Queen Pheromones

A queen and her retinue (photo from U of MN Bee Lab)

A queen secretes her own combination of chemical scents, like a perfume. The queen’s scent gives the worker bees cues about the hive and the condition of the queen. The scent helps control swarming, it inhibits the development of ovaries in the worker bees, it tells the workers if a queen is mated or not, and it gives workers the cue to gather around the queen and form a retinue to take care of her.

The stronger the queen’s chemical cue, the larger then retinue should be. A smelly queen

Michael Goblirsch opening a hive.

Mike Goblirsch opening a hive.

could indicate a healthier queens, and therefore a healthier hive. We got an opportunity to test these hypotheses out through a collaboration with a the Social Insects Research Group (SIRG) in the Republic of South Africa. Our objective was to select stronger and weaker colonies, then collect pheromone from the queens and record a video of the retinue behavior.

First, Mike Goblirsch, a PhD student in Dr. Marla Spivak’s lab, rated colonies based on the number of frames of bees, amount of sealed brood, and pattern of the sealed brood (queens normally don’t miss laying eggs in many cells, so a colony that has a really spotty brood pattern often indicates a colony health or queen problem). Eight colonies were in the strong group and eight were in the weaker group. Mike and I went through each of the colonies and found the queen. We then recorded a 60 second video of the queen, so a researcher in South Africa could watch the video and rate the quality of the retinue around the queen.

Queen in a tube with cotton backing.

To rate the quality, the researcher will count the number of bees attending to the queen, and the number of times a bee touches the queen with her antennae, the number of times a bee feeds the queen, and the number of times the queen is groomed.

Last, we collected a sample of the queen’s smell. We carefully took the queen and put her in a small tube with a cotton backing and

Silicone tubing on the end of a mechanical pencil.

collected pheromones from her mandibles. The researchers in South Africa came up with a method of collecting the pheromone with a small silicone tube on the end of a mechanical pencil. You get the queen to bite the tube for 5 mins, then stick the tube into a solution for preservation and analysis of the pheromone levels.

We sent the videos and samples to South Africa and are waiting on the analysis. Should be interesting!

Queen biting the silicone tubing.



Written By: Katie Lee

Katie Lee has written 53 post in this blog.

I'm a part of the Midwest Bee Team based out of the University of Minnesota. I work with commercial migratory beekeepers in North Dakota and Minnesota to help them monitor pest and disease levels. Before I was on the Midwest Team, I was on the CA Bee Team working for the Northern California bee breeders. I was introduced to honey bees during my last semester as an undergrad when I took a class on social insects with Dr. Marla Spivak. Marla asked me to work in the U of MN Bee Lab over the summer, and have been enthralled with bees ever since. My main interests are bee breeding, Varroa, disease ecology, and extension work. I received both a BS in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and a MS in Entomology from the University of Minnesota.


13 Responses to “Queen Pheromones”

  1. Katie Lee

    Hi Kris,

    The queen would bit the tubing when it was placed in front of her. She would stop once in a while, but I would move the tubing around and she would generally bit it again.

    Thanks for the question!

  2. Frank Soboleski

    Have you done any research on the pheromone level between a virgin queen and a mated queen? we had a discussing last night at our bee meeting and we questioned if the packages we received this year or really anytime had truly mated queens? If there is a way to determine the behavior of the bees around her by the pheromones she is giving off it might be helpful. Any thoughts?

  3. Katie Lee

    Hi Frank,
    I have not done any research on comparing the pheromones of virgin vs. mated queens, but there has been research done and they do smell differently. This is one of the signals that tells the worker bees if she is a virgin or not. I am not aware that you can tell the quality or quantity of matings by the queen by looking at her retinue, however. In general, though, a healthy, mated queen should have a good retinue of worker bees around her of bees that are feeding, grooming, or touching her with their antennae. Virgin queens are much more active than mated queens and should be much smaller. The abdomens of queen bees sometimes shrink while they are in the cage since they are not laying (and might ‘think’ that they are in a swarm, so she would be ready to fly). If she is not mated well or something has gone wrong with the internal fertilization process, she will start to lay drone eggs in worker cells. You can tell when this happens with the capped brood cells have the corn-puff drone cap, but are on the smaller worker cells. If the queen is not mated properly or something is off in the colony, the bees will often try to supersede her with cells that are on the brood comb (these could also be emergency queen cells if the queen has died), as opposed to on the bottom of the frame. I hope this helps and that your queens are nice and healthy.

  4. Katie Lee

    I should add that all queens in packages are sold AFTER they start laying eggs in a mating nuc. If the beekeeper doesn’t see eggs, the queen does not get sold.