What happens when two queen bees meet?

Your Name: Dominic

Your Bug Question: Hi, I have a question in my head that I know only an Entomologist can answer. it’s about bees. I tried searching for answers on the internet haven’t found any.

My question is, What will happen if several Queen Bees are placed in one container?

Will they cooperate? Or kill one another?

How about if in a hive. the original queen bee was taken and replaced by a new one? or several one?

Bees have this reputation as a paragon of animal cooperation, and it’s well deserved in some ways. In other ways, not so much.

The video above shows two newly emerged queen bees fighting to the death. The interesting part is that this is normal…queens killing each other is hardwired into honeybee biology. Queens can be replaced, either by the beekeeper or through natural processes when the queens get too old. Workers will eventually adopt new queens if the original queen is removed or if she dies…but queen bees will *not* tolerate each other.

So the short answer to this question is ‘yes’…queen honeybees kill each other. This is a pretty uniform response, mated and unmated queens fight. Virgin queens fight. I’m not sure if mated queens fight when they encounter each other, but it would surprise me if they didn’t.

This question is pretty easy to answer for the honeybee, Apis mellifera. They have a pretty uniform response, because they’re what scientists call strongly eusocial. Their social structure is well defined, and the entire colony acts more or less as a single unit.

Here’s the thing, though. Bees are a huge group, with really complicated relationships. Honeybee social structures don’t actually represent what you see in all groups. Some bees are solitary, others nest in communities, and there’s a lot of strongly eusocial bees as well. So if we want to talk about the different ways that bee colonies interact, it pays to discuss different social structures of bees.

As luck would have it, there’s one bee species where all these different social structures are represented. I think Halictus sexcinctus, a European sweat bee, is a great system to contrast with the honeybee. Depending on where it’s found, it can be solitary, communal, or eusocial.

So how do queens interact in different groups of social insects?

Halictus sexcinctus

This species of bee is a member of a big family called Halictidae. Without a doubt, you’ve seen Halictid bees. These bees are small, ususally dark and metallic, and are attracted to sweat. These bees are commonly called sweat bees, and H. sexcinctus is a sweat bee that’s common in Europe.

Communal VS Colonial

H. sexcinctus makes tiny burrows in the ground, similar to the solitary bees in the video above. This species is an important pollinator in some areas. In the Northern parts of it’s range, it’s solitary because the season is too short to produce colonies. In the Southern parts of its range, this species can be communal or even form colonies like honeybees. The longer growing season allows colonies to develop further. In some areas, there’s overlap between the communal and colonial groups…but nobody knows why this is.

Colonies and Communities

Halictus sexcinctus

Halictus sexcinctus, a bee which can adopt a wide variety of social strategies. Image credit: Fritz-Geller Grimm, via Wikimedia Commons. Image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

In solitary nests, H. sexcinctus females usually ignore one another. There might be some territorial scuffles, but ultimately, other individuals don’t factor into the equation. It’s when these insects become communal or eusocial that the sorts of interactions Dominic is interested in happens.

In colonies, a reproductive division of labor is really important. This means that the queens are the ones who lay all the eggs.ย  Overlapping generations, the sisters sticking around and raising their siblings, is also important. The queen lays most of the eggs, but not all. Sometimes, workers mate and lay eggs. Some of these eggs are raised by the colony, but most are destroyed by the siblings. There’s also the occasional reproductive who tries to fight the queen for dominance, so queens can fight in this species as well.

Unfortunately, I admit I’m more familiar with honeybees than I am Halictus. Honeybee conflicts are well studied, but the details of Halictus conflicts appear to be less so. In many ways, these setups are similar to honeybee colonies. The main difference, however, is that the social structure is a lot less organized than in honeybees. Halictus workers are capable of breeding, and commonly do…but not as much as the queen.

Communities tend to be much smaller, about 1/10th the size of colonies. In these setups, each insect works independently to raise their offspring. Food doesn’t appear to be shared, and each female is free to lay her own eggs. The insects that emerge are fully capable of mating and reproducing, and don’t stick around to raise their sisters. However, the adults involved in caring for larvae do cooperate in building and maintaining the nest.

In the bee species Halictus sexcinctus, queen interactions can run the gamut from tolerance to war. It just depends on whether the queen has chosen to build a colony, or take part in a communal rearing strategy. The factors which cause the bees to build a community aren’t well known.

The Bottom Line

Honeybee queens never cooperate with one another. They communicate by sound between one another, but never team up to co-lead a colony. Queen honeybees always fight to the death.

However, it’s not that way in all bees. Many bees do form communal nests, where they cooperate to take care of their young. Some bee species even have looser forms of sociality, where laying workers are tolerated more than in honeybee colonies. Halictus sexcinctus just happens to be one particularly good example, because it can be solitary, communal or colonial.

There are, however, some instances where multiple queens do team up to form a colony without being communal. The paper wasps, Polistes, do occasionally have have two-queen colonies. Sadly the work isn’t shared equally between them and the smaller queen eventually becomes more-or-less the most dominant worker.

Another example of queen cooperation comes from certain species of stingless bees. Stingless bees can form colonies which have dwarf queens. These are queens who can reproduce, but not as quickly as the main queen. This is a social structure that’s just as complex as the honeybee, but a little bit more cooperative.

The interaction between different individuals in bee colonies can be extremely complicated. Within the bees, interactions in reproductive individuals can run the gamut from cooperation to flat-out war. It just depends on the species, and the circumstance.

Works Cited

Richards, M. H. (2001). Nesting biology and social organization of Halictus sexcinctus (Fabricius) in southern Greece. Canadian journal of zoology, 79(12), 2210-2220.
Richards, M. H., von Wettberg, E. J., & Rutgers, A. C. (2003). A novel social polymorphism in a primitively eusocial bee. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(12), 7175-7180.
Schwarz, M. P., Richards, M. H., & Danforth, B. N. (2007). Changing paradigms in insect social evolution: insights from halictine and allodapine bees. Annu. Rev. Entomol., 52, 127-150.
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3 Responses to What happens when two queen bees meet?

  1. I have a great read on this one. Such an interesting stuff about bees, I wish I can learn more about bees, such as culturing them for honey productions.

    Like

  2. John King says:

    If two honeybee hives are merged without removing one of the queen’s, how long will it take for them to fight it out? Hours? Days? Urgent question.

    Like

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