Beek Reads: Nobody Wants to be the Queen

“What role would you want in the hive?” we asked, the eight of us sitting in the circle of benches surrounded by Q Gardens’ newly green herbs and late spring blooms. The answers differed, but on one thing, we agreed: No one wants to be the queen.

The life of a drone sounds idyllic, if short-lived. Lay about the hive. Eat. Wait for a sunny day to fly out to the drone congregation area—how exactly the drones know the congregation’s location is a mystery—and find a young virgin queen to explosively impregnate. And die, gracelessly but with purpose.

The worker bee’s life isn’t so bad either. She has a number of roles, from nurse to scout, so it’s never boring, and workers have the highest “autonomy,” collectively making the hive’s “decisions.” A worker’s life is always busy, always productive.

It’s the queen who gets the shaft.

A queen bee lives her entire life to build the colony. She mates once, gaining enough sperm to fertilize her entire store of eggs, and she lives the rest of her life tended by worker bees, who feed and groom her while she lays eggs. Lay, eat. Lay, eat.

Until it’s time to swarm. By a process not fully understood but triggered by factors such as crowding, brood size, and food reserves, a colony will decide to split and exile up to two-thirds of its population—including its queen—to find a new home. It’s a risky venture for the exiled bees, who will need to find a suitable home and rebuild their comb and food stores in time to survive the winter.

And for the queen, it’s time to hit the gym. The number of eggs in her abdomen and the constant supply of food from the worker bees prevents most queens from flying long distances. To prepare a queen for swarming, worker bees cut back on her food supply and begin following her around the hive, biting and shaking her with their forelegs in increasing frequency until she is bothered nearly every 10 seconds. The constant movement and irritation works wonders for the belly. In no time at all, she’s ready to fly again—and the worker bees are fat and happy, filled with food supplies to last several days in flight as the swarm begins searching for a new home.

Life in the honeybee hive is an endlessly turning wheel, a well-balanced machine that constantly reacts to its environment. And according to Honeybee Democracy author Thomas Seeley, it’s a nearly perfect decision-making engine. Seeley writes, “the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective decisions” (16).

We beginning beekeepers of Q Gardens set about to read Seeley’s examination of swarm behavior and honeybee decision-making in an effort to understand not only how we should react to our bees’ needs, but just how capable they are of reacting without us. We wanted, so to speak, to do our homework—to match the practical knowledge we gain with every hive check with a background of social and biological knowledge about bees’ larger role in the world ecosystem.

Our group first submitted book titles, from which we voted for two books to read over the season: Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, which examines a hive’s ability to make collective decisions based on individual input; and Stephen Buchmann’s Letters from the Hive, an anecdote-rich text that examines not only the workings of the hive, but how ancient cultures and myths have studied and made life around honeybees.

For our first meeting, we read the introduction and first three chapters of Honeybee Democracy, in which Seeley sets up his premise that hives function like brains and delves into the individual discoveries that brought light to honeybee decision-making, especially regarding their ability to find new hive locations after swarming. These are a few standout facts we discovered:

• Before 1945, the waggle dance was mysterious: Scientists knew it was a method of directing other bees to a rich food source, but theories ranged on how. Then German zoologist Karl von Frisch discovered that the dance, instead of being scent-based as he believed, is in fact far more specific: The duration of the dance is directly proportional to the length of the bee’s journey to the good-food site (one second of dancing equals roughly 1,000 meters); and the angle of the dance uses the direction of the sun as a guide. As Seeley explains, “if a successful forager walks directly upward while producing a waggle run, she indicates that ‘the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun.’ Or, if the waggling bee heads 40 degrees to the right of vertical, her message is, ‘the feeding place is 40 degrees to the right of the sun’” (21-22).

• A scout bee measures the size of a prospective home by walking and flying around the site for 15 minutes to an hour. She will return several times for shorter visits. They favor cavities of more than 10 and less than 100 liters, with a preference for roughly 40 liters. Somehow the bees are calculating volume based on the amount of walking—and presumably flying—space. It’s unclear how much of a role the flight path within a space plays in the decision, since experiments in that direction are still ongoing (105).

• Honeybees like to sing. That is, “pipe” and “quack.” To signal that it’s time to leave the hive (when the developing queens have reached the pupal stage and the weather is favorable), the scout bees run up to their sisters and press their thorax against the other bees while activating flight muscles to produce a 200-250 hertz vibration in a process called “piping” (59). When the swarm has left and the first new queen hatches, the worker bees keep her away from the other queen cells and keep the other queens confined while she “toots”—pressing her thorax against the comb (to give her signal a broader audience) and activating flight muscles to produce sound, like the worker bees’ piping. The virgin queens who have not yet hatched will respond with lower-pitched “quacks,” indicating to the new queen that she has coming rivals. This will often prompt her to initiate a second swarm. When the worker bees sense that the colony is too weak to support further swarming, they will allow the rest of the virgin queens to emerge; the first to emerge will attempt to kill the others while they’re still in their cells. Any remaining queens will fight to the death (62-63).

• In addition to their ability to decide on a new home when swarming, there are a few other ways in which a colony uses individual action to collectively care for the hive (43-44). These include:

-temperature regulation: not only keeping the overall temp of the extraordinarily stable, but also controlling the temp of individual cells in the brood nest in order to produce the kind of bee the hive needs.
-colonial breathing: limiting the buildup of CO2 inside the hive by ventilating the hive when the CO2 level reaches 1-2 percent.
-colonial circulation: organizing resources within the hive to best support clusters in the brood nest
-colonial fever response: raising hive temperature in response to fungal infection in the brood

• In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration accused the Soviet Union of abetting chemical warfare against Laos and Kampuchea because of “yellow rain”—spots of yellow found on vegetation that supposedly contained fungal toxins. The “yellow rain” was, in fact, bee feces. When Seeley, with help from molecular genetist Matthew Meselson proved this, the US stopped accusing the Soviets of violating the arms-control treaties on chemical and biological weapons (89-90).

Next, we’ll be reading chapters about how the scout bees bring home news of the site they’ve found, how they exchange information about these sites, and ultimately how they debate about and decide upon the best location for the swarm. And even if we don’t discover a grand message to humanity or a method for organizing group discussions and settling disagreements—a topic we debated hotly at the end of our first meeting—we will undoubtedly have a better understanding of our individual roles in such an exchange.


• How do changes in weather affect brood population in winter?

• How is it decided which bees stay in the old hive, and which ones leave with the old queen during a swarm?


Seeley, Thomas. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Gray, Richard. “Honey Bees’ Secret World of Heat Revealed.” The Telegraph, March 13, 2010.

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