Many of us have heard the phrase “queen bee,” but how many of us actually know what the queen bee does in a beehive?
Queens play very important roles within hives, and without her, the queenless hive won’t survive long – typically 4 to 6 weeks without intervention.
Queen’s Role In Hive
A “mated” queen in a hive is the only bee with fully-developed ovaries and is the only one that can make fully-developed fertilized eggs. Because of this, she has the role of producing more fertilized and unfertilized eggs to populate the hive. Depending on the hive’s needs, she creates eggs that will become either drones (unfertilized, male bees) or worker bees (fertilized, female bees).
In addition, the queen releases pheromones (or chemical signals) to communicate what the worker bees need to do within the hive at any given time. Some examples of pheromone signals could be:
Her Reproductive Status
Because a queen bee reproduces at higher and lower levels depending on the time of year, she needs the worker bees to know this to follow suit with appropriate honey and pollen levels.
Stopping Worker Bees from Fully Developing Ovaries
Because a hive isn’t completely hierarchical, worker bees can try to step out of line. To show her dominance and not allow for swarming to occur, a queen will send pheromones that actually stop worker bees from developing their ovaries.
Establishment of Social Hierarchy
As stated previously, a queen bee will commonly have to establish and re-establish her place in the nuanced hive hierarchy. If not doing their job correctly, queens can get kicked out or even killed by the worker bees. Thus, a queen bee communicates everyone’s place within the hive constantly.
Stimulation for Worker Activities
Worker bees have many tasks to perform within the hive – foraging, brood feeding, comb building, guarding, etc. Depending on the season, the queen bee will need different amounts of worker bees to perform various tasks so that there is enough food, storage, and protection for the entire hive.
Without the queen, there would be no larvae production or order within the hive. Although partially democratic, a hive needs a queen so that every worker bee has its purpose and the hive’s population doesn’t dwindle.
If a queen dies suddenly, the hive is in trouble. Because a honeybee’s lifespan is only about 4-6 weeks, and it takes that long to raise an egg-laying queen, the hive will likely die unless intervention is taken.
Once it’s detected that a hive is missing a queen, a beekeeper will have two options:
- Purchase Mated Queen – Many websites offer already-mated queens for sale. This option is an expedited process as the queen will immediately start laying once she is in the hive. However, the hive must accept her first – which is likely, but not promised.
- Add New Frames – If there is the likelihood that the worker bees have started to raise a queen themselves, all a beekeeper needs to do is add new frames with eggs or larvae each week for 2-3 weeks. This process ensures there is not a massive drop in population and that the hive will survive.
However, if the queen is slowly dying (much more likely) or the hive has decided to kick the queen out, the worker bees will start raising a queen in due time so that there is no shortage of eggs.
Signs of a Queenless Hive
Often, beginner beekeepers won’t notice that a hive is missing a queen until it is too late. However, there are often clear signs that a queen is dying or missing entirely.
Sound of the Hive
This may sound nuanced, but many beekeepers note the difference in the hive’s sound once a queen is gone. Likely because there is no order, bees start to buzz louder and more chaotically as they frantically decide what to do. Some beekeepers describe this sound as a “high pitch grumble.”
If this occurs, it’s best to put on protective gear and bring a smoker before checking the hive out, as your bees will be very agitated.
Lack of Eggs
Once inside the hive, a beekeeper will also notice only a small number of eggs in the comb or a complete lack of eggs. Because the queen bee is the only one laying these eggs, an empty comb signifies that the queen is gone.
Increase in Honey
Because a queenless hive will not have any laid eggs and fewer bees eating the honey, the amount of honey in the hive will significantly increase. Although there will be other times where an increase in honey is normal, this increase will be sharp and really significant.
Decline in Population
The most prominent sign of a queenless hive is the population decline. No queen means no eggs. No eggs means no new bees. If the hive doesn’t replace the queen in due time, it will collapse in no more than eight weeks; meaning, you should be able to see the decrease in bees before then.
A queen bee has two jobs within a hive: laying eggs and maintaining order. Although not exactly the be-all of the hive, she has a vital role in dictating who does what and when.
Because of this, a queenless hive will not survive long. If there is no replacement in sight, a beekeeper will need to intervene by either purchasing a mated queen or adding egg frames each week until the colony has raised a new queen.
The signs of a queenless hive are:
- Loud, chaotic humming
- Lack of eggs
- A sharp increase in honey
- and a sharp population decline.
It’s important to keep note of your hive regularly, as beginners often miss out on these signs until it’s too late.