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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Honey bee queens

Honey bees are characterised by their rigid division of labour. The inhabitants of a honey bee colony are divided into three types; one type of male and two types of females (known as castes). This development of female castes has evolved as part of the social development of the colony and in turn this social development has allowed the honey bee colonies (superorganism) to thrive in an astonishing variety of ecological niches worldwide.

The queen is one of these two specialised female castes in the honey bee colony. The queen's job is simple. She lays the eggs that will become the hive's next generation of bees. Queens also regulate the hive's activities by producing chemicals - known as pheromones - that control the behaviour of the other bees. There is usually only a single queen in a hive and because of this she shows behaviour patterns that keep her safe from danger. She lives her whole life where she will be most protected; inside the hive, in the dark, and at the most active centre of the brood nest. She will only leave the hive under two circumstances: mating as a virgin queen and with a prime swarm. Her importance to the colony depends on her ability to produce enough workers and drones to carry out all the functions of the colony.  She carries all the heritable characteristics of the colony so is responsible for all the physical and behavioural characteristics of the colony. Changing the queen can change the nature of the colony within a few weeks.

A new queen is created in distinctive, peanut-shaped cell that hangs down from the comb. These are built by the workers if they feel there is a need to replace the queen or make a colony division (or swarm) and the building of these cells is under the pheromone control of the queen. Once the concentration of her pheromones becomes reduced queen cell building behaviour by the workers will cease to be suppressed. The queen will lay a fertilised egg in this cell and the developing larva will be fed a special food called royal jelly that is produced by 'brood food' glands in the head of young worker females enabling it to develop into a virgin queen in 14 to 16 days depending on its race.

The virgin queen becomes sexually mature around 5 days after she emerges from the cell and ideally will take her mating flight in a about the next 14 days. The mating flight lasts for no more than 20 minutes and queens will make a maximum of two mating flights. During this time she will mate with between 8 and 20 drones. The collected sperm is stored in a storage organ (called a spermatheca) where it will last for the lifetime of the queen.

A mated queen is capable of laying both fertilised and unfertilised eggs. Only fertilised eggs develop into females while unfertilised eggs become drones by a process known as parthenogenesis. This means that the drones will be haploid and carry only half the number of chromosomes that the diploid females have. This haplodiploid sex determination system means that the number of unproductive males is limited while allowing effective dispersal of the queen's genetic material.

In other species of Apis, the overall biology is the same but the development times will vary.


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