Bees are some of the most fascinating and important insects in nature. It’s amazing how much work they get done and how organized they are, and all the thousands of bees in a colony, generally follow their queen.
The queen bee is a critical figure in any healthy colony, arguably the most important, and the bees naturally want to take care of her and will follow her.
But why do bees follow their queen exactly?
Bees follow their queen instinctively to take care of and protect her so that her eggs will continue to expand the colony. They will also physically follow her if she leaves the hive in order to start a new colony.
It’s hard to imagine that these insects can be so receptive and organized, but with the help of the queen, that is exactly what they do.
That being said, a queen does not order the colony around; the decision-making process, if you want to call it that, is actually a form of consensus among all the worker bees.
Nonetheless, the queen’s signals are still very important for this process. Seriously fascinating stuff, so keep reading and I’ll tell you more.
The Queen is a Central Figure in Any Colony
Most folks think that the queen bee is the one that runs the hive, like a CEO, a boss, as her name would indicate. This is not quite how things work, however…
The queen is disproportionately important, because without her, no more eggs will be laid that will hatch into more bees, and the colony’s numbers will invariably start dwindling until she is replaced.
The queen also emits pheromones that help to organize and alert the bees in the colony.
Most importantly, they are used as a signal for the workers to determine when the colony might be getting too big, and needs to split off and swarm to form a new colony elsewhere.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the queen is very much the heartbeat of a healthy and thriving colony.
Queens Lay the Eggs, Producing New Generations of Bees
Queens, as mentioned, lay all of the eggs in the colony that will hatch into new bees.
What kind of bees the eggs will hatch into is dependent upon whether or not the queen has completed a mating flight and the needs of the colony, because she can determine the sex of every egg that she lays.
Assuming she has mated with a male (a drone), a mature queen will lay anywhere from 1,400 to 1,500 eggs every single day, or even more.
Most of these eggs will hatch into workers, the female bees that you see flying around gathering pollen in the wild before returning to the hive.
However, some can hatch as drones (or males), and additional queens can even be born if workers attend to them in a special way. This typically occurs when a queen is due to be replaced.
However, Queens Don’t “Rule” Their Colonies
It is popularly thought that queens direct every action of the hive, somehow, through the use of pheromones, telepathy or little lieutenant bees but this is a popular conception and just not true!
Bees, including the hive as a whole, can and will respond to the needs of the queen and will fight to protect her.
But, generally, the workers and drones know their roles and know what to do to contribute to the success of the hive at all times.
Indeed, it is the workers that will generally make the determination of when a queen is too old, sick, or just unsuitable to be their queen any longer, and then they’ll make the decision to raise a new queen by specially tending to an egg.
In a way, you might say that the queen will inform some actions of the hive and sustain it by laying eggs, but she is also a subject; subject to the will of the collective consisting of all of the workers.
Queens Have Attendants to Take Care of Them, and Are Dependent on Them
And despite the misunderstanding that the queen bee runs every facet of the colony, she is still very much treated like royalty!
While she goes about the important work of laying eggs in the prepared cells, cells continuously built by other worker bees, she is also tended to by dedicated workers.
Her foot servants, you might say!
These foot servants will do absolutely everything the queen desires and requires, from cleaning up and removing her waste products to pre-digesting and bringing her food that she can consume easily.
The queen has immense energy requirements because of her activity level and also because of egg laying.
So the queen is definitely a hard worker like every other bee in the hive, but she has her own small army of servants to provide her with the things she needs so that she can do her job.
A Queen’s Pheromone Signals Help a Colony Decide When to Swarm
One of the major reasons that a large group of bees would follow their queen is during a swarming event.
Most people think of a swarm of bees as just a large number of airborne bees in a given area, but that’s not really what a swarm is. A swarm is sort of the reproductive event of the colony itself.
When a hive becomes too crowded, the danger of collapse becomes ever greater, and so the decision for part of the colony to break off, with the queen at the vanguard, is made to go start a new colony somewhere else.
This happens when the colony is so big that an increasing number of worker bees can no longer detect a certain concentration of the queen’s pheromones in and around the hive itself.
Basically, the workers will determine when the hive is over capacity!
When this occurs, several things will happen in sequence… The queen will continue to go about her duties, but workers will start preparing more specialized cells designed to host the birth of new queens.
At the same time, the workers, including the queen’s attendance, will stop feeding her. This will let the queen lose enough weight so she can actually take flight – normally she is too heavy to fly well!
Once the queen is ready to fly and the new queen cells have been created, the queen will leave the colony, usually taking about half the bees in the hive with her as they set out and look for a brand new home to start over at.
When this happens, they will usually stop to rest in a single location and that is when you see this gigantic clump of bees crawling all over themselves.
The queen is in there, somewhere, and the bees are protecting her while they travel.
New Queens Might Kill Their “Sisters” and Take Over, or Leave to Start a New Hive with Some Workers
So, during a swarm event half the colony will depart with their queen and stay with her, live or die, but what about those new queens that were laid back home?
Generally, several eggs will be developed into queens by the workers, through the feeding of royal jelly. When the first queen hatches out of these eggs, one of two things will happen.
She will also decide to leave the hive, taking even more bees with her, or else she will decide to establish herself as the new queen of the colony.
When this happens, she will kill her sisters before they hatch. There can be only one queen in a hive!
However, if two queens hatch at about the same time, they will fight to the death to determine succession, with the survivor typically taking up regency and then the hive will continue on as before.
Workers Can Commit “Regicide” When a Queen Fails or is Too Old or Sick
Occasionally, a queen will live to be too old, where she is no longer able to produce as many eggs, or produce healthy ones.
Sometimes, sickness or injury will prevent her from doing a good job. Also, rarely, workers may detect some genetic aberration in a queen that will be bad for the future of the colony.
In these cases, workers may turn on their queen, surrounding her and then balling up over her in order to overheat and kill her.
Colloquially called “queen balling”, this regicidal behavior is done for the good of the colony.
Hopefully, though not always, the workers will be able to develop an existing egg into a replacement queen.
If this doesn’t happen, and a beekeeper cannot introduce a new queen and have her be accepted, the colony will invariably collapse.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.