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  • Writer's pictureNona Spillers

Queen Bee Basics

Whether it’s at a farmer’s market, a garden club or with the high school beekeepers I mentor…the queen bee is always a subject of fascination.

There is plenty written about queen bees. My favorite book is called Queen Spotting by Hilary Kearney. Here, I’ll answer the most common curiosities hoping you’ll be fascinated enough to go exploring and read more.

How many queens in a hive?

Each colony has one queen who can lay up to 2500 eggs each day. She’s responsible for many thousands of bees - 10,000 in the winter and up to 60,000 in the Spring. Queens can live 3-5 years.

How do you find the queen?

Sometimes we don’t! Which is why it’s important for new beekeepers to learn the signs - eggs & larvae - of a healthy colony without spotting the queen. On the joyous occasion when we do spot the queen it’s because:

  • She is significantly larger than the worker bees - especially in the abdomen

  • She has a “court” of bee around her that make a circle while they attend to her ever need

  • Her movements are erratic - fast or skitterty

  • She has a large black thorax (dot) on the back of her head

How does the colony make a new queen?

When it’s time for a new queen, whether it’s for a swarm or because the existing queen is not able to sustain the colony, it all starts with an egg. The colony chooses a few 1-3 day old eggs, usually near the bottom of the frame and feed them extra royal jelly. This allows the reproductive organs of a queen to develop. Then the workers build a peanut shaped cell around the egg to accommodate the larger than average size of the new queen. Colonies will generally build many of these cells - called queen cells or supercedure cells.

Once a new queen emerges - a 16 day process - she can either sting all of the other cells to kill her competitors or she will battle for the position.

Some people mark their queens?

Yes, there is a safe type of paint pen that some beekeepers use to put a dot on the thorax of the queen to make her easier to find. We did this in our early beekeeping days and then realized that if you can recognized the signs of a healthy queen, the need to actually see here isn’t great. Also, we found that the workers have a tendency to clean the mark off the queen, making the considerable effort you go to a short lived reward.

There is a system of using a different color dot each year so that you can know the age of your queen. Knowing the age of your queen is interesting, but not entirely necessary as the colony will decide when her time has come.

I’ve heard that people re-queen their hives.

That is a practice used by many beekeepers if they see that the queen isn’t laying productively. It can also be a remedy for a hive whose disposition is “hotter” than the beekeeper prefers or deems safe for the location.

At Texas Sassy Bees, we choose to keep colonies with wild genetic - meaning the bees are a hybrid of many different species and have developed traits based on their environment. Here in Texas, these bees tend to be a bit…sassier, or defensive…than their pure European counterparts.

We’ve also found that they thrive in our unusually hot, dry, erratic climate. Our bees overwinter exceptional well and we think they make amazing honey. Our bees live in the middle of nowhere, so the neighbors aren’t bothered and we suit up every time.

Does the queen fly?

A new queen will make one or a few mating flights - she’s still trim enough to do so. But once she’s mated, she spends her whole life inside the hive.

A queen may also fly when she takes half of the colony as a swarm and allows the remaining bees to thrive with a new queen.

A queen has a group of attendants to take care of her every need. They feed her, clean her and even take her poop out of the hive.

How do queens mate?

When a new queen is ready, usually 3-5 days after emerging, she take a mating flight (or a few). There are “drone zones” creating by some mystery in nature and a scent that the queen emits that attracts male drone bees to her in flight. She will mate with up to 40 drones mid-air. Once the drone has delivered his sperm, his abdomen explodes with a little pop and he falls to his death.

Does the queen make all of the decisions for the hive?

No, a honey bee colony is actually a democracy with the workers making most of the decisions included when / if to swarm, where to move and if their queen is meeting expectations. In the case that a queen is injured or too old to sustain the hive, the colony will replace her. They create queen cells and then cuddle the old queen - forming a ball around her - where the heat ultimately kills her.

What happens if you lose or damage your queen while working the hive?

It’s a heart crushing moment, but it happens. If the colony has young eggs, they can make their own emergency queen. If the beekeeper knows that something has happened and doesn’t see eggs of the right age - you can take a frame of eggs from another colony and put them in the hive OR you might choose to purchase a queen. Local beekeepers sometimes raise queens or you can order one through the mail.

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