Bees live in highly organized colonies with strict hierarchies. At the top of the hierarchy is the queen bee, whose main role is to reproduce and lay eggs. Worker bees dedicate their lives to serving the queen and the colony. They forage for food, build the comb, protect the hive, feed the larvae, and more.
The queen bee emits pheromones that regulate the activities of the colony. As long as the queen is healthy and productive, releasing normal amounts of pheromone, the colony functions harmoniously. However, sometimes bees reject or supersede their queen, replacing her with a new one. There are several reasons why this might occur.
Why Would a Colony Reject Its Queen?
There are a few key reasons why a honey bee colony might reject its queen:
She is not laying enough eggs
The queen’s main role is to reproduce—she can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day at her peak. If egg laying declines substantially, the workers may sense something is wrong and start rearing replacement queens. Even a modest decline in egg laying may trigger their response.
Her pheromone profile changes
The queen produces pheromones that regulate various activities in the hive. If her pheromone makeup changes significantly, perhaps due to age or disease, the workers may no longer recognize her scent. This could prompt queen replacement.
She is injured or ill
Sometimes the queen becomes injured, diseased, or compromised in some way. An injured or unwell queen cannot properly care for the colony, so the bees will replace her.
She is infertile
On rare occasions, a queen bee is infertile and cannot reproduce. Since this makes her useless to the colony, the workers sense the lack of brood and replace her.
The colony is preparing to swarm
Honey bee colonies reproduce through a process called swarming. Before a colony swarms, the workers will rear new queens. Once the virgin queens emerge, the old queen leaves with some workers to start a new colony elsewhere. The remaining bees may reject the old queen in preparation for swarming.
How Do Bees Reject Their Queen?
When bees decide to supersede (replace) their queen, they go about it systematically. Here are the steps involved:
1. Rearing replacement queens
Worker bees select several young larvae to be reared into new virgin queens. They are fed a special diet of royal jelly to stimulate their development.
2. Building queen cells
The workers construct special large, vertical queen cells out of wax within the colony. These cells protrude from the comb and hang downwards. Once complete, a newly hatched virgin queen is placed inside each cell to mature.
3. Queen duels
Once the virgin queens fully develop and chew their way out of their cells, duels often occur between emerging queens. Only one replacement queen can take over the colony, so the virgins will fight to the death until a sole survivor remains.
4. Departure of the old queen
Once the replacement virgins emerge, the old queen leaves the colony with a swarm of workers. Scouts are sent out from the swarm to search for a new home. This allows the new queen to take over the existing colony.
5. Destruction of remaining queen cells
After the old queen departs, workers rapidly destroy any leftover queen cells containing unemerged virgins. This ensures the sole surviving new queen faces no competition.
6. New queen takes over
The replacement queen solidifies her control over the colony. She quickly begins laying eggs and releasing queen substance pheromones. The workers care for her and resume their usual activities under her direction. The transition is complete.
Signs a Queen is Being Rejected
There are some clear signs within a bee colony indicating the workers are rejecting their current queen:
– Queen cells are being constructed – large, peanut-shaped wax cells protruding from the comb. This shows replacement queens are being reared.
– The queen is inactive – she is not laying eggs and is sluggish in her movements. The workers likely sense she is compromised.
– Worker bees are aggressive towards the queen – they may ball the queen, encircling her and even stinging her. This harasses unwanted queens.
– Few or no worker bees surrounding the queen – normally, attendants closely follow and care for the queen. Lack of attention indicates rejection.
– Evidence of fighting between virgin queens – chewed up queen cells and dead virgin queens on the bottom board signals duels have taken place.
– A dramatic reduction in the queen’s pheromone output – lab testing can confirm if her pheromones are significantly diminished.
– Lack of queen attending ‘piping’ sounds – these high-pitched squeaks are made by attendants around a healthy laying queen. Their absence indicates she is being neglected by workers.
Can a Rejected Queen Be Reintroduced?
Once a queen has been rejected and replaced, generally she cannot be successfully reintroduced back into the same colony. The workers have moved on and will not accept her back.
However, a rejected queen can potentially be introduced into a new colony. To do this, follow a standard queen introduction protocol:
– Place the queen in a small cage with a few worker bees as attendants for 1-2 days, allowing her scent to disseminate through the colony.
– Carefully introduce the caged queen between the frames of the receiving colony.
– After a few days with no aggression toward the caged queen, plug the candy to allow the bees to slowly eat through and release her.
– Check back in a week – if eggs are present, the reintroduction worked. If not, she may have been rejected again.
With proper procedures, an otherwise healthy rejected queen stands a decent chance of being accepted into a new colony needing a queen. But returning her to the original colony that superseded her is typically doomed to fail.
Preventing Queen Rejection
While queen rejection is a natural process of colony reproduction, beekeepers can take some steps to prevent it:
– Replace queens after 1-2 years – old queens with declining fertility/pheromones are prime targets for replacement.
– Ensure proper nutrition – well-fed bees are less likely to replace their queen. Supplement with pollen patties if natural forage is scarce.
– Prevent swarming – monitor for overcrowding and swarm cells. Split hives before they become overpopulated.
– Combine weak colonies – small, weak colonies are more prone to rejecting queens. Merge weak hives together.
– Isolate the queen if injured – quarantine an injured queen in a queen cage for a few days to allow healing before reintroducing her.
– Avoid disrupting the brood nest – try not to disturb the frames around the broodnest, as this can unintentionally trigger queen replacement.
While beekeepers can take steps to prevent queen rejection, it remains an inevitable aspect of colony dynamics that cannot be fully avoided. The key is close monitoring and quick action when any cells or other signs of rejection arise.
Queen rejection is a harsh reality in the lives of honey bees, but one that is necessary for the continued survival and productivity of the colony. By replacing old, infertile, or otherwise inadequate queens, the worker bees ensure the queen’s vitality and their colony’s ability to thrive.
Understanding the reasons bees reject their matriarch, the telltale signs of queen rejection, and techniques beekeepers can use to prevent it allows us to gain fascinating insight into the complex social dynamics at play within a honey bee hive. This inherent capacity to assess and replace failed leaders has allowed honey bees to flourish around the world.