How Does a Bee Become a Queen Bee?

By Brett Smith
Queen bee laying eggs on honeycomb

The only one of its kind in a hive, a queen bee is much larger and has a longer, more tapered abdomen than other bees. Her only role in the hive is to lay eggs and each of these eggs is deposited into a wax cell, with fertilized eggs becoming female worker bees and unfertilized eggs becoming male drone bees.

Genetic Basis for Becoming a Queen

In some human societies, the designation of royalty is passed on through a genetic birthright and honeybees are no different. According to a 2011 study by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, female worker bees and those destined to become queens can be differentiated based on the proteins they express in their cells early on in their development during the larval stage. These proteins are produced directly from the bees' genetic code, meaning queen bees are born into their royal status -- not chosen at random as some had previously thought.

Raising a Queen

During its larval stage, a queen bee is constantly fed royal jelly -- a nutrient-rich substance secreted by worker bees. After about two weeks, the first queen bee emerges from her wax cell. When this happens two events may take place: the virgin queen leaves the nest with a small swarm from the hive, or she stings all of her sisters that are still developing in their wax cells, as they are potential rivals.

Mating Habits

After establishing her hive, the young queen will typically fly off to initially orientate herself to her surroundings. When she is ready to start reproducing, a queen will fly off in pursuit of multiple mates. The queen will store sperm from these matings and upon returning to the hive she will start laying eggs -- about 2000 eggs a day. The single mating session provides enough sperm to last the queen her entire lifetime of 3 to 5 years. After running out of sperm, the subsequent unfertilized eggs will become drones.

Out with the Old, in with the New

An active queen is constantly releasing pheromones to let the bees in the hive know that she is alive and well. When an established queen is in failing health or has become infertile, she stops releasing these hormones and the female workers will begin the process of producing a new queen. The new queen is raised from one of the fertilized eggs of the old queen that has the genetic predisposition for royalty. In some cases the new queen will kill the old.

About the Author

Brett Smith is a science journalist based in Buffalo, N.Y. A graduate of the State University of New York - Buffalo, he has more than seven years of experience working in a professional laboratory setting.