A queen bee. Photo from Getty Images/Frank Greenaway
The most straightforward way to identify a queen bee is by her physical features. At first, it can be difficult to distinguish her from the worker bees and especially the drones. All the bees might look the same to you, but if you look closely she has some key differences.
The queen’s elongated abdomen is one of her most prominent features. It extends well beyond her worker bee–size set of wings, making her wings appear undersize. When a beginner is confronted with a bee that registers as larger than the others, I always tell them to check the wings. Some worker bees are subtly bigger than others and drones are often mistaken for queens because of their size, but the queen is the only bee in the hive with wings that do not reach the end of the abdomen.
A comparison of the queen and a worker bee. Photo from Alamy Stock Photo
Long golden legs are another trait unique to the queen. Some queen breeds have dark legs, but typically a queen will have light-colored legs that contrast with the dark legs of worker bees and drones. Regardless of their color, a queen’s legs are extralong. When she is not in motion they are splayed languorously. On close inspection, a queen’s legs also differ from that of a worker bee’s because they lack corbiculae, the concave pollen-collecting apparatus located on the tibia of a worker’s hind legs.
Her hairless back can also distinguish the queen from the other bees. Workers and drones have fuzzy backs, but the queen has a shiny black back that can really stand out if you’re looking for it. It’s not always visible in photos, but there is also a cleft down the middle of her back.
The queen’s head is only slightly bigger than a worker’s, and although it has the same heart shape and almond eyes, it is often adorned by a crown of fuzz that the workers lack. Worker bees can have a wealth of hair when they are newly emerged from their cells, but they lose it as they age.
Sometimes an old worker will become so bald that her back resembles the shiny black back of a queen’s, but she will not have the queen’s lengthy abdomen. In contrast, a drone’s head has little room for fuzz. His large, bulbous eyes take up most of the space on his head, giving him a flylike appearance that could not be more different from the queen and her daughters.
The queen is the only bee in the hive who doesn't have wings as long as her abdomen. Photo by Hilary Kearney
Honey bees and their queen come in a variety of shades. Sometimes a hive’s color palette is homogeneous. A beekeeper will have to spot a luminous, golden queen among the luster of thousands of other gold-colored bees. In other hives, the queen’s color will distinguish her from the rest of the bees and she will stand out — a stark red in a cluster of comparatively dull sienna.
When a queen’s hue is unique within her colony, it’s typically because her abdomen is free of stripes. This is common. I frequently find queens with solid or ombré coloring, while striped queens are a rare treat.
All this said, locating a queen by color is not a strategy I recommend. In addition to her own variances, some colonies exhibit salt-and-pepper coloration among their workers and even their drones. I have seen colonies where 90 percent of the workers are blond and 10 percent are a deep charcoal brown. I have also seen colonies where all the workers are uniform in color, but the drones are strikingly lighter or darker than their sisters. Don’t get caught up in color when searching for the queen. It will usually mislead you.
A queen can come in a wide range of colors, from light gold to completely black and everything in between. She can be heavily striped, solid-colored, or in a gradient of hues. I sometimes see very blond queens, devoid of stripes but with a dark-tipped abdomen. Other queens are so black they can disappear completely in the shadow of a frame, but when you examine them closely in the sunlight, deep amber stripes sparkle into view.
Many queen breeders select queens for color as well as behavior. New beekeepers may find the eye-catching, luminous gold of an Italian queen easier to spot than the midnight shades of a Russian queen. I, for one, prefer to be surprised by the variety of colors nature has to offer and take great delight in spotting queens from the full spectrum of the queen rainbow.
From left to right, queens of all colors: blonde, tiger-striped, red, red and black, black. Photos by Hilary Kearney
Mother and Daughter Queens
I blink my eyes. There are two queens on this frame. I stare in amazement as one lowers herself to lay an egg. These are not virgin queens preparing to fight. They are mature queens living in harmony, side by side.
I recognize my original queen: she is a glorious red color. The other is blond. This must be a new daughter queen raised to replace the mother, but instead of killing the original queen the workers have let her live.
Although it is often said that there can only be one queen in a hive, some beekeepers claim that what I observed is a common occurrence. Most of us stop looking for the queen once we have spotted one, so who is to say that there isn’t a second?
The two queens in front of me glide past each other. How lucky I am to have opened the hive when they were both on the same frame! I wonder how long they will live this way.
Two queens peacefully laying eggs withing inches of each other. Photo by Hilary Kearney
More from Queenspotting:
More from Hilary Kearney:
- Keeping Backyard Bees Podcast: Episode 30: Swarm Essentials
- MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair appearances
- Beekeeping Like a Girl: A Blog by Girl Next Door Honey
Excerpted from Queenspotting by © Hilary Kearney. Photography by © Hilary Kearney, © Tosca Radigonda © imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo, © Frank Greenaway/Getty Images. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.