With more than 20,000 bee species in the world, only around 10% of them are social bees that live in a hive and often produce the honey we consume. Included in these social bees are the honeybees, stingless bees, and bumble bees. Commonly, these bees also follow a social order. There is a queen bee, female worker bees, and drone bees .
However, despite the queen bee’s seemingly powerful title, there are times when she will be killed by her offspring. So, why do bees kill their queen?
There are various reasons why bees will kill their queen. Some of them are that the queen is too old to perform her primary duty of adequately repopulating the hive, and a new queen emerges. It can also be that the queen produced the wrong kind of male offspring, or the colony rejects the queen bee. The worker bees are often the assassins that kill their queen by “balling” or stinging.
Let us learn more about the queen bee and why they are killed by their own colony.
What are the roles of the queen bee in the hive?
The queen bee may sound like royalty in the hive, and it is easy to think they control the colony. However, that is not the case. The queen bee is special in the sense that there can only be one queen in the hive, but that’s it. She is easily identified by their larger-than-average abdomen compared to the worker bees and drones .
Whenever there is more than a single queen, it is expected that it won’t last long, simply because the first queen to emerge will kill the other potential queens until there is only one of them left.
The queen bee’s primary role in the hive is to lay thousands (1,000 to 3,000) of eggs every single day for the rest of her life after she collects the needed sperm through the nuptial flights, which happens only days after she emerges out of her queen cup.
Once she returns to the hive and starts laying eggs, she will seldom leave the hive . The average lifespan of the queen bee is from two to five years of continuous egg-laying. She will only leave the hive if she joins the swarm, absconds, or migrates.
Why do bees kill their queen?
Though the queen bee has a crucial role in ensuring that the colony is adequately populated, there will still come a time when she will need to be replaced for various reasons. Unfortunately for the queen bee, she will not go out of service to retirement but to death.
Here are some reasons why a queen bee is killed by her own offspring and colony.
1. She is too old to perform her duties.
As the queen bee ages, the stored sperm she collected and stored from as many as twenty mating partners during her nuptial flight a few years ago will eventually be depleted. The drones that successfully mated with the queen bee die after their act.
When the queen gets old, the worker bees will know that it is time for a new queen bee to emerge, so they start preparing for queen cells, where the larvae will be fed with royal jelly in preparation for her eventual role as the new queen bee.
Once the new queen bee becomes available, the worker bees will kill the old queen bee through a process called supersedure, where the workers will ball around the queen bee to increase her temperature, eventually killing her .
2. The queen bee produced the wrong kind of male offspring.
Sometimes, the queen bee produces the wrong kind of male offspring that are often hungry, lazy, and sterile. This has been observed from a type of stingless bee native to Brazil.
It is important to note that male drone bees must be fertile since they are needed by the queen during their nuptial flight to ensure that there is enough sperm collected for the survival of the hive.
The worker bees can immediately identify if the male bees produced by the queen are sterile through their odor.
So, if the queen bee produces worthless types of drones, they will have no choice but to kill the queen bee and replace her with another healthier queen bee . Within ten days, these failures of a queen bee are dead.
3. The queen bee is injured or sick.
Since it is the queen bee’s responsibility to lay thousands of eggs daily, she will have difficulty performing this duty if she gets injured or becomes sick. It can be natural, like accidentally breaking a leg, making walking harder. It can also be forced, like when a beekeeper clips off her middle legs.
If this happens, the worker bees will detect this event and prepare and raise a new queen bee in preparation for a supersedure event. Once the new queen becomes available, they kill the old, sick queen.
4. The colony rejects the queen.
The worst-case scenario for any bee hive is if there is no queen bee. It can be the queen bee dying, swarming, or leaving the colony. The absence of the queen bee spells the death of a colony because they will not be able to sustain their population.
Though the worker bees will try to replace the missing queen bee, unfortunately, it will take about four weeks before the new queen bee matures and is ready to lay eggs .
When this happens in a commercial setup, the beekeeper commonly introduces a replacement queen bee. However, this doesn’t always succeed because the older worker bees think that the introduced queen is an intruder and will reject her.
They will also most likely attack the new queen and kill her. The rejection process happens even if the worker bees know there is not enough time to raise a new queen bee.
I’d also recommend reading our article on the question “Can Queen Bees Fly?”. Just click here.
Who will kill the queen bee?
Though the queen bee’s title may sound like she has power over the colony and control over all the other bees, she does not. At the time when she fails to perform her duty of reproduction to the hive, she will immediately be executed.
The hardworking worker bees perform the execution or assassination of the queen bee. However, before killing the queen bee, they would ensure that a new queen is on her way to take over the responsibilities left by the old queen.
How do bees kill their queen bee?
If the time comes that the queen bee is old and has depleted her storage of sperm to ensure that fertile larvae are growing in the cells, she starts laying the wrong type of male bees, or a new queen bee emerges; in that case, the worker bees will kill the old queen. There are two common ways worker bees kill the queen bee.
1. By balling.
During the supersedure process, the old queen bee will die by “balling.” The worker bees will gather tightly around the old queen and squeeze her. As a result, the body temperature of the bee will increase until she overheats and dies.
Another thing that happens during this balling process is the worker bees squeeze the queen’s body and cover the air holes, which suffocates the queen to death.
2. By stinging.
A queen bee is also killed by her colony by stinging. This commonly happens when a new, unfamiliar queen is introduced to the hive. Since the new queen bee is not yet familiar with the older worker bees, she will be tagged as a threat and will be attacked and stung by them.
Social bees, like the honeybees and stingless bees, follow a particular hierarchy and perform specific duties – unless you are a drone, then you are most likely to die after mating. However, the female worker bees are the hardworking bees in the hive. Then there’s the single queen bee of the hive.
The queen bee has a specific role to play in the colony, which is to ensure that the hive is properly populated by laying thousands of eggs per day. Eventually, she will most likely be the mother of all the bees in the hive.
Unfortunately for her, if she fails to perform her duties in the hive, her offspring will not hesitate to kill her. It may be because she is too old and has depleted her sperm deposits, a new queen will supersede her, or she is an outsider, and the colony outright rejects her.
The assassination of the queen bee is commonly performed by the worker bees, which kill the queen by overheating her, smothering her, or stinging her. Whatever method is used, the queen is only royalty by her name.
 – North Carolina State University – Agriculture and Life Sciences,
 – University of Arizona – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,
 – Wikipedia – Queen Bee,
 – The Conversation,
 – Bee Culture,