The Queen Bee
Most of us, at some point in our lives, have learned something about the function of beehives, and the division of bees into workers, drones, and the queen. Because the roles of these three types of bees are so precisely defined, we can almost look at a hive as a single living organism, with each component — the individual bees — functioning exclusively for the survival of the whole.
Worker bees are female, and, as suggested by their designation, they do all the work: building and cleaning the hive, feeding the brood, guarding the hive, and collecting pollen and nectar. During winter months, worker bees even generate heat within the hive by flexing their flight muscles. The male drone bees, on the other hand, do no work whatsoever; their only purpose is to mate with the queen. This so-called “division of labor” may draw comment from female humans. Once a drone manages to mate with the queen, he dies; and during the cold season, any drones who haven’t mated, being a drain on the hive’s resources, are attacked and killed by the workers.
What, then, does the queen bee do? Generally, there is only one mated queen bee in the hive, and she is the mother of most, if not all, of the bees in the hive. The queen does not control the activity of the hive, which proceeds relentlessly on its own; her only function is reproduction, and a well-fed queen can lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day during the springtime. This prodigious daily output in eggs is more in weight than the queen’s own body weight. While she is productive, the queen is continuously surrounded by worker bees who feed her and dispose of her waste.
The abdomens of queen bees are noticeably longer than those of worker bees, but it is still often difficult for beekeepers to find queen bees in their hives, particularly in large hives filled with 60,000 swarming bees. Sometimes, beekeepers will mark queen bees by lightly daubing paint on their thoraxes, making them easier to find when necessary. The paint does no harm to the bee.
Queen bees develop from fertilized eggs, like other bees in the hive. However, a queen-to-be is fed royal jelly, a secretion rich in protein that discharges from the heads of young worker bees. Bees that are not fed this special potion develop into ordinary worker bees. The royal jelly triggers a female larva to develop into a sexually mature female.
This process, of a new queen replacing the old, is called “supersedure.” The process may be brought on by the aging of the older queen, or by the old queen falling ill. In either case, the old queen’s pheromone output decreases. If the old queen loses her ability to produce eggs and a new virgin queen has emerged, worker bees may assassinate the reigning queen by suffocating her — clustering tightly around her until she dies from overheating. This method of killing is called “balling” or, colloquially, “cuddle death.” Alternately, a newly mated queen may take on this task by herself, finishing off the old queen on her own by stinging her.
If a queen dies suddenly and there are no virgins ready to step in, the worker bees will flood cells in the hive containing larvae with royal jelly, in an effort to force-develop new virgin queens. These “emergency queens” tend to be smaller and less prolific than normally developed queens, and thus are not favored by beekeepers.
The mating process follows its own pattern. The surviving virgin bee will fly out of the hive to an area where the hive’s drones congregate; there, she will mate with a dozen or more drones. She may return to this area on several consecutive days, depending on the weather and other factors. As among other species, the warm days of springtime hold their own special magic. The mating process itself occurs in mid-flight. The young queen, now a fully mated queen, will store the collected sperm from her multiple partners in her own body, and will gradually release this sperm for the remainder of her life — from two to seven years — in the process of fertilizing her eggs.
The activities of a typical beehive are astonishing in their complexity and level of development.