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What happens if you kill a queen bee?

9 July 2020
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Honeybee queens release a pheromone while in the hive which communicates their presence and reign to their subjects.

When leaving to mate a honeybee queen will release this pheromone in larger amounts to ensure her workers are aware of her continued monarchy and do not start the process of replacing her.

A honeybee queen's typical mating flight lasts a maximum of 45 minutes.

The colony's inhabitants are acutely aware of this and after 50 minutes they will begin to suspect something is wrong.

The lack of a queen pheromone will clearly communicate to the worker bees they need to cat to ensure the hive or nests' survival.

Every hive needs a queen to lay and fertilize eggs and the queen's pheromones ensure the continued reign over the other bees in the hive. But what happens when a queen bee dies, is lost to a predator, or expires unexpectedly?

What happens when a queen bee dies

If a colony loses its queen due to predators or unexpected circumstances the worker bees will become briefly agitated then set about rearing a new emergency queen.

Female larvae under 3 days old will be moved to 'queen cells' and fed a strict diet of 'royal jelly' until they mature into a new queen.

Reasons for unexpected queen loss

First of all, it is very important to differentiate between raising a queen in an emergency when a queen bee dies and the process of supersedure.

Supersedure is the natural process in which an aging queen is replaced by a younger matriarch when her ability to lay eggs and produce pheromones decreases.

An emergency queen is reared when the queen is lost unexpectedly and suddenly leaving the worker bees very little time to find and rear a replacement. Reasons for the unexpected death of a queen:

Predators

Believe it or not, in the UK badgers are probably the largest threat to the queen specifically. Badgers use strong, sharp claws to dig their way inside nests and hives to access the calorie-rich honey and larvae inside.

During this process, the badger can kill the queen inadvertently leaving the hive to produce another. While other predators pose a serious threat to the queen the badger is a risk even at the centre of her domain.

Interestingly bees have evolved to display black and yellow stripes as a warning to predators they are carrying a painful sting and consuming them will be an unpleasant ordeal.

Wasps and flies are known to use nests as a location to lay their young and in some rather unpleasant cases, the bees themselves are used to house the developing offspring of invaders.

During swarming the list of predators increases vastly. The worker bees will try their best to keep the queen safely at the centre of the swarm. However, in this vulnerable state birds become a risk as the hive navigates it's way to a new home.

This handy article from the UK government covers some of the other threats specifically to honeybees.

Disease

When a queen bee dies due to a predator attack it really is instant and leaves the leaderless colony to act with little to no warning. In cases where a queen falls ill from a disease or parasite, the effects will become apparent over time.

A reduction in the production of 'queen substance' signals to the other worker bees not to produce young and a pronounced slowing in egg production and fertilization. In these cases, the worker bees within the hive will be granted slightly more time to set about producing a new monarch.

Immediate reaction

When a queen bee dies the first thing a worker bee will pick up on is a drop-in 'queen substance' the pheromone produced by the queen.

This will lead to agitation throughout the hive but will be very quickly replaced with a single goal. Replacing the queen is time-sensitive and it could have dire consequences for the other bees in her charge.

The worker bees will set about finding larvae that are suitable to be raised into queens. There are strict criteria that must be met before female larvae are even considered potential heirs to the throne.

The larvae must be female and can not be any older than 3 days. These larvae will be placed in vertical queen cells within the honeycomb structure.

Raising a new queen

Rather than just selecting one larva, when the queen bee dies the worker bees within a nest or hive will select many, increasing their chances of a successful replacement. All of these potential new queens are fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly, a much more concentrated version of the jelly fed to drone and worker larvae.

This process will continue for approximately 6 days of growth when they are sealed into the cell to become pupae. 8 days following a brand new queen will emerge from the cell to take her throne.

Taking the throne

When a new queen emerges her first task is to ensure her rule and that means eliminating any potential competitors. The virgin queen will move around the hive killing any potential rivals, ideally before they emerge from the cell at full maturity.

Once this process is complete the queen's next goal is to ensure the hive continued survival. This means she must at first take a few flights from the hive to familiarise herself with the landscape. After a few flights, she will fly around 20ft into the air to mate with drone bees from other hives.

This process ensures that the queen has an ample amount of sperm to fertilize the eggs she will be laying back at the hive. A queen bee will mate with up to 20 drones collecting sperm in her spermatheca for fertilizing eggs. Unfortunately, the drone bees will not survive this courtship but their role has been completed.

The entire timeline from the loss of the queen to the new queen beginning to lay eggs is only 29 days and reduces the impact on the hive. During this 29-day period, no new worker bees will be raised due to the lack of a queen for fertilization.

When a queen dies with no replacement

Unfortunately, the system of replacing a queen in an emergency is not always successful. When this happens it has severe consequences for the hive and the bees within. When a queen bee dies and time passes the queen-less worker bees will become agitated and more aggressive.

Because of the lack of queen substance pheromone, worker bees will begin to lay eggs.

As worker bees are unable to fertilize eggs the hive begins to produce too many male drones. As drones have no use outside of mating they are a huge drain on resources and lead to the eventual decline and disappearance of the colony.

This may be caused by disease or parasites but in some cases, the colony dies out purely because it is producing no worker bees to continue the operation of the hive. So when a queen bee dies the urgency for raising a new one really can leave the colony in the balance.

when a queen bee dies

So what happens if you kill a queen bee?

Now we truly understand the real damage caused by killing a queen bee and the consequences it can have on the hive's inhabitants.

Check out another short read on what happens when a queen wasp dies for more fascinating facts about insects.

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