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A honeybee queen surrounded by her retinue (image by Helga Heilmann, BeeGroup Würzburg)

There are numerous behavioural, physiological, and anatomical differences between queens (which can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day) and sterile workers, even though they are identical at the genetic level. Upon emergence from the pupae, new queens engage in a series of duels with rival queens. The single survivor will leave the hive for 1–5 mating flights, during which she visits sharply delineated leks—congregation areas used solely for mating that might be several kilometres from the hive, where hundreds of drones typically await. Queens will mate with an average of 12 drones, who die shortly afterwards since the explosive ejaculation ruptures the everted genitals. A mated queen then returns to her native hive; egg laying begins shortly afterwards, and she will typically not leave the colony again unless a new queen is raised in the subsequent year, in which case the old queen leaves the hive with a large swarm of workers to relocate to a new home. Specialised workers who form the queen's retinue feed the queen and constantly groom and lick her, in the process picking up queen mandibular pheromone, which suppresses ovary development in workers.


CC-licensed image: Helga Heilmann, BeeGroup Würzburg.


Citation: Chittka A, Chittka L (2010) Epigenetics of Royalty. PLoS Biol 8(11): e1000532.

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Taken on October 11, 2010