Who is Really in Charge?
by Donald Ray Burger

I was looking over the November, 2008, issue of Bee Culture magazine and I came across an article by Walt Wright discussing how many eggs a queen lays in a day. The article had lots of math but it also had some interesting observations that I had not considered.

Mr. Wright advanced the theory that it is the worker bees rather than the queen who determines the number of eggs a queen lays. He further contends that her daughters also determine where those eggs are laid. He believes we are in error to give credit to the queen for determining where and how many eggs to deposit into the cells.

As proof for his contention, he notes that it is the workers who clean up the cells in preparation for new eggs. From this he concludes that it is the workers who know where the egg-ready cells are. He states that when the workers have need of the queen’s services, they round her up and nudge her into the proper area. This explains the often seen behavior of a queen wandering the frames and not laying eggs. Mr. Wright theorizes that the worker bees are letting the queen wander because they are not ready for her to lay eggs.

Wright also offers in evidence for his theories the idea that the brood nest size varies with the season and (in the case of bees in trees) with the location. Someone has to decide that the queen not lay more eggs than space and stores permit. He believes that decision is made by the worker bees and not the queen.

I believe Mr. Wright makes interesting points. However, it is not clear to me how one solves this classic “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Clearly a decision is made on how much brood is in the hive. It also seems to me that such a decision is made either by the queen or by her daughters.

The question remains as to who makes this decision. In support of Mr. Wright’s theory that the workers make the decision is the fact that until the workers clean up the cell, there is no suitable location for the egg. On the other hand, there is also the observation that once the worker bee hatches, it takes a walkabout and then returns to its cell and cleans it. On the third hand, it may still be the worker bees who corral the queen into the vicinity of a suitable cell and signal to her that it is time to get busy laying eggs.

There is also the problem of who has better information. The queen has a much longer lifespan than the twenty-one days that a hive bee spends inside the hive. However, it is the worker bees who are outside the hive taking a survey on available food supplies.

This is not a dilemma that will be solved in this article. It should, however, present interesting discussion points that can fill those long cold evenings during winter. I recommend a nice glass of mead to aid the discussion.

Written September 12, 2012

First published in The Skep, September, 2012

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