The Queen Bee

Queen Bees and their role in the hive

The queen, as she is generally called (the mother bee would be a much more appropriate name to designate the functions which properly belong to her in the economy of the hive), is without doubt the most important personage in the colony ; not from any useful labor which she per­forms in building combs, storing honey, or anything of this kind, nor yet for enacting laws and dictating to the rest of the colony what they shall and what they shall not do, with that pomp and dignity sup­posed to be the prerogative of earthly potentates gen­erally; but for the humble position and for the sim­ple purpose of laying eggs from which the young are reared, and thus becomes the means of extending and perpetuating her species.

In discussing this part of my subject, my expe­rience will necessarily lead me to differ, on some points, from writers whose views generally re­ceived as orthodox.


The queen, or mother bee, is easily distinguished from all other bees in the colony, by a more measured, sedate movement; the greater length of her body, which tapers gradually to a point; the proportionate shortness of her

The wings of the queen bee, reach but little beyond her middle, ending about the third ring of her ab­domen, but are very strong and sinewy; her head is rounder, her trunk or thorax more slender and but little more than half the length of that of the com­mon worker bee; her legs, though longer, have nei­ther brushes nor baskets for collecting pollen ; she differs in color from all other bees in the colony, as much as in shape—the upper part of her body is of a much brighter black, the under surface and the legs are of a dark orange or copper color, the hind legs being rather darker than the rest.


My experience upon this point is that the queen bee does not, or if she does exercise any controlling power, it is to a very limited extent indeed ; but on the con­trary, I firmly believe the queen bee to be a creature of the col­ony, or worker bees, and subject to their power and control, from the time the egg is deposited from which she is reared, up to the perfect queen, and from that time to the day of her death. It is gen­erally conceded that the worker bees possess the pow­er to rear a queen from any egg deposited in a worker oell, and it is generally supposed that the change is caused by the quantity and quality of food given them whilst in the larva state, producing a fully developed insect instead of one but partially developed, as in the case of the common workers, and in this opin­ion I fully concur. Now if food can be varied to produce such striking results as this, may it not pro­duce very important results in another direction ? (as I will have occasion to refer to hereafter.) Thus we find the common bees can rear a queen at pleasure, when they have eggs. Now suppose the old queen is removed from a colony when in possession of eggs, what is the result? Do they scatter oft; hither and thither, having lost their governor or sovereign ; or do they become lazy, indolent or reckless, not caring now to protect their stores, as would most unques­tionably be the case were they dependent upon the queen to direct them in their duty, allotting to each their task ? Nay, every observant beekeeper can tes­tify to the reverse of all this.

When the queen bee is removed the hive very soon misses her, and immediately makes a diligent search for the queen in and about the hive, apparently manifesting a great anxiety for her safety. If she is not found in a short time, they settle down and go to work quietly, as if nothing unusual had happened. To replace their lost queen now seems to be their greatest concern. It would be very difficult for the most skillful and careful observer to detect any thing different in their movements from those in possession of a queen ; the only difference, perhaps, is, that if any comb is built it is pretty certain to be drone cells. Honey and pollen will be gathered and stored, and every thing carried on with the same order and precision that it could be if a queen was present. Now if the queen rules a colony and directs its movements, laying out all the plans, as most writers would have us be­lieve, where is the directing or governing power vested, in the absence of a queen ? Are the various manipulations of the hive carried on at random? I think not. Every bee, when it is born into the world, is most unquestionably endowed by nature with that instinct which prompts it to enter upon the discharge of its appropriate duties, and also with the knowledge and mechanical skill necessary to perform those du­ties; no apprenticeship under skilled architects is necessary to enable the young bee to build the most beautiful comb, complete in all its relations, which has been a problem to the most profound philoso­phers and geometricians for centuries; hence I think facts will justify me in believing,

First. That no sovereignty is exercised by the queen bee over the other bees in the colony.

Second. That the entire economy of the colony is directed and executed by the worker bees, including, to a very considerable extent, the actions of the queen bee.

Third. The only necessity for the presence of the queen bee is to supply- the colony with eggs.

Fourth. That the time of laying eggs, and the number required at any given period, is controlled by the workers, and not by the queen bee.

Fifth. That no eggs are deposited in the queen cells by queens.

Sixth. That no homage or filial affection is ren­dered or manifested for the queen bee by the workers, other than from the instinct of self-preservation.


No doubt I will be pronounced heterodox by many, and especially by contemporary authors and their ad­herents, who have made the sovereignty of the queen and the homage and filial affection rendered her by her loving subjects, a theme over which they have become very eloquent, and even romantic. This course on the part of authors tends, in my opin­ion, to continue and perpetuate in a modified form that mystery which has for ages surrounded and ob­scured bees and beekeeping, and no doubt in many cases prevents persons from engaging in beekeeping from a dread of being unable to understand and manage properly such a complicated kind of stock, and one so uncertain and so difficult to comprehend.

I apprehend that when the. facts connected with this subject are fully known, and a true knowledge of the internal economy of the society of bees is simpli­fied and presented truthfully, without being inter­mixed with the remains of superstition, it will then be demonstrated that bees can be understood and man­aged by the community at large upon the same gen­eral principles, and with similar assurances of suc­cess, as any other domestic stock. Any thing which I may present will be for the purpose of simplifying and removing objections which have by many been considered insurmountable to beekeeping, and not with any desire to provoke controversy upon the part of any with whom I may chance to differ.

In connection with my first proposition, that no sovereignty is exercised by the queen, I have already given my reasons for this conclusion to a considera­ble extent, but will give some experiments to show that each individual bee fully understands its own duty from instinct, without any instruction. Just as soon as they were able to commence the performance thereof, I took a number of frames, being full of combs, brood, shook the bees down on a sheet in front of the hive; all the old bees, or nearly so, would within a few minutes take wing and return to their hive. I should remark, however, that a hive was selected in which a large amount of brood had been emerging for a day or two previous, and was still emerging. With a little patience and care, al­most every bee that is old enough to fly can be re­moved or separated from those that are yet unable to fly; in this manner enough of these young bees can be obtained to make a small swarm, sufficient to keep two brood combs warm, if other combs are placed on each side, and the whole covered or closed around, giving the colony space just in proportion to its size. Combs were selected from which’ brood was rapidly emerging; and an embryo queen was set in one of the combs, in a central position. This exper­iment was made in very warm weather; the entrance was contracted so that robbers were not likely to at­tack it. Now for the result. The first’ day, not a single bee could be seen to enter or depart; the sec­ond day, a bee might be seen coming out and appa­rently making very short excursions, and again re­turning; this only occurred at long intervals. On examining the interior, the numbers seemed to be very much increased by those that had emerged from the comb; many bees could now be observed pretty well developed, apparently capable of going abroad to the fields and engaging in their daily avocations. On the third day a few more could be seen at the entrance. Fourth clay, the number still increased ; one could be seen occasionally carrying pollen; young queen emerged evening of this day ; colony quite lively. Fifth day, began to work quite regu­larly, evidently carrying both honey and pollen.  Sixth day, still increasing in strength. Seventh day, working quite briskly, considering the size of the colony. Eighth and ninth days, working as strong, apparently, in proportion to their numbers, as any stock in the apiary. On the evening of the ninth day (five days from the time the queen emerged from her cell), a few eggs were observed in one of the combs. Tenth day, the number of eggs was greatly increased ; the queen was now fertile, and the exper­iment of making a colony of bees, composed entirely of young ones, without a single exception, was a perfect success, the bees continuing to thrive and do well.

We have instituted similar experiments with the same result. Can it be supposed, with any degree of plausibility, that those young bees were governed by a queen, or other royal dignitary, four days having elapsed without any queen being in the colony, ex­cept the one yet sealed up in the cell ; nor were there any old bees to instruct them in the affairs of the colony. I forgot to mention that three queen cells were commenced before the queen emerged from her cell, but of course were then discontinued. In one or two cases, we have had them to rear and perfect queens in this manner.

But I find, upon examination, that I am not the first to suppose that the queen exercised no authority over the other bees. Bonner, an eminent Scotch writer of the last century, uses the following lan­guage:

“But as it is also now unanimously admitted that the queen bee lays every egg in the hive, she ought rather be called the mother bee, for indeed from the best observation that ever I could make, she possesses and exerts no. sovereignty over the other bees ; she evidences the greatest anxiety for the good of the commonwealth with which she is con­nected, and indeed every member of it shows an equal regard for her welfare ; but I never could ob­serve that she issues any positive orders to be punctu­ally obeyed by the other bees. The truth seems to be, that she and the other bees are all equally ac­quainted with their duty by instinct, and have an equal pleasure in performing it, without waiting for orders from each other. That there is, nevertheless, the greatest order and regularity among them, is cer­tain, for they lay their plans and execute them in the best possible manner, by the influence of the above powerful substitute for reason.”


It seems evident that in the creation and organi­zation of societies or colonies of honey bees, as in other things, the sexes are, to a certain extent, depend­ent on each other for the propagation and perpetua­tion of their species ; but here we have the strange anomaly of the neuter gender, or rather of the unde­veloped sex (of which the colony is mainly composed), feeding and nursing the young, and caring for them with as much parental devotion and solicitude as though they were actually their own offspring, the queen simply depositing the eggs in their appropriate place. It seems they also have the knowledge and ability to rear the brood in such manner as would seem best for the welfare of the colony, either by rearing it all as undeveloped females (common workers), or fully developing a portion thereof and making queens.

I refer to eggs deposited in worker cells; those in drone cells are drones, and nothing else. When a swarm issues from a colony, the workers are the first to go forth; a considerable portion of the swarm generally emerges before the queen takes wing. This rule is deviated from in many instances in after swarms, but I never knew an instance with first swarms. The workers are also the first to select a place to cluster ; and in many cases I have carefully observed to see if the queen was first, or even among the first, to alight ; but as a general thing a consid­erable portion of the swarm would cluster, when her ladyship might be seen alighting in their midst.

I have known swarms to cluster, and in some cases remain until put into the hive, and then return to the parent stock, when I knew the queen had not left at all, having seen her running round on the alighting board and return into the hive, apparently unable to fly, or unwilling to risk herself on the wing ; the bees evidently having done their part, expected the queen to do hers. It is true, however, that in a very few cases I have known the queen to get down in the weeds or grass, being unable to arise and fly again ; the worker bees after some time would discover her, and would then cluster upon and around her. But this is not their natural way of doing ; it is the exception, and not the rule. Hence I conclude the worker bees lead off in swarming and in clustering, the queen following instead of leading. Her presence is absolutely necessary to the welfare of the swarm, simply for the purpose of supplying the means of replenishing the stock ; of this they seem perfectly aware. They prefer returning to the parent stock to setting up without her.

When a swarm is hived, the workers lay the foun­dation of the combs, and carry on the work until finished ; the queen depositing eggs in the cells as they are progressing, not waiting for their comple­tion. They also collect the food necessary for the sustenance of the entire colony. But some one is ready to say, perhaps the queen directs all this. Just take her away, and see how quickly a change will take place. Now let us see what the change will be. Suppose the queen has laid a few eggs in the first comb built, and we remove her from the hive en­tirely; the bees will set to work to rear queens from those eggs, and the other business of the hive will go on as if nothing unusual had happened; honey and pollen will be gathered and stored ; whatever eggs or brood may be in the hive are properly cared for ; and all progress finely so long as they have the means of supplying themselves with a queen. In­deed it is next to impossible even for the experienced apiarian to detect anything wrong from outside ap­pearances ; and yet there is no queen to direct them or instruct them in their duty ; every member of the colony, as has already been remarked, knows its duty, and discharges that duty with alacrity, not wait­ing for orders from the queen or from each other.

When the yield of honey is good, an in­creased amount of brood is reared ; but when it is cut off suddenly by frost, or any other casualty, I have seen them drag the brood, both worker and drones, in all stages, from the combs, at the same time killing and driving out the mature drones, as if a famine was just at hand. Is it the queen that di­rects this destruction of her offspring? To test the matter to the satisfaction of any one, just remove the queen, when such a case occurs, from some strong stock, and the only perceptible difference will be, that the one having no queen will retain a portion of the drones, for the purpose, doubtless, of impregnat­ing the young queen, should they be successful in rearing one from eggs in the combs when the queen is taken away.

The preparation for swarming is, I believe, made entirely by the workers. The fact is stated by sev­eral authors, in which I concur, that a guard of worker bees are placed over the queen cells during their progress, to prevent the old queen from de­stroying them, which she would most certainly do if left to the freedom of her own will, and effectually prevent any swarm from going forth in a state of nature, the result of which would be to bring the whole race to an end ere long.

Here we have positive evidence of the workers governing the queen, and controlling her actions.

When a top swarm has gone forth, the old queen accompanying them, leaving embryo queens in the hive, the guard is continued to prevent the first one out from rushing to and destroying all her sister queens, thereby preventing the possibility of any after swarms going forth. In some instances the young queens are imprisoned in their cells for days, being fed through an opening at the end of the cell, by the workers, until circumstances change so as to make it proper to release them.

Experiments can easily be instituted by amateurs, or any one doubting the truth of this, to test it, by constructing observatory hives, with glass sides, ex­posing to view the combs and all the workings of the colony. Directions will be found on another page for constructing such hives.

Thus we find the worker bees capable of carrying on all the affairs of the hive, rearing a queen when destitute (providing they have eggs), controlling the queen, and preventing her from destroying the em­bryo queens ; and I will venture the opinion, that they (the workers) cause her to leave the old hive with the top swarm ; if left to herself, she would not emigrate from her old home. This is but an opinion, the truth of which time and observation will demonstrate.


That the colony is entirely dependent on the queen for a supply of eggs, few will doubt; but the idea has generally prevailed that this is not her only duty. Curiosity has prompted me to scrutinize this matter pretty closely, but I have failed to discover that she performs any other office in the colony ex­cept the one just indicated. I never could observe that she had any care for her offspring, either feed­ing them or manifesting any parental anxiety what­ever for their welfare; in fact, the workers, as a gen­eral thing, supply the queen bee with her food, from time to time, as she requires it.

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