Can Honey Bees Live Without a Queen? How Queenless Hives Work

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Long may she reign! But if she doesn’t, will the hive remain?

Because honey bees are getting scarcer, it’s important that we know essential things about them. And one thing that always hovers over our heads is their queen. How important is she? Can honey bees live without a queen? Is the hive even capable of functioning without her?

Can Honey Bees Live Without a Queen? How Queenless Hives Work

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Unlike termite queens, the queen bee is only slightly bigger than her workers. CC Image courtesy of Waugsberg on Wikipedia

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What’s a queen bee?

A honey bee hive may have tens of thousands of workers but there is only one queen bee. So what is she?

The queen bee is an adult and mated female bee that’s literally mother to all the residents of her hive. She’s the only member of the colony that possesses a mature and fertile reproductive system, so she’s capable of birthing both male and female bees. Thus, she is protected and given a considerable distinction from her ‘subjects’.

A new queen starts off as a regular larva. But unlike the others, she’s fed with plenty of royal jelly. This diet develops her reproductive organs, making her more like a queen than a worker.

When she reaches adulthood, she fights off other queen candidates to secure the throne. However, winning this royal rumble isn’t enough to solidify her status. That’s because during this stage, she’s considered as a virgin queen rather than a queen mother. It’s only after she’s fertilized by several males when she’s ready to take on the role.

The queen bee is a pillar to the hive. Her status isn’t just for the caste system. Similar to ants and termites, her main responsibility is to build up the hive’s numbers and giving birth to the right amount of foragers that will keep a constant flow of pollen, nectar and water. Without her, the hive can lose all of this and have less individuals to resist diseases and parasites.

The queen is also responsible in birthing the only fertile members of her colony. Majority of the hive is composed of infertile worker females. But the queen can choose to lay fertile male drones and fertile new queens. So it’s safe to say she holds the future of the hive in the coming years.

Why does a queen bee suddenly disappear?

The queen isn’t immortal, that’s obvious. But in bug years, she only has 2 to 5 years of royal bee duties to fulfill. Beyond that, she can grow old, die and be replaced.

However, there are also cases where the queen bee suddenly disappears even if she’s relatively new. And there are several reasons that can explain this.

For one thing, she could have been a weak queen. Of course, nature’s “eat or be eaten” rule also applies to the honey bees. If the workers decide that their queen is weak, they can force her retirement and kill her. They can look for new larvae and raise them as young queens. Any time during the selection of the new queen, the old one is usually killed as it won’t not be long until she’s replaced. This supersedure can be something that’s planned or not, depending on the vitality of the current queen.

Natural causes can also explain why a queen suddenly dies. Parasites, diseases, accidents and predators are all common causes of queen fatalities. When a new queen flies out for mating, she can be killed by a bird. She can also suffer from the Black queen cell virus, an infection that causes the queen larva to turn black and die.

Lastly, a queen bee can also be a victim of human actions. She can be a recipient of transmitted toxins from worker bees that have been exposed to neonicotinoids. This insecticide is a famous bee killer and an environmental hazard. Lear more about it here.

If you have some knowledge about beekeeping, then you know that missing queens are normal. But what’s important though is what happens to the hive after the only royal takes an unexpected permanent leave.

Can honey bees live without a queen?

That’s a good question. Since honey bees are so adapted to living with a queen mother, can they survive without her?

Typically, when a queen dies, she’s replaced by a newer younger model. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s usually suspected that the colony also dies not long after.

Because workers are females, they’ll be forced to lay eggs in the queen’s place. But since they’re unfertilized, they can only produce male drones. Soon, the hive will be overrun with useless and hungry males. And everyone will go hungry, with no new forager bees to bring in more nectar, pollen and water to make honey. To put it simply, the colony will starve from the lack of productivity.

However, a practical experiment by The Conversation.com challenges all that. They tested whether queenless hives really do become “selfish” and undergo the same chain of events that will lead to their starvation.

The experimenters removed queens from several hives in Australia and America, prevented them from making replacements and observed how’d they cope with the changes.

The results were surprising. The honey bees began to exhibit behaviors that non-eusocial bees would do. It turns out that the hive doesn’t die from starvation right away. Normally, for hives with present queens, it’s the sole duty of foragers to bring in food and water. The non-foragers would just work to maintain the hive. However, in queenless colonies, all the worker bees become foragers. And at the same time, they feed the brood and build and fix the wax chambers of the hive.

Many of the workers did lay male drones, but they actively looked for food to compensate for that. Unfortunately though, this state will not last because all the female bees will eventually die, leaving the hive to the males.

What does a queenless hive look like?

A queenless hive is easy to identify if you have access to it like a beekeeper does. If you do, just look at the eggs standing up at the bottom of the waxy cells. If there isn’t any, then the queen is definitely missing.

Can Honey Bees Live Without a Queen - drones in the cells

One indication of a queenless hive is an increase number of male drone larvae. CC Image courtesy of Waugsberg on Wikipedia

There are also other indicators like irregularly spaced egg laying and unusually filled swarm cells. These tell you that the queen is about to kick the bucket and the colony is planning to replace her.

If you’d like to know more about this, then head over to Basic Beekeeping. But if you’re just a curious homeowner who suspects something going on in a local hive, then you’ve gotten what you need to know to answer the question Can honey bees live without a queen?

But remember though, having no queen doesn’t automatically mean that the hive will die. She’s replaceable. So it’s better to employ honey bee removal methods than to wait for them to become queenless and die out. That could take forever.