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The queen is potentially the most important member of a bee colony. Without her, there would be no way of producing new bees and eventually, the colony would die. As a beekeeper, it’s essential to make sure that your hive always has a healthy queen. But knowing when to replace her can be tricky and it involves considering the age of the current queen. But how long do queen bees live?
Queen honey bees usually live for between one and five years. However, different species of bees have different life spans. For example, the queen bumble bee doesn’t live any longer than one year.
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the lifecycle of the queen honey bee. In this post, I’ll also provide some information on the longevity of other bee species for your reference.
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Out of all of the bee species, the honey bee is probably the most well-known. This is a species of social bee and the lifespan of each member of the colony is different. For example, the worker bees, which make up most of the colony, only live for around six weeks. The males, better known as drones live even shorter lives and, once they have mated; they die. If they’re unsuccessful in mating, they’ll be kicked out of the colony and will die alone. That’s pretty sad, right?
But our focus in this post is on the queen, so how long does she live? Well, in honey bees, the lifespan of a queen is quite long, especially in comparison to other bee species. Typically, a queen honey bee will live for between one and five years but it’s most common for them to get to two or three years of age.
During her life, a single queen can produce as many as a million eggs and in summer, she might lay as many as 2000 a day! Of course, the older she gets, the less productive she becomes. The natural order in the hive means that, as the queen starts getting older, the nurse bees will prepare to replace her. This happens when specially chosen larvae are fed royal jelly which is what they use to raise new queens.
When female bees are born, they all have equal potential to become a queen. But that doesn’t mean to say that they will all become queens. Only some female larvae are chosen to feed on a diet of royal jelly and this usually happens when the colony picks up on the fact that it needs a new queen.
But how do they know this? Well, bees rely heavily on pheromones for communication and as a queen gets older, she will release fewer pheromones to let the other bees know about this.
From the new eggs, the nurse bees will usually choose no more than 20 individuals to raise as potential queens. They feed them on royal jelly which is secreted from the mandibles of the nurse bees and is a milky substance which activates the reproductive system of the young. Bees that are not fed on royal jelly remain infertile for their whole lives.
As these potential queens are developing, they remain in their own cell within the comb which is aptly named a queen cell. After feeding the larva on royal jelly, it’s time for the potential new queen to pupate so the nurse bees cap the cell and let nature take its course.
It takes around 15 days for the bee to develop, at which point, she needs to chew away at the cap to release herself from the cell. It’s not uncommon for some of the worker bees to get in on the action and help her out.
Once the new bee is out of her cell, she doesn’t automatically get the job of being the queen. Don’t forget that the nurse bees chose several others that may also potentially become queens. It’s now a fight for survival as the bees try to kill their sisters. The first bee out of the cell makes a call to those that are still developing and then she goes to their cells and stings them to death.
Now that she has secured her place as queen, the new queen needs to take a mating flight. This happens once in her life and will allow her to continue laying fertilized eggs for as long as she is alive. During this flight, the queen will mate with several drones from the colony, all of which will die when they’re done.
When the mating flight is over, the queen goes back to the hive and that’s where she will stay for the rest of her life. But before she settles down, she needs to find the old queen and deal with her. In some cases, the old queen will have already died or even left the hive in a swarm, in which case, our new queen has nothing to worry about.
But where the existing queen remains, she will seek her out with the help of some of the worker bees and they’ll all club together to sting her to death. However, this is rare.
After this assassination, the new queen is free to spend her days laying eggs in the hive. She’ll routinely check cells and when she finds empty ones, she’ll fill them with freshly laid, fertilized eggs. The worker bees provide her with assistance and take care of her every need so she can focus on populating the hive.
It’s important for the worker bees to know the current status of the queen so she will also release pheromones to let them know that she’s doing well. Some queens are so healthy that they’ll populate the hive to capacity and when this happens, it may need to swarm.
Bumblebees are an entirely different kettle of fish and they don’t live in large colonies like the honey bee. Whereas honey bees can live in colonies that number tens of thousands, bumbles usually gather in groups of 50 to 250.
Over the winter, these bees will hibernate although the males die off at the end of summer. It’s the queen that will hibernate with the newly produced young and, in spring, she will emerge from her ground nest in search of food for the young.
Once she has raised her new colony which includes drones and new queens, she will die. Therefore, queen bumble bees only live for one year. There are reports of some queens going on to produce a second brood in year two but this is very rare.
Stingless bees are another type of social bee that lives in a colony, just like honey bees. It is hard to say exactly how long a stingless queen lives because there are more than 500 different species. Naturally, each one may have a slightly different lifespan.
But one thing that is common between all types of stingless bees is that they’re long-lived. In many cases, the queens will last for several years and there is one species from Venezuela called Melipona favosa, whose queens can live for more than three years.
I often get asked how long do queen bees live? The answer to this question isn’t a simple one because different bee species have different life spans. The honey bee, for example, could live anywhere up to five years, although three is more common. On the other hand, bumble bee queens don’t last longer than a year.
The lifecycle of a queen honey bee is incredibly interesting and fraught with challenges such as fighting for her place as queen as well as meeting a pretty gruesome end. But her main goal is to lay as many eggs as possible and ensure the survival of her colony.