Changing of the Guard, Bee-Style

The death of a monarch is never simple. There’s a vacuum of power that needs to be filled, an anxiety of influence that requires the successor to establish their power quickly, and a challenging period in which the memory of the deceased is negotiated and shaped (in some cases — hello, French Revolution! — this phase can last centuries). In a lovely essay at Nautilus, John Knight explores the war of succession that followed the death of the original queen in his Brooklyn-rooftop beehive. It’s a conflict not just between a wannabe-queen and her reluctant subjects, but also between human and insect, each following their own complex protocols for survival.

As far as I can tell, my queen died sometime in the spring. Queens typically live for about four or five years, so this caught me by surprise. A new queen, however, is a regular event in the life of a hive. Beekeepers frequently replace their queens every year or two to introduce genetic variety and ensure that the hive has a strong monarch who can lay enough eggs to keep the population up. Bees can also raise their own queen, and when I did an inspection early that spring, I was pleased to see that mine had taken the initiative. Before she died, my old queen must have laid a few fertilized eggs that worker bees raised as replacements. They would have selected six or seven fertilized (female) eggs and fed them only royal jelly. When the first queen hatched, she would have immediately killed any unhatched competition and ideally flown a few mating flights, storing enough semen in her abdomen to spend the rest of her life laying eggs.

While a newborn queen may seem ruthless, the success of a beehive hinges on allegiance to its queen. Though she can mate with an average of 12 different drones, there is only one queen, which makes for a hive of closely related bees. As a new queen begins to produce her own pheromones, the hive slowly aligns with her as the old bees die and new workers hatch. In a sense, the hive is genetically wired to be loyal to the monarchy. If the hive was to raise multiple queens, or if the workers were to start laying eggs, the interests of the population would slowly fracture.

In a healthy hive, a queen will lay hundreds, sometimes thousands of eggs each day in spring and summer, which she either fertilizes or doesn’t. The fertilized eggs, the females, can either grow to be workers or queens. The unfertilized eggs become male drones that do nothing but inseminate the queen—quite literally, flying bags of semen. Drone bees, though crucial for reproduction, don’t forage or sting or raise brood—they can’t even feed themselves.

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