to her dietary needs and feed her as she works.

Queen Bee Facts

Can a Queen Bee Fly?

Yes, a queen bee can fly. She has strong wings just like the workers and drones and, as we know from the queen bee fact above regarding if and when she leaves the hive, she needs them.

As a beekeeper, we want to take care to not disturb the queen so much during our hive inspections as to cause her to fly off. Under such circumstances, she may struggle to find her way home.

Photo by Josh Vaisman.

How Long Do Queen Bees Live?

Prior to the advent of pesticides and migration of the varroa mite to almost all parts of the world, queen honey bees might live as long as five years. When we consider a worker bee in the throes of summer hive-care and foraging efforts might be fortunate to live seven weeks, we see how incredible a five-year lifespan truly is.

Now as the bees struggle against a preponderance of pesticides in their environment, parasitic mites in their hives, and a general lack of healthy flowers around them, it’s no surprise the lifespan of the queen bee has suffered. Some studies are showing the current lifespan of queen bees as short as one to two years and many commercial beekeepers, recognizing a live queen bee may not necessarily be a healthy queen bee, are regularly changing out their queens every six to 12 months. The plight of the honey bee is real and all beekeepers feel it.

What other queen bee facts would you like to add to this list?

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