12 June 2014
The Short Answer (TSA)
A “queen bee” is the “queen” of a colony of honey bees. Honey bees live in colonies and build rather complex structures called hives. A queen is the mother of all of the hive’s population including the (female) “worker bees” and (male) “drone” bees. So, in each colony, there is only one reproductive female. That female is called the queen.
So, you have wonder. What does it take to become the queen? Surprisingly, the queens are selected by the worker bees themselves. The queen’s eggs are cared for by the worker bees. After the eggs have hatched, the young bee larvae continue to be raised by worker bees.
Together, the eggs and the larvae are called the colony’s “brood.” The members of the brood are raised in comb — not unlike a honeycomb. But the separate “brood comb” is used only to house the young bees — the members of the growing brood. As the worker bees nurture the brood, they select certain larvae and feed them a special diet of special food called royal jelly. The diet causes these larvae to develop into reproductive queen bees.
From there, the young queen’s life becomes an adventure. With the hatching of the new young queens, the old queen may depart the hive with a “swarm.” That is, the old queen will leave with some, but not all, of the workers in the hive. The swarm will find a new location. There, they will build a new hive and form a new colony. When you find out what happens next, you’ll understand why the old queen, sometimes, wants to “get out of town” as fast as possible.
The young hatching queens are called “virgin queens.” The first young queen to emerge from her “cell” will hunt out any other young queens and try to kill them. Young queens don’t fight fair. Rivals will be stung to death as they are emerging from the cells of the brood comb. Sometimes, not content to wait for their potential rivals to actually emerge from their brood cells, young queens will burrow into existing cells and to sting the resident-rival to death.
Although the old queen may have left with a swarm of followers to form a new colony, the process may be repeated with yet another swarm leaving the colony with a group of (surviving) young queens. The group of young queens will get along until the new colony is established. But once things settle down, the virgin queens will have the same type of cut-throat power struggle as they did when they first emerged from their cells. They will fight to the death until there is only one left.
Then, the last virgin queen will mate. After mating, the queen bee releases a pheromone that causes the colony’s worker bees to recognize her as the only queen. And all will be well, until new queen becomes too old or ill to reproduce. With the queen’s illness or infertility, the worker bees (the queen’s former “loyal” subjects) will turn on her. The workers will patiently wait until a new young queen bee has hatched. Then, they will crowd around the old queen so densely that she cannot escape. Finally, the worker bees will sting the old queen to death.
All-hail the new queen!
Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri