What Happens When a Queen Bee Dies

We haven’t had a queen bee die in our apiary (except when I killed one intentionally), but we have collected three swarms that were without queens.  They are not the same as a colony that has a queen and would have died away if we hadn’t intervened.

What happens when a queen bee dies? The queen is the only bee in a colony who can lay female eggs. When a queen dies, the worker bees immediately select several newly laid eggs, feeding them and enlarging the wax brood cells to create new queen bees.  If a new queen is not created, the colony dies out because there are no replacement bees to continue the population.

Here’s more detail of the many interesting things that happen in a colony that becomes queen-less.   

What Happens After A Queen Bee Dies?

As soon as a queen dies, the pheromones she releases into the hive dissipate. 

Her scent tells all 50,000 – 80,000 bees that all is well with the colony: eggs are being laid and the queen is strong.  When that scent weakens and goes, the worker bees go into action.

Several recently laid eggs are selected to become potential new queens for the hive.  They must be eggs that are no older than three days old.  All bee eggs are fed royal jelly for three days.  After the first three days, only the queen eggs continue to be fed royal jelly.  All others are fed bee bread, which is a combination of pollen, honey, and bee saliva. It is the phenolic acids from the pollen that prevent the ovaries of the worker bees from developing and them from becoming queens.

The brood cells of the potential queens are enlarged.  They become what is known as queen cells. Regular brood cells have very gently rounded caps and are almost flat.  A queen cell will be about an inch long and stands out from the rest of the wax comb.

To learn more about how a queen is created, read our article How Does A Queen Bee Become a Queen.

Can A Bee Hive Survive Without A Queen?

A colony without a queen won’t survive.

A colony with no queen to replace the dead queen and lay eggs will die away. 

The worker bees themselves don’t die because the queen dies.  They live their typical lifespan, but after the last of the eggs laid by the queen have emerged as bees, there are none to replace them and continue the colony.

A hive without a queen is an unhappy hive.  Our mentor told us that you can tell by listening to the hum that a colony that isn’t “queen right”. Much to our surprise, we could tell the difference. 

 A “queen right” hive is one that has a queen that is a good egg layer and who has strong pheromones.  A queen right hive buzzes contentedly.  One that isn’t queen right has a louder, more upset buzzing sound.  Sounds silly, but wait until you hear it for yourself.

Can A Worker Bee Become A Queen?

No bee except one raised to be a queen can become a queen.

If there is no queen and there are no fertile eggs to make into queens, worker bees will begin to lay infertile eggs. 

One of our first two hives had a queen that for some reason, wasn’t bred.  The worker bees buzzed unhappily and began laying eggs themselves. It’s easy to tell that a queen is no longer laying in a colony and that the workers have taken over.  Because none of the workers are fertile, they can lay only drone (male bee) eggs.  Drone brood comb is very obvious.  It can be identified by the very tall, rounded caps on the brood cells.

How Long Can A Bee Hive Be Queenless?

A colony can be queenless for quite a while.

Assuming that a queen cell has been made, this is the timeline for a new queen to take over queenly duties.

A queen emerges from her cell after sixteen days. 

She then takes a few days, perhaps a week, to mature before leaving the hive on her mating flights.  She may take four or five days for mating flights.

Then for a day or two, all of the sperm she has collected moves from the oviducts into a storage receptacle known as the spermatatheca.

Then the queen can begin laying eggs.

Adding those days together, from the time an egg is laid until a new queen will begin laying, can be four weeks.  And, if the weather is rainy or below 70 degrees when the queen is ready for her mating flights, there will be more delay.

What Happens If There Is No Queen Bee In A Hive?

Here’s a little story of what we did with one of the queen-less swarms we collected. 

These bees had taken up residence in some empty hive boxes that were stashed next to our friend Jim’s garage.  We knew they were queen-less because there was no brood except drone brood.  Just to be sure, we did inspect for a queen, but there was none.

Since Jim wasn’t set up to have bees yet, we brought the swarm back to our apiary.

At the suggestion of our mentor, we took a frame from one of our thriving hives to put into what we named “Jim’s Hive”. The frame had brood, larvae, nurse bees, and, most important, eggs.  Immediately the buzzing of the hive changed to the happy hum of a contented beehive.  That was amazing and very gratifying.  All of the nurse bees were happily accepted. 

We left the hive alone for five days to give the bees a chance to create queen cells.  That didn’t happen, so we added another frame with eggs.  We still had happy bees, but they built no queen cells.

After adding yet another frame and finding no queen cells, we finally combined “Jim’s Hive” with another queen-less swarm and introduced a fully grown, mated queen that we had bought from a honey bee breeder.  Happily, both hives combined, accepted the new queen, and are thriving as a single hive (now named Brewer).

What Happens If I Kill The Queen Bee?

With any luck, you won’t kill any of your queens accidentally.

If you are beekeepers for very long, there will be times when you will kill your queens intentionally. 

A prevailing theory among beekeepers is that a young queen has stronger pheromones and has a better egg laying pattern. Because of this belief, every two years they kill the existing queen and replace her with a new one. 

The new queen will be introduced to the hive in a queen cage, where she will stay for between three and seven days, depending on the beekeeper.  That gives the bee colony time to adjust to the new queen pheromones and to accept her as their new queen.

We had to replace a queen in one of our first two hives within two weeks of installing the packages.  We gave the bees a chance to acclimate with the queen, to begin building comb, and the queen to begin laying.  When we checked the frames, we saw beautiful comb, drone cells and three beautiful queen cells of the type known as supersedure cells.  These are in the middle of a frame rather than on the bottom and they indicate that the workers are not happy with the queen and are going to replace her. We had a virgin queen who wasn’t laying fertile eggs.

The only thing to do to guarantee the life of the hive was to kill the queen and replace her.  Thank goodness for YouTube videos. Beheading a queen wasn’t a fun task during our first month of beekeeping.

The hive survived and thrived with the new queen.  

What Happens When A Queen Bee Leaves The Hive?

A queen bee will leave the hive when the worker bees have decided it is time to swarm. 

This is a planned event.  The workers will have already begun to make queen cells.  You’ll see these along the bottom of the frames in your hives.  They look like peanuts hanging down from the comb. This is a significant signal that your girls are planning to swarm and you should take appropriate action.

The queen doesn’t fly anymore since her mating flights.  The workers stop feeding her as much and begin to force her to move around inside the hive.  Essentially, they are getting her in shape to fly away with two-thirds of the bees in the colony.

On a signal that is unknown to us, the mass of bees flows out of the nest, sweeping the queen along in their wake.

The colony has already taken steps to ensure its survival be creating baby queens to take the old queen’s place.

Related Questions

Is there a king bee?

There is no king bee. The only male bees in a colony are the drones.

Do queen bees mate with their sons and does a male bee die after mating?

An unbred or virgin queen makes several mating flights to a nearby Drone Congregation Area. This is a place where drones, male bees, from several different colonies hang out. This guarantees that the queen will mate with bees from outside of her own hive. The queen is inseminated by several drones, who die immediately afterward, on each mating flight. 

How long does a queen bee live?

A queen bee can live to be five years old.

Are there different types of honey bees?

Yes. There are different varieties of honey bees, generally named for the region they originally came from.

The types generally found in North America are Italians, Caucasians, Russians, Carniolans. To change the type of bee in your hive, put in a queen of a different variety.