What It’s Like to Be a Queen Bee

Being ruler of the hive is not as glamorous as it sounds.

Queen bees have a mixed reputation. Pop culture imagines them as spoiled totalitarians directing hives full of obliging servants. But it turns out that the queen bee’s position, not unlike that of her human counterpart, is both a blessing and a curse.

I caught up with Andrew Cote, the legendary New York City-based beekeeper and founder of Bees Without Borders and the New York City Beekeepers Association. Here’s our conversation, condensed and lightly edited.

So what is the gender distribution like in the honeybee colony?

Ninety-nine percent of the bees in the beehive are female, 1 or less than 1 percent is male.

Really? Wow. So what’s the distinction between the rest of the female bees and the queen bee?

There are three types of bees. There’s the drone; that’s the male. There’s the worker, which is a female, and the queen, which is a female. There’s only one queen bee. The workers comprise something like 99 percent of the population… They do, as the name implies, all the work for the hive. The drones’ only real function in the hive is to exist in the case that a queen bee needs to be fertilized.

And how often does that happen?

Fertilization happens as one event in a queen bee’s lifetime. Usually she mates with seven to eighteen drones and that only happens once for her.

How does a female bee grow up to be a queen?

Well, she’s physically different than the other bees. If a female egg is laid and the larva is under three days old, it will only have been fed royal jelly [a substance secreted from the heads of the worker bees]. That’s true for drones and for workers. If the worker bees make the decision to turn a particular female into a queen, they do so by feeding it only royal jelly for a total of 16 days after she emerges [from her cocoon] rather than a diet of pollen and nectar, which is what all of the other larva are fed after that initial period of three days.

Basically because of the diet of royal jelly, the larva comes to fruition as a queen bee and 16 days later she emerges. Whereas the worker bees, who have been fed a diet of nectar and pollen, emerge after 21 days. They do not have working ovaries and they live between six weeks and six months, whereas the queen, who will go on to eat royal jelly for all of her life, lives about three years, a great deal longer.

What is the mating process like, and how does the queen spend her day?

When she’s a virgin, she goes off on a mating flight. She flies through what is known as the drone congregation area, about 80 feet up in the air. That’s where the drones hang out because they don’t have a lot to do. They have highly developed eyes, and they are always on the lookout for a queen bee that is in heat and they can smell her from a great distance off. There’s something of a cloud of them—let’s call it a couple hundred [to several thousand]—and the queen bee will fly right through that cloud and up as far and fast as she can so that only the fastest and the strongest drones who are chasing her are able to catch her … They catch up to the queen, and they love her.

At that point they leave more than their hearts behind because their penises breaks off inside the queen. So the drones fall to the ground, dead. After she mates with 15 or so drones, and she returns to the hive where some very unlucky worker bee gets to pull the phalli out of her. Anyway then she’s got enough sperm in her so that she’s able to lay about 2,000 eggs per day for at least the next two years … Also, it’s interesting that when she herself lays her eggs, she can decide if the eggs she’s laying will be male or female, fertilized or unfertilized. I doubt anyone of your readership can do that.

True, not quite up to us. What affects the queen’s decision?

The needs of the hive. So at certain times of the year the queen will lay more drones — that would be in the spring when the queens are more likely to need fertilization.

Out of all those eggs, how many of them are queens? And when do they displace the reigning queen?

Very few are queens, and it’s an extraordinarily complicated thing. The queen doesn’t decide whether or not she’s laying a queen; the workers decide if they need another queen. If their current queen is laying poorly, only 100 or 1,200 eggs per day, they may engage in regicide and create a new queen from a new egg. But the queen doesn’t have any say over that. The queen is not really in charge of that much.

The term “queen bee” has taken on a negative connotation, which is especially ironic given the fact that they’re not actually the ones in control. Do you have insight about why that expression and context exists?

It’s very possible that both types of queen bees that we’re talking about are misunderstood. For example, the bug variety is not the power-wielding creature that most people think. She is, in fact, in a golden cage and if she doesn’t live up to the expectations of the hive, they will gang up on her and sting her to death. And they will replace her with one of her own daughters.

So I doubt that exactly that kind of scenario is happening at the high schools, but I think that there could be some misunderstanding. I guess the queen bee could be considered arrogant and entitled, and if that’s the case, I think there’s room to interpret that the queen bee is misunderstood. Because that’s not always the way it is.

Photo of drone Apis mellifera used under a Creative Commons license.