Honey Bee Biology Series: Natural Supersedure of Honey Bee Queens

Thursday 11 May 2023

You have probably heard before that the queen is by far the most important member of a honey bee colony. Without a queen, for more than a short period, a colony is certain to die. The queen is so important because she is the only female with fully developed ovaries. Therefore, it is the role of the queen to lay a lot of eggs and to unite the colony by producing chemical scents. So, what happens if the queen is not good at doing her job? This week’s blog will explore what happens if there is an old or problematic queen in a colony, and how that colony will survive.

Honey Bee Biology Series: Natural Supersedure of Honey Bee Queens 

A supersedure is the bee’s way of replacing an existing queen without the intervention of a beekeeper when there is an old, unhealthy, or overall problematic queen. The supersedure process differs from that of swarming which is associated with reproduction, and in which one or more queens are raised and the original queen leaves the colony with a swarm. No new colony is formed when colonies supersede their queen. Instead supersede queens are raised out of need, including: an old and unproductive queen; injured or diseased queen; a reduced amount of queen mandibular pheromone (QMP) in the hive; queen has depleted spermatheca and is producing too many drones, or the queen is poorly bred. Any of the mentioned reasons can trigger a colony to supersede their queen (Hamdan 2010; Winston 1987).

Once a hive has been triggered to perform a supersedure, the workers will form queen cups from existing worker cells on the frame face, and the queen will lay eggs in the prepared cups. Like when a swarm occurs, virgin queens will develop in the queen cups (Winston 1987). The first queen to emerge from her cell will immediately sting the unhatched queens to death, or if there is more than one queen emerged the queens will fight to the death. After about 4‐7 days, the virgin queen is ready to mate, and she will commence laying eggs after 2-3 days. The original queen will be killed once the new queen starts laying eggs. During a supersedure, there may be a short in-between period where there are 2 queens in the hive laying eggs (Hamdan 2010).

Supersedure queen cells (Hamdan 2010) 

Occasionally, in spite of queen laying poorly, and therefore not producing a good brood pattern, she will not be superseded. This is likely due to her still producing an adequate amount of QMP. A high concentration of QMP will prevent supersedure by the colony (Hamdan 2010). The presence of this pheromone inhibits queen cell building, as well as the development of workers’ ovaries. Bees will evaluate the quality of their queen, in part, based on the abundance of QMP (Hamdan 2010). A young and healthy queen inhibits her replacement by producing lots of QMP, but her pheromone production will decrease with age. This is why age is considered one of the triggers, mentioned above, for supersedure. Also, it is important to note that population size also has an impact on the occurrence of a supersedure. If a colony is too large for the amount of QMP being produced by a queen supersedure may be triggered (Hamdan 2010).

A supersedure is one natural scenario where honey bees requeen their colony. Be sure to check out next week’s blog where the final requeening scenario (emergency requeening) will be explained.

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Hamdan, K. 2010. Natural Supersedure of Queens in Honey Bee Colonies. Bee World. 87(3): 52 – 54. 

Winston, M.L., 1987. The biology of the honey bee. Harvard university press.