Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Retro Episode 81: Queen Bee Show Notes

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Welcome back to Bunny Trails, and happy PRIDE month! Just a reminder, Shauna and I are on vacation for the month of June. But we didn’t want you to go 4 full weeks without something to listen to, so here is a retro episode. We also have over 150 episodes for you to listen to in the back catalog, so check us out on or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back in July. Until then, enjoy Retro 81, from June 14, 2020, Queen Bee. 

Bunny Trails

Episode 81: Queen Bee

Record Date: June 14, 2020

Air Date: June 17, 2020


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today. 

There is a lot of entomology in our etymology this week as we look into the phrase “Queen Bee”.

But first, I have to say I cannot get that Lordes song from 2013 out of my head. You know the one… super catchy and no matter how much you want to hate it you just keep listening cause secretly you love the beat. It’s called Royals, and the chorus goes:

And we'll never be royals

It don't run in our blood

That kind of lux just ain't for us

We crave a different kind of buzz

Let me be your ruler, you can call me Queen B

And baby I'll rule (I'll rule I'll rule I'll rule)

Let me live that fantasy

And since it is still stuck in my head, I wanted each of you to have it, too. My treat. You’re welcome.


OED: The chief or dominant woman in an organization or social group

In early use frequently in extended metaphors.

But before we jump into the figurative use of Queen Bee, let’s talk about the literal use. 

From Wikipedia… 

The term queen bee is typically used to refer to an adult, mated female (gyne) that lives in a honey bee colony or hive; she is usually the mother of most, if not all, of the bees in the beehive.[1] Queens are developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed in order to become sexually mature. There is normally only one adult, mated queen in a hive, in which case the bees will usually follow and fiercely protect her.

The term "queen bee" can be more generally applied to any dominant reproductive female in a colony of a eusocial bee species other than honey bees. However, as in the Brazilian stingless bee Schwarziana quadripunctata, a single nest may have multiple queens or even dwarf queens, ready to replace a dominant queen in a case of sudden death.[2]

But something I find simultaneously interesting and disappointing, but not really surprising once I think about it, is that we used to call it the King Bee. Despite the fact that we knew it was a female for at least 500 years before we switched to the term Queen Bee. 

For more on that, we’ll look at a Twitter thread by the entomologists who run the Ask An Entomologist Twitter page under the handle @BugQuestions. This is from a January 20, 2018 post.


What we now call 'queen' bees-the main female reproductive honeybees-were erroneously called 'kings' for nearly 2,000 years. Why? Let's explore the history of bees!


In the remaining 30 some odd tweets, they take the reader on a fascinating journey!


They talk about how humans have been beekeeping for at least 5,000+ years. And the naming of much of the roles for bees was a product of the biases of the day.


“For instance, in a lot of societies it was very common to call the 'workers' slaves because slavery was common at the time.”


Aristotle wrote “The History of Animals” in 350 BCE and it was the accepted truth for much of animal biology until the 1600s. From the Twitter thread...



Aristotle didn't know what we know about bees now...but it was widely accepted that the biggest bees in the colony lead the hive somehow and were essential for reproduction and swarming. ...but we now know the queens are female. Why didn't Aristotle?”


Well, it’s because Aristotole was a massive male chauvinist. In his work:  


Politics (1254b13–14), Aristotle states "as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject".


Back to the thread:


So, when he saw a society led almost entirely of actually makes a lot of sense as to why he saw the 'queen' bees as male and called them kings. These ideas of women in his circle were so ingrained that a female ruler literally wouldn't compute.


So the idea stuck because no one wanted to question Aristotle for a long time.



“Beekeepers *knew* the queens were female; they were observed laying eggs...but their exact role was controversial outside of them. In fact, in most circles, it was commonly accepted that the workers gathered the larvae which grew on plants. Again, this is from Aristotle's work.”


So how did we get from Aristotle to the facts? Well, back to the thread:



“The exact work which popularized the (scientifically accurate) idea of the honeybee as a female-led society was The Feminine Monarchy, by Charles Butler.”

Ask an Entymologist makes the case that Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England during most of Charles Butler’s life probably influenced his work to some extent. Queen Elizabeth ruled from 1558 until 1603, while Butler was born in 1560 and published his work in 1609. And while there had been women rulers in the past, most of those didn’t happen during a time where scientific assumptions were being challenged. 

The thread goes on to talk about proving the male worker bees mated with the Queen Bee, which is truly an amazing read. We’ll retweet the thread on our Twitter feed, @bunnytrailspod so you can read it for yourself.

But for us, the important part is the knowledge that the early 1600s is when we started to popularize the idea of a Queen Bee, instead of a King Bee. 

But when did we see Queen Bee as a figurative phrase? Well that was in the mid-1700s according to the OED. 

1747 - The Practical Bee-master

Or, A Treatise, Wherein the Management of Bees, Both in Common Hives, and in the Colony Way, Without Killing Them for Their Honey, Is, Step by Step and on All Probable Occurances, Better and More Particularly Directed, Than in Any Book Hitherto Published

By Robert Maxwell · 1747

The Doctor found a conveniency in maintaining that this Soverign was a Female: He dedicated his Book to the Queen, and told Her, The Queen Bee governs with Clemency and Sweetness, so doth your Majesty, she is obeyed and defended, out of Choice and Inclination by her Subjects, so is your Majesty, for all the thousands of your Brittannick Isreal Esteem your Majesty’s Person as Sacred, and scarce such a Villain is among us, who would not lose his Life in Defense of your Majesty: You see he has made a proper Use of his Queen-Bee, and taken her Assistance to make out these fine Compliments.

1780   Sophia Lee · The chapter of accidents: a comedy  6   He could not endure to see her flying about, like the queen-bee with the whole hive at her heels.

1790   Tate Wilkinson · Memoirs of his own life  I. 105   When I went into the green-room, an universal laugh of contempt ensued—Woffington, the queen bee of the hive, was there—I had disturbed and offended her Majesty; and therefore all her faithful servants, bee-like, joined to sting me.

1807   Robert Southey · Letters from England, by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. II. xxx. 41   Wherever one of the queen bees of fashion alights, a whole swarm follows her.



The Shasta courier. [volume], May 14, 1853

About The Shasta courier. [volume] (Shasta, Calif.) 1852-1872


1874   Louise Chandler Moulton · Some women's hearts ii. 18   You must do something as well as the rest, if you want your dinner. Kate is Queen bee, and she won't allow any drones in the hive.


1913   Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) 15 June 4 f   Skirving had the idea that Beryl was the queen bee of all elocutionists.

1943   C. H. Ward-Jackson It's a Piece of Cake 50   The Queen Bee, the Director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force; or the senior W.A.A.F. officer on a station.

1956   N. Streatfeild Judith i. 44   Beatrice became a queen bee in London's civil defence force.

Despite seeing it in print occasionally from the mid 1700s to the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that I really started seeing it in use in common vernacular as evidenced in the newspapers of the time. 

For example,

I saw several advertisements in American newspapers in the early 1900s for Queen Bee Stove Company

From the American Machinist, Volume 34 - 1911 

The Queen Bee Stove Company, Joplln, Mo., has been Incorporated with $50,000 capital to manufacture stoves

One more for the definitions side…

From your favorite online, made-up dictionary… Urban Dictionary.

Queen Bee

A girl who, usually in a high school setting, is the "leader of the pack." she doesn't always have to be the prettiest, but she is extremely confident, and because she thinks she's hot, others do too. she knows all of the "important" gossip, and people emulate her style. if the queen bee wears something new and different, others will wear it the next day. she always has the hottest boyfriend, and is at all the parties. everyone always talks behind her back about how much they hate her, even though everyone secretly wishes they were her friend.

the queen bee and her friends all went to the halloween dance as nurses, and they came an hour late to make an entrance.


A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons. We want to give a special thanks to Pat Rowe, Victoria Monte, Charlie Moore, and Mary Lopez for their long-time support of the show. Your support makes Bunny Trails happen week after week. If the rest of you want to join them in supporting the show you can find out more at

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

We’ve already mentioned the 2013 Lorde song Royals. 

But I also want to mention the 2012 song Queen Bee by Rochell Diamante. It’s a fast paced, swinging pop song. 

But you gotta be sweet if you want my honey

Gotta beware if you want my heart

Only a king deserves my lovin

Uh oh oh, You know

Better believe that I'm independent

Better behave when you say my name

Cus I'm a queen when the camera's flashin

Uh oh oh, you know oh

I'm a queen bee

Uh oh oh oh

Queen bee

Uh oh oh oh

Queen bee

Uh oh oh oh

You can call me honey but I just might sting

There are a metric tonne of books with Queen Bee in the title. Here are a couple that stood out.

2015: Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt's Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park

By Phyllis Austin 

2020 The Queen Bee and Me

By Gillian McDunn

From the highly acclaimed author of Caterpillar Summer comes a heartfelt story about the sweetness and stings of middle-school friendship.

Meg has always found comfort in her best friend Beatrix's shadow. Self-assured Beatrix is the one who makes decisions, and the girls have been a pair since kindergarten. But middle school has brought some changes in Beatrix, especially when Meg tries to step outside her role as sidekick.

A special science elective is Meg's first step away, but when she's paired with quirky new girl Hazel, Beatrix steps in to stake her claim on Meg. Meg is taken aback at how mean Beatrix can be--and how difficult it is to stand up to her friend. But as Meg gets to know Hazel while working on their backyard beehive project, she starts to wonder: Is being Beatrix's friend worth turning down the possibility of finding her own voice?

Terraria is a video game developed by Re-Logic. It was first released as a game for Microsoft Windows in 2011 but has since expanded to several other platforms. It is a 2D action-adventure, open-world sandbox / platformer game in which the player controls a single character in a generated world.

In the game, Queen Bee is described as, "The matriarch of the jungle hives...".

Queen Bee is a pre-Hardmode boss. She is summoned by breaking the Larva inside Bee Hives of the Underground Jungle, or by using an Abeemination anywhere within the Jungle. She is immune to the Confused debuff, and can inflict the Poisoned debuff.

Its Bestiary entry states: "This highly aggressive monstrosity responds violently when her larva is disturbed; the honey-laden hives are her home turf."

Wrap up...

I find the journey of the literal Queen Bee term to be far more interesting than the figurative phrase. And I highly recommend you check out the Twitter thread we mentioned early. I’ve retweeted so you can check it out. There were at least another 20 posts that walk through how scientist had to overcome bias to prove the Queen Bee mated with worker bees to ensure reproduction of the entire hive. And the kinds of things this term had to overcome just to allow our male-dominated science field recognize that honey bees have a female led society are a fitting allegory for many of the same kinds of bias and stereotyping we continue to fight in 2020. It’s amazing how much both entomology and etymology can teach us about life. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you enjoy the show, tell a friend about it. Podcasts can provide a welcome and necessary respite to the stress of life and we’d love to help more people unwind for half an hour. 


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

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