Believe it or not, queen and worker larvae start the exact same way. Most female bees become workers, which are generally sterile. Only a tiny percentage of female larvae become queen bees, which are the sole reproductive beings in their colonies. Interestingly, the larvae that become potential queen bees eat a diet of royal jelly instead of honey and beebread. But what is royal jelly and how does it affect the development of queen bees? And how do bees make royal jelly? Discover the relationship between royal jelly and queen bees to understand bee biology further.
The Bee Caste System
The term “caste system” may have negative connotations for humans, but it can be a positive thing for bees. Believe it or not, caste systems aren’t just for human civilizations. Inside each hive, there is a caste system of bees that dictates daily operations. Beehives contain several workers, drones, and a queen bee.
Most female bees are workers, and each colony consists mostly of workers. These are the bees you see foraging for nectar and pollen, and they keep the hive running smoothly. Among the workers, there are nurse bees that take care of the new larvae and attendant bees that care for and attend to the queen bee as she reproduces for the colony.
The glands in worker bee heads create the royal jelly the queen bee will eat for her lifespan. They also feed it to all developing bee eggs.
Drones are male bees, and their sole responsibility is mating with young queens in spring and summer. Interestingly, drones don’t have the physical capability to sting, and they’re unable to feed themselves without the help of worker bees.
Surprisingly, drone bees only mate once. They insert their endophallus into the queen and attempt to fly away after mating successfully. However, part of the endophallus gets stuck, and the drone’s lower abdomen gets torn off as a result. Shortly after mating, drone bees die.
How do queen bees become queen? They’re born with the ability to reproduce. Although each colony only has one queen bee at a time, she is the most important member of the colony. In fact, the worker bees protect her at all costs, and she only leaves the hive twice in her life. The queen goes on mating flights at the beginning of her life, where she collects enough male genetic material to reproduce for her entire life.
The second time she may leave the hive is during a swarm. The workers prepare the queen for the swarm by slimming her down enough to fly to their new home. After that, the queen no longer has any reason to leave the hive.
The Importance of Queens
As previously mentioned, the queen is the most important member of the colony even though there’s only one. Believe it or not, the queen is the only fertile female in the hive, and she reproduces enough to keep the colony’s population booming.
In fact, a single queen bee can lay up to 200,000 eggs each year, which equates to roughly 1,500-3,000 eggs in a single day. The life of a queen is a bit different from workers and drones. The average queen bee lives between two and five years, which means she may lay over a million eggs in her lifetime!
How Queens Become Queens
You may be wondering exactly how queens become queens; interestingly enough, all female bee larvae begin developing the same way. Nurse bees feed all larvae royal jelly for the first few days of development, but they switch to honey, pollen, and beebread for those who will become workers. On the other hand, those chosen to become potential queens continue to eat a royal jelly diet.
Royal Jelly Diet
If you’ve ever wondered what queen bees eat, you might have mistakenly thought it was honey, but it is royal jelly. It’s also known as bee milk, and it resembles white snot. Fascinatingly, royal jelly consists mostly of water. Still, it also contains protein, simple sugars, enzymes, minerals, and vitamin C. Nurse bees produce royal jelly in their hypopharyngeal gland in their heads, and they feed it directly to the larvae or the queen.
Survival of the Fittest
The workers choose a handful of larvae to nourish with the royal jelly diet and become potential queens. They do this to ensure one of them will be a strong queen when she hatches. Because there is more than one potential bee to become the queen, natural selection also plays a role in metaphorically crowning the queen.
For example, the first queen to hatch may use her stinger to kill the other larvae before they hatch to become the queen of the hive. If more than one queen hatches at the same time, they must fight to the death until one remains. She proves her own strength, and the colony accepts her as their queen.
Epigenetics is the study of how the environment affects gene expression, and researchers already know that organisms can be genetically identical but turn out to be very different. The differences between workers and queen bees are an excellent example of epigenetics at work.
Worker bees have much smaller bodies, different anatomy, and behavior. For example, workers tend to die shortly after stinging, and their average lifespan is around six weeks. On the other hand, queen bees have much larger bodies, reproductive capabilities, and an average lifespan of four or five years.
Most would agree that these differences are because the royal jelly diet influences gene expression by silencing a specific set of genes. However, there is another point of view that many are starting to research.
Something To Consider
Although it’s a common belief that the sole royal jelly diet is what differentiates the queens from the workers, some researchers have a different hypothesis. It’s possible that not feeding the queen larvae honey and pollen makes them different from worker bees rather than the exclusive royal jelly diet.
While there’s not a definite answer as to how queens differ from their worker bee counterparts, it’s safe to say that there is a relationship between royal jelly and queen bees. Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or just a bee supporter, understanding bee biology is the best way to recognize specific behavior patterns within a beehive.
The bee caste system is what keeps each colony running smoothly and efficiently. The inner workings of a beehive are highly fascinating, and you’ll be amazed at how much you learn by simply observing a colony for a while. The B Farm has VSH queen bees for sale if you’re interested in becoming a beekeeper and doing your part to protect your local bee population from extinction. You can also explore our blogs to learn more facts about queen bees.