In a hive, there is one and only one queen. She runs the colony and is the mother to all the bees (~60,000 per hive at peak) in the hive. A queen is the only sexually mature female in a colony (note the big booty in the pic…click to blow it up). The bulk of a colony is comprised of sexually immature females which account for about 90% of the population. The female worker bees, as they are called, protect the hive (they have the stingers and know how to use them), gather all of the nectar and pollen, raise all of the brood (baby bees) and generally clean up around the place (No, bees and humans are not alike).
Click the pic to enlarge. The queen is obvious when enlarged
Aside from the females, about 10% of the hive is comprised of male drone bees. Males are bigger in stature than females and have large eyes with which to see the queen. Their only job is to mate with a virgin queen, should the need arise. The big eyes come in handy because they must mount and mate with the queen in mid-flight. More about that in a moment…but don’t think that a drones life is all that hot though. In mid-fall, all of the drones are turned out to starve to death. If they try to come back, the workers pull off their wings (and if necessary, their legs) and throw them out. Males, you see, serve no purpose in the winter and only eat precious food (no, bees are nothing like humans…quit thinking that!)
So, how is a queen “made”? A female larva is turned into a queen by getting the proper amount of royal jelly at the proper time in its larval stage. Basically, she gets a little extra protein when she is a worm and all the rest is downhill. Anyhow, a colony can sense the absence of a queen (i.e. she died or was killed), or a failing queen (too old, sick) and will prepare several new queens by giving extra royal jelly to several larva that they deem as appropriate. Typically the first hatched queen (21 days after the egg was laid) of those prepared by the colony will navigate the colony and sting to death any unhatched queens and the original queen that the colony deemed as not worthy.
So, the hive has one queen and she must be mated to properly do her work, that is, laying 1000-2000 eggs per day, every day except during the winter when she slows down. She mates with 10-20 male drones in the first week or so after she hatches. She’s easy I guess, as she goes out on the town and will mate with any males who can catch her…yup, they mate mid-flight. Once the male is..uh…done, he falls off of the queen leaving his…uh…equipment attached to the queen. Without his equipment, the male plummets to his death (I mean, seriously, why go on without it? No. bees are nothing like humans..). So, to be clear, the queen mates with 10-20 males midflight during the first week or so of her life. She never mates again so must store every bit of sperm that she will use to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life. So, here’s a riddle…which bees in the hive have brothers and sisters and a mother but no father? It’s not the white trash bees…give up? The male drones. Drones are created by the queen when she lays an unfertilized egg. It’s not by accident that she fertilizes or doesn’t fertilize eggs. She regulates the hive to ensure that there are the correct number of male drones and female worker bees as the season demands.
So, all this information is to tell you that the queen is the life of the hive. Without her, the hive will die if a new queen cannot be made. Beekeepers are very careful to select good queens to ensure their hygenic tendencies, their temperament, their resistance to disease and in general, how they roll. I always check my hives to find a queen or evidence of a queen (i.e. eggs…they only stay eggs for 3 days).