English for beekeepers

Is she a queen or just a female bee?


All queen bees are females with the ability to lay fertilized eggs, but not all fertile, egg-laying females are queens. The term “queen” is often misused to describe female solitary bees that live and work by themselves. In fact, these are not queens but simply females. Well-known examples of queenless species are the mason bees, leafcutting bees, and carder bees, but there are many more.

When it comes to queen bees, a variety of definitions exist, but one thing remains constant: the queen is the principle egg layer in a social colony. In Bees of the World (2004) O’Toole and Raw state it this way: The queen is “the principle or only egg-laying female in a social colony, which does little or no foraging.” As you can see, a little tube-nesting solitary bee does not live in a social colony and does all her own foraging,” so no crown for her.

In the human world, the word “queen” implies a social structure where one individual reigns over another or is somehow in a position of leadership. This is equally true in the bee world. Only those species in which adult females live together and cooperate in some way have queens. In those societies, one bee is referred to as the queen and the others are referred to as workers. In some cases, there is not much distinction between the two types beyond a certain “bossiness” exhibited by one bee over the others.

The queen question becomes more complex when you look at the different types of bee sociality. Bees exhibit a broad spectrum of social behaviors from those who live in the same abode but have nothing to do with each other, to the very complex structure found in a honey bee hive.

How queens rule also differs. Eric Grissell offers a glimpse into bug dominance in his book Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens (2010). He explains that queen yellowjackets rule by aggressive behavior toward the workers, while honey bee queens rule with pheromones—rule by subterfuge, as he calls it.

In North America, a number of bee species have queens. Beside the honey bee, there are queens among the bumble bees, Augochlorella, and many species of Lasioglossum. According to Wilson and Carril in The Bees in Your Backyard (2015) the Lasioglossum bees are known as semi-social species where multiple females lay eggs and share responsibility for raising the young. In an interesting twist, the largest Lasioglossum becomes the queen, staying home and laying most of the eggs, while the smaller females become foragers. If something happens to the queen, one of the other females will take over the egg-laying duties and become the new queen.

In summary, non-social female bees are just “females” and males are just “males.” As far as I can tell, the word “drone” is reserved for male honey bees, and no drones exist in other bee species even if they have queens.

Bumble bee and berry bee share a flower.

The raspberry bee on the left (Osmia aglaia) is a female collecting pollen. Because she lives by herself and performs many functions, she is not referred to as a queen or a worker. The bumble bee on the right (Bombus vosnesenskii) is a worker. She will take her pollen load into a nest that contains other adult females, including a queen. © Rusty Burlew.

Honey Bee Suite

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  • I hope this nation comes to its senses and figures out the decline in our bee population.
    We sometimes look at this as a non issue when in fact it is of national security significance.

  • Thank you Rusty.

    Although I frequently talk about solitary bees and very much know the difference, “queen” was so much a part of my childhood learning that I still catch and correct myself on a regular basis.

    It has also taken a lot of practice to say bumble bee colony instead of hive. On the other hand, I do use “drone” speaking about male bumbles, find authoritative definitions that use “drone” for any social male bee.


    • Glen,

      That’s good to know about drones. I couldn’t find any use of the word drone in my books other than in relation to honey bees, but I will indeed dig deeper out of curiosity.

      I type the word “hive” nearly every day and then have to go back and change it to “colony.” I explain all the time that a honey bee colony lives in a hive and that hives themselves don’t swarm (now that would be scary). But still, those terms get hard-wired into us and it is difficult to change. Still, nothing creates confusion and prevents learning more than a misused word. Imho.

      • Rusty –
        No doubt you are extra fond of talking to folk about those big paper bee hives filled with all those picnic bees.
        Anyway, what I find is that drone is acceptable but not universal for social bees.
        E. O. Wilson / The Insect Societies : “DRONE — A male social bee, especially a male honeybee or bumblebee.”
        The Bees In Your Backyard (J. S. Wilson & O M Carril) refers to “male or drone bumblebees”, but they also interchangeably refer to bumble bee hives and b-b nests, so some imperfect language.
        Sladen just seems to write of male b-b’s, not drones, from 100 years ago.
        I’ll do more checking.

        • Glen,

          Thanks for all the research! I’ll have another word project for you soon. Still thinking about it.

  • At my house, although we are technically not a social colony, and although my wife does half of the foraging, she is certainly my Queen. Just sayin’.

    • Rich,

      Absolutely! Although according to Merriam-Webster, it is in the bottom 30% of words in popularity, a good reason to use it.

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