The Difference Between a Virgin and a Mated Queen Bee

These screenshots are probably my favourite bits of the last post I wrote about making a walkaway split. The first photo shows the new queen about 4 days after she emerged from her cell. The second photo shows her about two weeks later, after she had mated and was laying well. What a difference.

A 4-day old virgin honey bee queen.

An approximately 17-day-old mated and successfully laying honey bee queen.

The difference is somewhat dramatic. The queen’s abdomen while she’s still a virgin protrudes only slightly beyond her wing tips. After going on one or more successful mating flights and then laying eggs for about a week, her abdomen becomes more swollen and elongated to the point where it protrudes about twice the distance beyond her wing tips. (My mouse cursor in the photo points at her wing tips.)

Virgin (left). Same queen (right) about two weeks later.

We can see the dark tip of her abdomen hasn’t changed between the photos, but the segments on her abdomen — which show up as stripes on regular worker honey bees — are barely noticeable while she’s a virgin but look like fully inflated tires about to explode after she’s mated and settled into a healthy groove of laying eggs.

If we look closer at the worker bee to the right of the mated queen, we can see how dramatically the segments of the queen’s abdomen have expanded after mating. The mated queen is a giant compared to the worker bees, whereas the 4-day-old virgin queen is only slightly larger than the worker bees next to her in the photo — which can make virgin queens difficult to find.

To me, this mated queen seems to have an usually thick girth as well as length. The queens are usually long but not so inflated on the sides. It’s possible this queen’s shape will thin out as she continues to lay.

Most the queens in my hives are darker in colour, but this newly-mated queen is almost pure blonde, as some like to call it. The lighter coloured or blonde queens could have Italian genetics whereas the darker queens tend to come from the more winter-hardy breeds such as the Russians — but colour in not always a give away, so it’s difficult to say with certainty.

From what I’ve observed having seen queens the second they leave their cells until the end of their lives, there seem to be four shapes for a queen bee:

1) A wet, just-emerged virgin has the appearance of a mated queen.

2) Once her exoskeleton dries or hardens, her abdomen shrinks to give her a stubby appearance.

3) She looks slightly fatter and longer after returning from a mating flight.

4) She looks like a fully formed queen bee with an elongated abdomen that extends twice the length of her wings after laying eggs for about week — if she’s well-mated and healthy.

She can go back to looking stubby just before swarming as the worker bees pester her prior to going on a swarming flight (they have to trim her down so she’s light enough to fly). Anything that causes her to stop laying altogether, which can also include stress or disease, seems to shrink her size.

I’ve read various descriptions and explanations for the queen’s shape. These are just mine based on my observations over the past 11 years. I still have a long way to go with this queen business. It’s definitely not my speciality.

P.S.: I’ll add another photo when I have a chance that shows what a typical mated queen looks like. The one here does seem slightly fatter than I’m used to seeing, but you get the picture.

Even this queen isn’t typical of the queens I see in my hives these days. Mine are usually longer and not as fat.

This isn’t a clearest shot, but most of my queens look more like this these day — dark and long:

The second queen in this video is stubby. I ordered her from the Newfoundland Bee Company, but she only laid a small number of eggs and then stopped. That can happen to any queen, even so-called naturally mated queens that are dependent on good weather and other uncontrollable factors for mating well. In any case, it’s not difficult to spot a queen that isn’t laying. The queen is this video stubby, very much like the first photo of the virgin queen in this post.

In this video, we can see a queen bee laying eggs.