The majority rules in a honeybee democracy

Some have the perception that the queen bee rules the colony. Of course fully mature, she is the largest bee and has the longest life span (up to four years). She is the mother of most if not all the bees within the colony. She is the only one in her caste within the thousands of colony residents and protected with fervor at all costs. She is the only fertile female capable of laying 2400 eggs per day as all other females (workers) are sterile. She decides the sex of each egg the instant she lays it. Her pheromones produced in two glands (mandibular and dufour) keep the collective colony focused and informed of her status of health and control. It also aids guard bees to identify intruders that don’t bear her scent from entering the hive. To most beekeepers, she is the most important. Of course, she is vital for a colony’s organization and survival.


When taking a closer look at the queen’s role we must consider all factors to make unbiased conclusions. First let’s consider the caste for whom the queen shares with no one. After 16 days of metamorphosis she emerges from her cell as a fertile virgin queen and immediately eliminates any rivals by stinging right through the cell casing. She uses her stinger for the sole purpose of monarchy. During the next fourteen days after her body hardens, she will take several mating flights, collecting sperm from a myriad of drones which provide her progeny the best gene pool she can offer. She returns to the hive with an average of 80 to 90 million spermatozoa in her oviducts. She retains about 5 million for her reproductive life, the rest expelled; she never mates again. Certainly an important role.


In a democracy the majority rule. For instance let’s consider the workers who are all female. Not one can survive alone. As the majority and collective whole they make many decisions which the queen must abide. Let’s consider the role of the queen deciding the sex of each egg. The truth lies within the workers. They build the comb and therefore must make mathematical calculations on the ratio of drones to workers. Only about 5% of the colony are males (drones). The workers however, build the cells in which the eggs are laid. They must build a larger cell for a drone. When the queen comes upon a larger cell she instinctively lays a male egg. So who decides?

Another example of democracy is the ritual of swarming. The average population of a colony of honey bees is 60 to 80 thousand. When the population exceeds the limit of space within hive, the bees scout to find a suitable new home. The phenomena of swarming is a natural occurrence to increase the species. Scout bees (workers) search for possible new digs for the swarm to set up housekeeping. Each scout returns to the colony with a representative sampling of her find. If a scout discovers a suitable hollow tree, she returns with a sampling of the wood. If another finds an old vacant chimney, she returns with a bit of brick, and so on. The scouts then present their findings to the entire colony. The scout dances revealing distance, direction, food availability and provides the sampling. The rest of the bees vote. A head butt is a no vote, while a yes vote spurs the concurring bees to follow the scout as she dances. The process of elimination continues until all but one site is selected. Upon casting the final vote, the workers start modifying a female egg less than four days old. From then on the nurse bees feed this imperial candidate only royal jelly from the glands in their head. (Female worker eggs get a combination of honey and pollen known as bee bread). The existing queen is fed less food so that she stops laying and slims down so that she can fly away with 50% of the population to reign over their new home. The emerging new virgin queen is left with the remaining residents to rule the hive.

Again we see the worker bees take the compulsory steps to initiate the decision to move. The queen does nothing for herself; workers feed, groom and assist her relentlessly. They also monitor her health and ability to lay eggs. If they detect a weakness, she will be replaced.

A honey bee democracy is not unlike our own. The mass rules. The queen who is considered the figure head, only rules with the demands of her constituents in mind.


About Admin

Been a Beekeeper for 20 years
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