Queen bees play a central role within the hive, producing the young that become the workers and drones that help keep the hive running and father the next generation. What she eats depends on her age and what species she is, but in essence, she will eat a mixture of pollen, nectar and royal jelly.
What is a queen bee?
As humans, we often use the term ‘queen bee’ for someone who seems to rule over others and is able to get them to do their bidding. Yet within bee society, being a queen isn’t always a rosy existence.
Not all bee species have queens. Many bees are solitary, and therefore do not have a complex hive society. Solitary bees form nests into which they will lay their eggs, but these young emerge to start their own solitary lives rather than staying with their mother.
Hive or nest forming bees include the famous honey bee species, stingless bees and bumblebees, to name a few. Within these hives, in which many hundreds of bees can live, the individual bees have a distinct role.
The majority of the hive is composed of worker bees. These are all female and have a range of different jobs, which in some species change throughout their lives. These roles include rearing the young, collecting pollen and nectar, removing dead bees from the hive and looking after the queen.
Drones are male bees, and in general, they contribute little to the hive care and maintenance, either leaving the hive once they are of age, or spending their time lazing around the hive eating the worker’s hard-earned food, heading out occasionally to find a queen.
The queen might seem like the most important role in the hive to us humans, but in truth, every bee is a vital building block to create the collective. Without the drones, there would be no new generation of bees, and without the workers, the hive would never be able to support itself.
Yet, the queen is the pioneer of the hive. She is the one that produces the first workers and continues to produce the young that fuel the hive. None of the workers can produce young while the queen is present, though they will produce young if she dies.
In many bee societies, she can also be replaced if she doesn’t live up to her end of the bargain. If her egg production falls, the workers may decide to raise another queen and dispense of the old, meaning her reign is in no way guaranteed.
What do queen bees eat?
Like most bees in the hive, what the queen eats changes slightly as she grows. Just as we feed our young slightly different food as we do ourselves, the bees give the young larvae a different meal to what they will eat when they are fully grown.
Within a honeybee hive, all larvae are fed on royal jelly. Royal jelly is secreted from the glands of nurse worker bees. This is a nutritious food for the young larvae. The difference for the queen bee is the quantity she will receive. Worker bees will receive some royal jelly but then move onto pollen and honey, whereas the queen bee will be given royal jelly all the way to pupation.
The worker bees will feed the queen larvae on copious amounts of royal jelly. This excess of food will bring about a morphological change that causes her to become a queen rather than another worker.
Once she has emerged as an adult, she will leave the hive for a few days to mate with available drones. On her return, she may either take over as the new queen of the hive or swarm and take some of the workers with her to form a new hive.
Having taken up her position as queen, she will now be fed directly by workers. This will involve mouth-to-mouth feeding as workers regurgitate pre-digested nectar or honey for her. Only the best for a queen.
The queen can eat independently and sometimes eats directly from honey and nectar supplies within the hive. However, she doesn’t leave the hive to eat directly from flowers. The only time she may do this is during her mating flights.
Not all queens are the same, however. Queen bumblebees spend more of their time outside the nest than a honey bee queen. This is in part because the nest they were born into dies over the winter, with the new queens emerging and sleeping through the winter on their own.
Before leaving the nest, they will be fed on pollen and nectar collected by the workers. As they emerge, they will forage for themselves, feeding up before entering diapause. Once emerging in the spring, they again need to forage, eating pollen and nectar directly from the flowers.
Having eaten enough to survive the winter, they will collect pollen and nectar to feed up their young. Once the workers emerge, the queen will rarely leave the hive, spending her time laying eggs and incubating the young. Now she will feed mainly on pollen brought in by the workers.
Also read: When the Queen Bee Dies, What Happens?
When do queen bees eat?
Queen bees will eat almost constantly, needing the energy to keep herself able to produce more young. Because insects need warmth to be active, they will eat less or nothing at night. In the winter, some bee species die off, such as bumblebees. The old queen will die off at the start of the winter, and the new queen will enter diapause through the season, meaning she will not need to eat, living instead off her fat reserves.
In honey bee colonies the queen will survive throughout the winter, though many of her workers will die off. In this time, she and the remaining workers will not leave the hive and will survive on the honey they have stored for these lean months.
How do they eat?
Bees eat through a combination of two types of mouthparts. They have mandibles, which are great for cutting and chewing, and proboscis for sucking up fluids. The queen honey bee has the same parts as their worker bees, meaning they can eat in the same way.
The only difference is that most queens do not leave the hive once they have started laying eggs, meaning they will not be eating directly from the flowers but taking what the worker bees bring them.
Food, glorious food
Queen honey bees need a lot of energy for the big job they have to carry out. Producing young is an energy-hungry task, and she needs to keep in fighting fit condition in order to carry it out. Without her, there are no workers, and therefore no hive.
It’s a big responsibility, so you can understand why she delegates the task of bringing her her tasty meals to her children, who do the dangerous work of collecting the pollen and nectar that keeps the hive buzzing.