The Queen-Less Colony: What Next?
The colloquial term “queen bee” is very aptly used to describe a powerful woman leader. To say that the queen of a honey bee colony is a powerful woman leader is very nearly an understatement, as the entire hive lives to serve her and do her bidding (so long as she stays in their good graces, of course). Though the queen may be waited on hand and foot, her job is vitally important to the survival of the colony. She is the only bee in the entire hive that is capable of laying fertilized eggs, which grow into female worker bees. Male drone bees are the end result of an unfertilized egg, which the queen can also lay, and serve very little use to the colony, making up only a small percentage of the total bee population. The significance of the queen bee cannot be understated, which begs the question:
What happens to the colony when the queen dies?
Though colonies work hard to avoid a premature death of the queen, this unfortunate event does happen on occasion. At this point, the workers take matters into their own hands and attempt to create a new queen. To do this, they search out female eggs or young larvae with the brood cell uncapped and feed it royal jelly, a special type of brood food that causes growth of a queen rather than a worker. As the new queen grows, the bees will add wax to the cell, elongating it so that it can fit the queen, which is much larger than the size of an average worker bee. This process of creating an emergency queen is known as supersedure (Sammataro, 2011, p. 166) and can only occur if the lost queen has left behind young brood.
If the hive has no brood young enough to rear an emergency queen, a rather interesting phenomenon occurs. The ovaries of some female worker bees will mature and they will begin to release queen-like pheromones to the other workers. As a result, the nurse worker bees will feed them royal jelly, causing the eggs within them to completely mature (167). One may think that this is a great alternative to rearing a new queen, but this process actually leads to the collapse and death of the hive, often times even with beekeeper intervention. These worker bees have been elevated to the status of “laying worker,” and will proceed to lay the mature eggs in brood cells, often in very messy patterns with the eggs on the side of the cell instead of in the center and with multiple eggs per cell. The most important issue, however, is the fact that worker bees are physically unable to mate, so every egg that is laid by a laying worker is an unfertilized drone egg. When all of the brood being laid in a colony is drone brood, the male bees will dominate the population. Unfortunately, these bees serve no practical purpose to the hive, as their one job in life is to leave the hive, mate with a queen not from their colony, and proceed to die. This overrun of drones, alteration of pheromones in some of the workers, and no way to produce a new queen causes these laying worker hives to collapse.
The presence of a queen is essential to the hive and her position as matriarch is enviable to the common worker bee; so much so that some will try to assume her role at the top in her absence, leading to their and, more importantly, their colony’s demise. No matter how much laying workers may try, only a true queen has the authority and power to replace a queen bee.
Sammataro, D., & Avitabile, A. (2011). The Beekeeper's Handbook (4th ed.). Cornell University Press.