Bees rely on intricate social structures to keep a colony up and running. At the top of this hierarchy is the queen bee, the only insect in the entire hive that can lay eggs. So, what goes into getting a new one?
Bees don’t have special elections or televised coronations when it comes to getting a new queen. Instead, they feed select larvae royal jelly, a milk-like secretion packed with nutrients. Yet, a lot of drama can arise during this period. Fights break out, and yes, bees can mutiny.
How a Colony Chooses a New Queen
Penn State notes that there are two types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized. Fertilized eggs all have the potential to be worker bees or queens. Unfertilized eggs grow into males, also known as drone bees. These bees do not have stingers, and they solely exist for the purpose of mating with the queen. They can’t even feed themselves without help from a female counterpart.
In nature, a queen bee can reign for about seven years. When the bees sense that their queen is dying, they start feeding select female larvae, “royal jelly.” This is a special substance that comes from the bees’ head and basically “turn on” the bees’ reproductive organs. Within a few days, the hive could have its new ruler.
How Do Bees Choose Who Becomes Queen?
Worker bees prioritize giving royal jelly to bees that are full sisters––meaning they share the same mother (the queen) and father (a drone bee). The new queen is generally the larvae that matures faster. When she emerges from her cell, fully grown, she will kill off the other larvae to prevent them from usurping the throne. A new queen benefits fully when the old queen is dead. Without an active queen bee laying eggs, there are fewer bees to fight off.
Backyard Bees Have Little Power in Selection
Bees intended for beekeeping have less of a say in who gets to be the new queen. Rather than choose a new leader organically, beekeepers have a reserve of larvae who can take her place. Beekeepers may replace a queen annually or biannually, depending on how long the queen is able to lay eggs and serve the hive’s needs. Some beekeepers select queens on various traits, including size.
Do Other Insects Select New Queens?
Bees are eurosocial insects, meaning they rely on strict hierarchies that work together to keep the colony thriving. Eurosocial insects generally have a queen at the top. Whether in a hive or anthill, it truly is a woman’s world.
Other insects that select new queens include:
Like bees, ants raise their queens on a steady diet of nutrient-rich food. However, unlike bees, ant queens don’t mate with males constantly. Rather, they mate early in their lives and produce offspring based on stored sperm.
Some wasps have queens, while others don’t. For instance, paper wasps are led by one queen, although their colonies are small in comparison to bees.
What Traits Do Bees Look for in a New Queen?
Bees look for one primary trait when choosing a new queen: the ability to lay eggs––and lots of them. In a single day, a healthy queen bee can lay 2,000 eggs. If a queen bee lives the full seven years, she could lay millions.
Other traits that come into play when a new queen takes her place include:
- Her size. The bigger a bee, the bigger her bite (or, in this case, its sting). Being larger also allows for more egg-laying.
- Her fighting skills. When a queen bee emerges from her cell, she might have to fight her sisters, that also want to be queen. Bees may lock together and wrestle on the ground. If the other bees get too fed up, they may eject the fighting pair from the hive—and the search for a new queen continues.
- Her genetics. As noted, worker bees are more likely to “nominate” their full-blooded sisters for queen. Scientists aren’t 100 percent sure how this works. However, they suspect it might have something to do with smell.
Why Would a Colony Get a New Queen?
If a queen bee dies, she can’t keep laying eggs––and if she can’t keep laying eggs, the colony will inevitably die off. A well-functioning hive won’t let this happen. So, it may start preparing larvae well before a queen expires.
A colony may also start selecting a new queen if:
- The queen doesn’t lay as many eggs as before. A queen’s egg-laying capacity dwindles after two years of constant laying. Bees are highly efficient creatures, and they know their strength lies in numbers. So, they may replace a queen once her fertility wanes.
- The queen gets separated from the colony. Rather than wait for a queen bee to meet her maker, a beekeeper may remove her from the colony. This would prompt the hive to start preparing for a new monarch and feeding select larvae royal jelly.
- The queen gets ill. According to Viruses, queen bees can suffer fatal illnesses when infected with contaminated sperm from mates. Usually, if a hive suspects that the queen is sick, they’ll remove her from the hive and start over. They don’t want to risk disease killing other members of the hive.
Is being selected as the new queen a lottery? Kind of! With thousands of candidates, there’s no telling who will grow strong off royal jelly and which ones won’t. For more information about pet insects, check out this article.