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Is the Queen the Most Important Bee in the Hive?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

This may shock you, but Master Beekeepers Earl and Carol Hoffman do not consider the queen bee the most important bee in the hive. In fact, chasing after the perfect queen can lead beekeepers down a path where they put other bees in the hive at risk.

Queens are often given precedent because they produce bees to grow the colony. Drones contribute to colony growth as well, so are often seen as very important. But mating is only important when viable larvae are nurtured into healthy adults. These bees are the future of the hive. Therefore, the young nurse bees – who feed and protect the larvae – are the most important bees in the hive.

Earl and Carol walk through their rationale below. We hope next time you are working with your bees you think about the queen, drones, and nurse bees in a new light.

The Queen is Replaceable – and will be Superseded

Even the perfect queen who remains well-mated and virus-free typically lasts between one and four years. A colony, on the other hand, can live indefinitely if conditions are right for healthy bees to grow, reproduce, and survive winter.

Queens are replaced and superseded by hive bees when queen pheromones and performance is lacking. They normally fail because of many factors that a beekeeper may or may not be able to control:

  • Queens that mate with only a few drones do not have a full spermatheca and become drone layers

  • Queens may mate with drones that have low sperm viability or the drone sperm is dead

  • Queens may mate with drones that vector viruses in the sperm

Drones are Replaceable – and can be compromised

All queen eggs and drone sperm carry 16 chromosomes – half of the 32 chromosomes needed to create a female worker bee. Drones need to be healthy and have viable sperm in order to be beneficial to the hive.

There are many reasons why drones can be compromised:

  • Drones must be well-fed to produce copious amounts of viable sperm. During nectar and pollen dearth periods, drones may be removed from the hive, year-round

  • Young drones are sexually immature and do not produce sperm

  • Varroa mites reproduce well on drone pupa, making drones more susceptible to viruses vectored by Varroa mites

  • Synthetic chemicals used to suppress Varroa mites in the hive can reduce the amount of viable sperm in drones

Young Nurse Bees are Irreplaceable – They Feed the Next Generation

Earl and Carol believe nurse bees are the most important bee in the hive because even if the queen lays 2,000 eggs per day, nurse bees have to feed the next generation.

Here’s why nurse bees are important:

  • Nurse bees consume the protein in the pollen

  • Nurse bees create and feed queen cells

  • They secrete the excess larval food that, if shared with their sisters, can then express vitellogenin genes

  • Vitellogenin will suppress the juvenile hormone and help create winter bees

  • If there is a shortage of pollen or nurse bees, the young bees will conserve protein by consuming the new eggs. The nurse bees will eat the eggs to help the hive survive

Nature or Nurture? Both!

A honey bee hive thrives in the summer and survives winter because of cooperation and hygienic characteristics that are passed on through related genes. When a virgin queen mates with dozens of drones, her offspring is comprised of subfamilies. Worker bees in the same subfamily are related by their drone father genes, which explains why subfamilies can exhibit similar characteristics.

Genetics passed down from the drone father will control many of the subfamily behaviors and characteristics. For example, hygienic behavior is controlled by seven or more genes and must come from both drones and queens. However, mitochondrial DNA (which encodes enzymes that generate energy) is only passed on by the queens.

So, a strong hive starts with nature – a queen well-mated with virus-free drones with viable sperm – and survives because of nurture – nurse bees consuming protein in the pollen to feed the next generation. Every bee plays a role in a thriving hive.

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