The Role of the Queen Bee in a Hive

April 22, 2022

queen bee, marked by a blue dot on her head, demonstrating her roles in a beehive alongside her worker bees

What is a queen bee?
Types of queen bees
What does a queen bee look like?
How is a queen bee born?
How does a queen bee mate?
How are queen bees and worker bees different?
What is the queen bee’s role in a hive?
How does a queen bee reproduce?
A queen bee’s role in swarming
What is queen rearing?
What happens when a queen bee dies?
Pictures of Queen Honeybees
How are the bees doing today?


What is a queen bee?


A queen bee is known as the “mother” of all the bees in one hive and is an adult, mated female bee. The survival and success of one colony are entirely dependent on the queen, and her role within the hive is incredibly important.

  • Types of queen bees There are various types of queen bees, but it is important to know that not all bees live in a hive with a queen. The most commonly recognized queen bee lives in a hive of honey bees, although bumblebees and even some types of wasps have queens as well. According to The Conversation, wasp and bee species with queens are called social insects, as they live together in large groups ranging from 100 to over 50,000 and work together to raise their young.
  • What does a queen bee look like? A queen bee is slightly larger than the rest of the bees in her colony, and she can typically be first spotted by her larger abdomen. The queen bee is larger than the workers. She emerges from her cell soft and fuzzy and remains that way for a day or so, allowing her body to darken and harden, as all newborn bees must. Beekeeping Like A Girl also notes that queens can be a range of colors and the paint on marked queens can wear off over time. During the practice of beekeeping, the queen is often marked with a spot of paint on her back, which helps beekeepers identify the queen more quickly and easily.
  • How is a queen bee born? Just a few eggs are laid in specially constructed queen cells. These eggs are destined to become queen bees. The queen’s DNA is no different from that of her worker-bee sisters; the only difference is environmental. Royal jelly is a secretion produced by the workers and fed to all larvae for a short time, but the queen is fed extra rations, enabling her reproductive organs to develop fully. Simply because of a change in diet, her life is changed forever. She will live for years, rather than a month, and she may lay several hundred thousand eggs over her lifetime, rather than none.


  • How does a queen bee mate? Within a few days of emerging from her cell, the queen bee will take off on the first of up to three mating flights. She will fly high to find her mates in areas where drones congregate. Honeybee queens are notorious for mating with more males than possibly any other animal on earth – genetic analyses have shown up to 29 different paternal lines within one queen’s hive. Once mated sufficiently, the queen will remain in that hive for the rest of her life.

How are queen bees and worker bees different?


In order for the colony to survive, a queen bee must lay eggs–because when she does, worker bees are created. Worker bees are truly the life force inside any hive, as they are the ones who forage for food and take care of the entire colony. In terms of honey bees, worker bees are the smallest in the hive, and when the worker bee is young, she takes on the role of the nurse bee and will process incoming nectar, feed the queen, as well as make and cap any honey. When worker bees become older, they will leave the hive each day to collect the nutrients and resources that the colony needs to survive.


What is the queen bee’s role in a hive?



Since the queen bee is the only female in the hive with fully developed ovaries, she plays two key roles within the hive: to lay eggs and to regulate the colony through the use of chemical scents, called pheromones. Throughout her life in the hive (which is 2-3 years, on average), the queen will give off this pheromone scent to the workers that signals the current health of the queen – this scent helps the worker bees understand if the colony needs a new queen, or if duties can continue on as normal.

How does a queen bee reproduce?


Once the queen bee has mated, she will return to the hive and live there for the rest of her life. During this time, she will also travel through the hive, looking for empty brood cells in which she can lay two types of eggs (fertilized and unfertilized). The fertilized eggs in the cell will become female worker bees, while the unfertilized eggs will hatch into drones or male honey bees.


A queen bee’s role in swarming



If you’ve ever seen a cluster of bees outside their hives or flying in a massive cloud, then you’ve witnessed a swarm! Swarming is the process in which bees reproduce to form new colonies, and can occur for the following reasons:

  1. Either the colony has outgrown its current home, the colony has become too populated,
  2. or the hive itself has become too congested and can no longer be regulated by one queen.

While the workers start to build swarm cells for the new queens to help regulate these new colonies, the queen stops laying eggs and reduces her weight to be able to fly. When she is ready, the queen leaves the hive, followed by about half of the workers in a large cloud.

From there, the group of bees will cluster on land or a tree while the worker bees search for their new home. Once this new home is found, the queen begins laying eggs in the new comb and the forager bees get to work gathering nectar and pollen for the new hive.


What is queen rearing?


Queen rearing is the process of inducing a colony to produce new queens by manipulating various colony attributes. Queen rearing allows for easy access to replacement queens, increased colony numbers, more control over genetics, increased colony productivity, and increased self-sufficiency. The most common approach to queen rearing is known as grafting. Grafting is usually done when hives are on the verge of swarming—when they are near capacity, and plenty of drones are available.

A portion of the selected hive, known as a “split”, is taken from brood frames, as these are full of both larvae and nurse bees, and placed in a nuc (short for nucleus colony)—a smaller bee box ideal for queen rearing. Young larvae are then removed by special grafting tools and placed into queen cups in a separate strong, queenless colony full of nurse bees to feed them royal jelly and build them into queen cells. Before emergence, individual queen cells are then removed and placed in mating nucs where they can be fed and cared for until mating time. After 10-14 days the larvae ripen and are ready to emerge as functioning queens.


What happens when a queen bee dies?


If a colony’s original queen dies, its worker bees notice the lack of pheromones, so that means it’s time to replace that queen with a new one. Once the worker bees know that there is a reduction in pheromones, they start building queen cells, which are larger than the cells that are typically used to hatch worker bees. Inside these larger cells, potential queen bees are fed royal jelly and over time a new potential queen is born. After that, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest: the first queen to emerge from a cell will actually sting the other potential queens to death before they even hatch.


Pictures of Queen Honeybees





Q: Does a queen bee sting?
A: Yes, but the unbarbed stinger of the queen allows her to sting more than once, but she uses it only to kill other queens within the hive and to gain her place at the center of the colony.

Q: What’s the difference between a queen bee and a worker bee?
A: A queen bee lays eggs and gives off a chemical scent to worker bees that helps them understand the health and productivity of their colony. Worker bees forage for food and take care of the entire colony, including the queen.

Q: How can you spot a queen bee?
A: You can spot a queen bee in a hive by noticing its larger abdomen and overall size compared to the workers and drones. The queen is also usually surrounded by the worker bees, and beekeepers often place a dot of paint on the back of the queen bees to help identify them more easily.


How are bees doing today?


honeybee on wooden frame

The queen bee is the life force of the hive, and her health will determine the health of the colony as a whole. The queen can tell us how a single hive is doing, but listening to science is how we’re able to know the health and status of bees as a species. If you’re curious about the research our team of scientists and beekeepers are doing at The Best Bees Company, as well as the promising programs that we hope will lead to a radical improvement in pollinator health, take a look at the 2021 State of the Honeybee Report for the latest information about the current conditions of honeybee colonies.

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