Where is the queen is probably the No. 1 question that we are asked about the indoor bee hive. You can read a little bit about that here, but the next question often comes up as “What makes a queen bee?”

The short answer is, queens are fed royal jelly which makes them different from worker bees. Last week, a couple of interested people followed that with, “What is royal jelly?”

Great question.

And I didn’t have an answer for that one off the top of my head. So I did a little research, and the way that royal jelly makes a queen is quite different than from what I had previously thought.

A worker bee and queen bee start off as the same fertilized egg. In the first few days of development, they are both fed royal jelly, which a protein-rich excretion secreted from nurse bee glands. The nurse job is one of approximately six jobs that worker bees do during their six-week lifespan.

Any cells chosen to become queen bees are then filled with royal jelly. It helps the larvae float in an elongated queen cell, and these queens are then also only fed royal jelly throughout the rest of their development. Worker bees are fed a mash of beebread and honey, called worker jelly.

Scientists once thought that royal jelly was the thing that switched larvae into a queen bee, but it seems now that research is showing that it’s actually the addition of beebread and honey that is what switches larvae into a worker.

A plant chemical, p-coumaric acid, is present in worker jelly and is not present in the royal jelly that is secreted from nurse bees. The phytochemical activates different genes in the larvae, causing ovaries to shrink and sterilize. That makes the difference between a worker bee and a queen bee, workers are sterilized females and the queen is a fertile female. Queen bees also have an abdomen that is about twice the length of a worker bee, and she lives several years as opposed to the six-week worker lifespan. P-coumaric acid appears to change more than half of genes that regulate organ size in animals, creating these other changes in a worker bee.

Basically, eating only royal jelly protects the queen’s ovaries and allows her to become the fertile mother of the hive that she is.

Like anything though, as scientists study bees more and more, they will most likely learn more and more about how a hive workers. What we know about these creatures is a simple snapshot of the intracacies going on in a hive. We’re always learning about bees and their amazingly purposeful lives.

Check out more on what’s happening in the hive with these other blogs in the series:
Festooning bees
Drying down honey
There aren’t any drones

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