So, How Does a Bee Become Queen?

Pretty much everyone knows by now that bee hives have a queen at the top of the hierarchy.

This isn’t exactly true, because bee hives operate more by consensus than they do by royal decree, but the queen bee is still incredibly important.

queen bee in beehive

She’s responsible for laying all the successive generations of bees that will be born to expand the hive.

But a queen bee will not live forever, and from disease, predation, old age, or accidental injury she might need to be replaced with a royal successor.

This brings up a very important question: how does a bee become a queen?

A newborn worker bee larva can be made into a queen when other worker bees feed it a special diet of royal jelly. This contains compounds that will turn the newly selected queen into a fertile female that can mate and lay eggs when she is mature.

I suppose it sounds pretty simple, and in the grand scheme of bees going about their lives and maintaining their hive I suppose it is, but the entire process involving the death or overthrow of the original queen and the selection and rearing of her successor is truly fascinating.

It’s something that every hive, natural or domesticated, will have to go through sooner or later. Keep reading and I’ll tell you all about it.

Are Queen Bees Born or Chosen?

Queen bees are both born and chosen, but I suppose if you wanted to get really technical about it, you would say that queen bees are, in fact, born.

This is because every queen comes from an egg and hatches into a larva, and it’s what happens to these chosen larvae after they are born that determines if they become queens or not.

More on that in just one second. An existing female bee (a worker) cannot simply be chosen to take over egg laying duties…

How are Queen Bees Born?

Queen bees are born from eggs just like every other bee, and this means eggs laid by an existing queen. This will be important later.

Anyway, once a worker bee larva is hatched, she will be chosen to be a potential successor queen by the other workers, who will then remove her from her usual cell and transport her to a special, larger queen cell to finish her development.

At this point, the chosen queen, or queens, will be fed a specialty diet of royal jelly which is distinct from the honey and nectar that other bees get.

Royal jelly contains special compounds which will supercharge the growth of the juvenile queen, and also make her fertile meaning she can lay eggs that will create the next generations for the colony.

In fact, pretty much the only thing that determines whether or not a female worker bee becomes a queen or not is whether she gets a diet of honey, or if she is fed royal jelly.

But workers will not feed royal jelly to larvae at random as we will learn. It is always done with a purpose!

Can Any Bee Be a Queen?

No. Only female bee larvae that are fed a diet of royal jelly will become queens. Male bees, drones, may never be queens, or in this case, kings I guess you would say.

Can a Hive Have More Than One Queen?

No, not really. In the most vanishingly rare cases, a very large hive might accept multiple queens if they are related, but this only happens once in a blue moon.

The queen bee, like all royalty, will suffer no challengers to her royal station. “Surplus” queens are typically killed one way or the other, either by drones that reject her or by the existing queen herself.

It is also worth mentioning that, sometimes, when succession occurs naturally as a result of the existing queen’s old age her successor might be born and live alongside her for a time until the current queen dies or leaves the hive.

This too is uncommon, but far more likely to occur than a hive accepting two ruling queens at the same time while they’re both healthy and in their laying prime.

Multiple Queens Can Still Be Birthed at the Same Time

Now, it is important to point out that even though a hive will typically only tolerate a single ruling queen at once, it is far from uncommon for multiple queens to be selected as larvae, or even to be born at the same time.

Worker bees will select multiple larvae to be transported to queen cells and fed royal jelly to maximize the chances that a viable queen will be born and take up the mantle in the hive.

Queens develop much quicker than normal worker bees, so they don’t stay in their larval form for very long.

Even so, if you wanted to look at it that way, this would mean that most hives will have multiple queens – just for a very short period of time! And as we will learn, this is merely a formality.

How is the Ruling Queen Bee Chosen?

Once the worker bees have done their job and selected multiple larvae to be put in queen cells and then fed royal jelly, the queens will take care of the “succession” themselves.

This is a pretty brutal affair: as a rule, the first of these adolescent queens to be born will kill off her sisters, biting and stinging them to death. Savage? Absolutely, but it’s for the health and success of the hive.

Recall where I said above that bees will generally not tolerate more than one ruling queen in the hive at a time; this is part of the reason why queens develop so quickly, so that the “spares” will be dealt with.

Not only can the hive not afford to be without a queen for any significant length of time, but the quicker a queen matures and pops out herself, the quicker she can get down to the business of killing off her competitors.

However, it’s also hardly uncommon for multiple queens to emerge at the same time. When this happens they will duel, or sometimes brawl, to the death until only one remains.

Assuming that the survivor is healthy and capable of doing the job, she will become the new queen of the hive.

When Does a Hive Need a New Queen?

A hive will need to raise up a new queen for any number of reasons, and all these reasons happen more or less regularly. Just part of life in the hive!

For starters, a queen will only stay queen as long as she is fit for the job.

A queen will only lay a certain amount of eggs over their lifetime, and if her production slows down due to old age, injury, genetic instability, or for any other reason the worker bees will notice.

Once enough worker bees put their heads together and determine that the queen is running out of steam, they might decide to kill her – literally, they will commit regicide!

Workers do this by “queen balling,” clumping up around the queen and vibrating their wings rapidly to raise the temperature of the queen enough to cook her to death.

A terrible way to go, but again necessary for the health of the hive! Immediately after this, the worker bees will fast track the selection and raising of a new queen as described above.

Another way that a hive will decide to kill off an existing queen and raise a new one is if the workers detect some genetic defect or quirk in the queen through the larva they take care of.

If a queen cannot produce offspring that are tip-top totally healthy, they might get rid of her.

Also, sometimes hives will need to select and raise a new queen under more amicable circumstances, such as when the hive just grows too big.

When this happens, the queen will swarm, leaving the hive and taking a large portion of the existing worker population with her to a new location to start a new hive while the existing hive will select and raise a new queen more or less peacefully as detailed above.

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