The Making of a Queen
by Sam Getty
Broadcast 7.6 & 7.9.2021

A queen bee (center) in her hive. Photo by Levi Asay, CC 3.0.

 

Listen:

 

It is a warm summer day and the beehive is alive with activity. I am working with a local honeybee expert to learn more about the art of beekeeping and this is my first solo trip. As I approach the teaching hive I can hear the soft buzz of the honeybees. It is impossible to see, for an outsider like myself, but the current queen is ill and her servants have decided her reign must end. A worker bee begins to construct a new wax cell, the start of a new generation. I spot the new cell easily as it is different from the thousands of cells that have come before it. The new cell is longer and more spacious. It is fit for royalty and I know it will soon house the new infant queen.

Queen honeybee cell. Photo by Shawn Caza, CC 3.0.

Once the new queen’s cell has been completed, the soon-to-be former queen lays a single egg inside. It looks like a small pale bead, shining and glistening under the summer sun as I pull one comb from the hive for inspection. The comb is sticky, covered in honey and a waxy glue called propolis. I remove each frame in the hive and examine it before carefully returning it.

Three days later, when the egg hatches, worker bees will feed the new queen-to-be a strict diet of rich royal jelly. After another five and a half days the larva changes into a pupa, and seven days later the new queen’s cell is sealed shut to hide her from my prying eyes. She then undergoes metamorphosis to achieve her final form, a full-grown adult with the ability to rule a colony.

It has been a total of fifteen and a half days since I last checked the hive and the new queen began her life. My anticipation is high as I carefully pry open the hive once again in the hopes of sneaking just a quick peek at the newest member of the royal family. I let out a little squeal of joy when I spot her, then scramble to retrieve my phone to sneak a quick picture. Once the new virgin queen emerges from her cell, she spends four to five days wandering about the massive hive searching for any rival queen cells, destroying them in a dramatic act of sororicide with a lethal sting. In addition to killing any of her rival sisters, the newly hatched queen will also plot the ultimate coup and kill her mother in order to inherit her throne and take over the hive.

Once the hive is hers, the queen will release sweet pheromones that can be detected by male bees, called drones, at remarkable distances. These pheromones drive the drones into a mating frenzy that can last for days. The newly established queen will hurry from the hive and fly into the swarm of drones where she will be impaled and mated by the males, who will then die minutes after copulation. Unfortunately, I am not able to spot the swarm as they will often ascend up to 120 feet up into the sky, making them tricky to locate.

The queen will mate with four to fifty different males in the span of a mating flight, thereby fertilizing all of the eggs she will ever produce over the course of her life. She can then produce up to 2,000 eggs a day! I look forward to watching this queen rule her kingdom until the day she, too, will become too weak to continue, and will be assassinated by one of her daughters and the cycle will repeat itself again.

 


Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.

Click here to read and listen to more Field Notes. Field Notes is available as a podcast! Subscribe on iTunesGoogle Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Interested in writing a Field Note? Contact Allison De Jong, Field Notes editor, at adejong [at] montananaturalist [dot] org or 406.327.0405.

Want to learn more about our programs as well as fun natural history facts and seasonal phenology? Sign up for our e-newsletter! You can also become a member and get discounts on our programs as well as free reciprocal admission to 300+ science centers in North America!