The Queen Bee

As the nation celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday today (happy birthday, ma’am!), we decided to take a look at some of the royalty we have here at Tilgate. Lots of alpha female animals are known as queens, including meerkats, otters, domestic cats and ants. But there is one species that leaps to mind when you hear the word ‘queen’…bees!

The queen bee sign outside Tilgate's honeybee hut.
The queen bee sign outside Tilgate’s honeybee hut.

There are around 250 species of bee in Britain alone, and 20,000 species worldwide. Here at Tilgate we have several honeybee hives, each with their own dedicated queen. The queen bee is very important. Without her, the colony would not survive; she decides where to set up home, she produces the young bees and she keeps all the worker bees working by releasing a pheromone that drives them into action.

A worker out collecting pollen - check out the pollen sack on her back leg!
A worker out collecting pollen – check out the pollen sack on her back leg!

Worker bees, all of whom are female, have lots of different jobs in their lifetime, including babysitter, undertaker, architect, forager and guard. They even  choose the next queen. When a queen gets old, the workers select a larva to feed royal jelly – a substance that is secreted from their heads. This jelly turns the larva into a queen! Once she hatches she either fights the old queen for the crown, or the old queen abdicates and quietly leaves the hive.

Worker bees are VERY hardworking!
Worker bees are VERY hardworking!

The queen honeybee is larger than the rest of the colony. She has a long sharp stinger that doesn’t come off when she stings something (workers have serrated stingers which get stuck and fall off if they sting something, meaning they die after stinging just once), and she can live a lot longer than the rest of the colony too. Worker bees live 6 weeks on average, whereas the queen can reach 5 years!

Can you spot the queen? She's the largest bee to the right of the picture.
Can you spot the queen? She’s the largest bee to the right of the centre of the picture.

We owe a lot to the queen honeybee and her workers. It is estimated that honeybees pollinate one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat. Despite modern technology, honeybees are still the best pollinators of fruit and veg (including tea and coffee!) in the entire world. So, raise a toast to Her Majesty the Queen on this special day, and don’t forget to come and visit Tilgate’s very own royalty when the honeybee hut opens again for summer soon!

 

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