Wild queen bees attempt to invade commercial hives, but get slaughtered by rival workers

A new study has shown that free-roaming queen bumblebees are being killed when they enter commercial hives. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Wild, free-roaming queen bees in search of a new kingdom are often lured to commercial hives — where resident workers murder the queens almost as soon as they get through the door, a new study shows. However, it's not all bad news: a new device could help stem the queen bee massacres.

Researchers serendipitously discovered the unusual killings while studying how common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) pollinate crops. When the team opened up the commercial-style hives they had set up around the Finger Lakes region of New York, they found that dead wild queens piled up just inside the entrance of every one. On average, each hive had 10 dead queens, but the record was 19. Most of the dead queens were B. impatiens but some of the murdered matriarchs belonged to the closely related species B. perplexus, commonly known as the confusing bumblebee.

The researchers realized that the wild queens, who are naturally drawn to commercial hives because of their bright colors, were likely attempting to usurp the resident queen. In the wild, bumblebee queens can invade the hives of other queens and overthrow them to claim the colony as their own. But because commercial hives have a much higher number of worker bees than wild hives, the usurping queens were likely being swarmed by the smaller bees and overpowered, according to a statement by researchers.   

The finding reveals another previously unknown way that humans are impacting wild bee populations, which are generally in decline, researchers wrote. This queen bee slaughter could also be reducing the pollination benefits of commercial beekeeping, because it wipes out wild queens. 

Related: Swarming bees may potentially change the weather, new study suggests 

Worker bees entering a commercial hive. A new excluder device can prevent wild queens from doing the same. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

In a new study, published Feb. 6 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the researchers tested out a new device that physically blocks wild queens from entering commercial hives, while still allowing workers to come and go as they please. 

The queen excluders were 100% effective at keeping wild queens out without compromising the hive's efficiency. The team believes that these devices should be rolled out to commercial growers who invest in the bees to help pollinate their crops. 

"If you are a commercial grower, and you are wanting to manage bumblebees, you may actually be reducing your overall pollination services by investing in these commercial bumblebee colonies, unless you are taking some risk-mitigation strategies like putting in a queen excluder," study co-author Heather Grabb, an agricultural scientist at Cornell University, said in the statement. 

Harry Baker
Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like). 

  • skynr13
    It was confusing to me to read this article because even though it mentions that the invading queens are Bumble bees and the commercial ones are supposedly too. The pic shown with workers entering the hive are regular honey-type bees. I never heard of using hives of Bumble bees to pollinate crops, but using regular bees, yes. And supposedly also Bumble bees don't live in hives and are solitary. Please make an effort in this article to specify and differentiate the two types. Thank you.
  • Kentish Rhino
    I had to go on and read the scientific journal to understand what this article was trying to say. It's actually referring to cuckoo Bumblebee Queens trying to overthrow the Queen Bumblebee in commercial NESTS which is entirely natural behaviour for Cuckoos but obviously commercial nests are non natural and probably easier to defend. This isn't talking about Bee Hives at all which is a term used for Honey Bees. Hence the confusion.
  • Gard Otis-Bee Biologist
    Some of the above confusion stems from confusion over the word "hive",. A hive is a human-made container that houses a colony of bees-- honey bees, stingless bees in the tropics, or in this case bumblebees. Growers do purchase hives of bumblebees for pollination of tomatoes, peppers, and other crops in greenhouses, and less frequently outdoors.
    The commercial hive contained colonies of Bombus impatiens, the most common bumblebee species in eastern N. America. All but one of the invading queens that were killed inside the hives were of the same species- B. impatiens. This is NORMAL behavior in nature. Good nesting sites (like abandoned mouse nests) are in short supply and queens in spring fight and kill each other to obtain a good nest. There was only one other dead queen in a hive. It was Bombus perplexus, also a free-living (not a parasitic) bumblebee species.
    Most confusing for me was the photo of a honey bee hive labelled "worker bees entering a commercial hive". Terrible choice of photo, LiveScience! Totally unrelated to the article, about bumblebees.