Queen Bees and Royal Jelly

As Britain celebrates the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, HOPE For the Future Community Engagement Officer, Hayleigh Jutson takes a look at the queen at the heart of every honey bee hive and find out why royal jelly is crucial to her reign.

Honey bees on honeycomb.

Social bees are species that live together in groups called colonies. These colonies are very structured, with different bees having specific roles. Social bees include honey bees and many species of bumblebee. A queen bee is the only bee in a hive of social bees that produces eggs. Larvae will hatch from these eggs and develop into adult bees, so the queen bee will be the mother of most of the bees in the hive.

A queen bee in a hive. Image credit: OUMNH

The queen bee governs the colony. Most of the other bees are female worker bees and nurse bees. Workers are responsible for foraging, caring for the nest looking after the rest of the colony. Nurse bees raise the queen’s offspring, who are also their sisters. All these female bees develop from fertilised eggs. Later in the year, the queen starts to produce some male bees called drones. These drones develop from unfertilised eggs. Their only job is to mate with queen bees. They don’t even feed themselves! Instead, the female workers have to feed them.

Queen cells containing larvae surrounded by royal Jelly. Image credit: Waugsberg CC BY-SA 3.0

Towards the end of summer, as well as producing unfertilised males eggs, the queen bee also lays some eggs in specially constructed queen cells. What makes these specially chosen individuals grow-up to be queen is a substance called ‘royal jelly’. This is a milky secretion that comes from glands within the heads of nurse honeybees. While all the bee larvae receive some royal jelly in the first few days after hatching, the one selected to be queens are fed large amounts of it from their larval stage to adulthood. A special protein in the Royal Jelly called ‘royalactin’ enables the larvae to develop ovaries so they can produce eggs and, perhaps become queen of their own hive.

Queen Bumblebees

Queen bumblebees overwinter underground, and are usually the first to emerge in early spring. When the queen bees awake from their long slumber, they are extremely hungry and in a hurry to start a new colony of their own. The queen begins by feeding on early-blooming wildflowers and tree blossoms, which provide her with all the nutrition she needs with protein-rich pollen, and high-energy nectar.

Queen Tree Bumblebee. Image Credit: Hayleigh Jutson

Once she has filled up on all the nutrients she needs, the queen will then find a suitable nest site. Different species choose different sites. She will collect a ball of pollen and lay her first batch of eggs inside it. Bumblees incubate their eggs, like birds do, and even have a bald-patch on their abdomens, to ensure suitable distribution of their body heat over their eggs. The queen builds a store of honey to feed from, while she does this. When they hatch, the larvae eat their way through the pollen and the queen continues to care for them, until they are fully-grown adults.

If you are interested in bees, have a look at our post about the red-tailed mason bee. She is a solitary bee who chooses a very unusual place to lay her eggs.

Hayleigh is working with the HOPE project team to develop and deliver a programme for working with intergenerational groups in the community and making the Museum an Age Friendly space for older people. She wants  “museums to be a space for all to enjoy and develop their sense of wonder and imagination, no matter what age they are”.


The Red Tailed Mason Bee

You may well have noticed some bees recently. One of the earliest solitary bees to emerge in spring is the Red Tailed Mason Bee, Osmia bicolour. They are very distinctive and make their nests in a very particular place.

The males emerge first, sometimes as early as March. They have yellowish bands. They are the followed in a couple of weeks by females which have distinctive red-banded abdomens, giving this bee its common name. The adults may continue flying well into July, so you have plenty of time to spot them. This species of bee is mainly found across southern England and the Midlands and South Wales. This is because it prefers chalk and limestone grassland and so is mainly in areas with this type of habitat.

Female Red Tailed Mason Bee making a snail shell nest. Copyright © John Walters, used with kind permission.

The Red Tailed Mason Bee is unusual in that the females make their nests in empty snail shells. A female bee works diligently to select a suitable shell then prepare the nest. She will then defend this vigorously. She will make several cells within the spiral of one shell, laying an egg in each cell. She will provide each egg with pollen as food for the larvae when they hatch. She will separate each cell with a glue-like substance called mastic. She makes this by chewing up pieces of leaf. When the nest is completed, she will plug the shell with more mastic and will then search for debris such as grass stems, fallen leaves and pine needles to carefully cover and camouflage it. She may also spread more mastic over the outside of the shell.

Entomologists think it is likely that this behaviour protects the shell and its contents from parasites and predators. Safe inside, the eggs will hatch and the larvae will develop inside the shell, feeding on their supply of pollen. They will then survive the winter as pupae, emerging as the next generation of adults the following spring.

So, if you spot an old snail shell, it’s worth keeping an eye on it; it may just become a nest for a Red Tailed Mason Bee. We’d love to hear about your bee sightings and to see your pictures. Get in touch with us using the comments below or by the Contact Us page.

Header image: Red-tailed mason bee, Osmia bicolor female. Image: František ŠARŽÍK CC BY 3.0

Red-Tailed Bumblebee

If you see a big jet-black bumblebee with a red tail in Britain, its probably the Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius. If it has a scruffy white collar, then its a male.

The Red-tailed Bubmblebee has extended its range northwards in recent years and is now common throughout Britain. It can often be seen in parks and gardens. The workers have short tongues and forage on flowers like daisies and thistles which have a big area for them to land on and are made up of small florets, each with a little nectar. Leaving dandelions to grow in the spring helps provide food for these and other insects early on in the growing season.

Let dandelions grow in spring to help insects. Image credit: Pixabay / Claudiu Mladin CC0

The Queens nest under stones and so are sometimes disturbed when these are moved. If you find one like this, have a look without disturbing it then just put the stone back. They may also enter our homes through open windows in search of nesting sites.

The Red-shanked carder bee, Bombus ruderarius, can look similar but is much scarcer in the UK. While the Queens of B. ruderarius are smaller. the workers of the two species can be a similar size. You can tell the difference by looking at the back legs. B ruderarius has red pollen baskets on its otherwise black legs, whereas the leg hairs of B. lapidarius are all black.

Lincoln Kwong was one of the participants at our Summer school in August. He was so inspired by the HOPE collections team at the museum that he decided to start his own insect collection. One of his first specimens was a dead red-tailed bumblebee that he found in his garden. He preserved and pinned this and recorded the data following advice from James.

Bombus lapidarius. Image credit: Lincoln Kwong

Let us know if you have your own collection. You can get in touch using the CONTACT US page. We’d also love to see any pictures any would be happy to feature them in our PHOTO GALLERY!

Featured image credit: Gail Hampshire CC BY 2.0

The Dark Edged Bee-Fly

The Dark edged bee-fly, Bombylius major, is one of the most conspicuous insects to emerge in early spring because of it’s large size and ability to hover in mid air. It is the most common species of Bee-fly in the UK and can be seen in woodland, heathlands, grasslands and gardens from February to June. It has several other common names known as the ‘dark bordered beefly’ or ‘large beefly’. They get these names from their large size and from the dark wavy leading edge of their wings.

Dark edged bee-fly, Bobylius major. Image credit – Flickr / Jean-Marie Hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0

So, is it a bee or a fly? The single pair of wings tells us that this is a fly. A bee would have two pairs of wings. Why would a fly evolve to look like a bee? We think this is to trick predators into thinking it is more dangerous than it is. It certainly works with humans: many people think that the beefly has a large ‘sting’ at the front. In fact, this is just part the fly’s mouth and is quite harmless. The proboscis is adapted to drink the nectar from a wide variety of early-flowering plants. These include primrose, bugle, blackthorn, and cherry blossom. Because they transfer pollen from flower to flower, they are important pollinators in the spring.

Bee-fly feeding on nectar. You can see pollen grains on its legs and body. Image credit – Flickr / Robert Ault, CC BY-SA 2.0

Bee-flies may be harmless to humans but their life cycle is a bit grisly! Females lay their eggs in the underground nests of solitary mining bee nests such as Clarke’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella), the Early mining bee (Andrena haemarrohoa), and the Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). They collect sand or dust at the end of their abdomens. This sticks to their eggs, making them heavier. It may also help camouflage them. They then flick their eggs into the nest burrows of the bees. Once the eggs hatch, the bee-fly larvae crawl further down the burrows and wait for the bee larvae to grow until they are near full size. The bee-fly larvae then begin to feed on the mining bee larvae, drinking their body fluids and gradually eating them alive. When they have finished feeding, the bee-fly larvae then pupate and overwinter inside the burrow. The next generation of adult bee-flies then emerges from the burrows the following spring.

The Twany mining bee, Andrena fulva. Bee-fly larvae feed on its larvae. Image credit – Flickr / Line Sabroe, CC BY 2.0

You might think that means that bee-flies are bad for other bee species, but this is relationship evolved a long time ago and is part of the complex interaction between living things that exists in all ecosystems. Bee flies do feed on individual mining bees, but there is no evidence that they are harmful to bee populations.

If you spot a bee-fly this spring or summer, you can add your sighting to the national database by completing a simple online form on the Bee-fly Watch website. Why not let us know too? You could even take a picture or draw a picture. Who will spot the first bee-fly of 2021?