Each Honey Bee Colony Has 3 Different Kinds of Bees
A honey bee colony has 3 types of honey bees inside the hive. Each member of the colony has a role to play in sustaining hive life. This family unit is a super organism composed of thousands of members acting as one. Most of the bees are female workers who are responsible for supporting and defending the colony. We beekeepers are just nuts about bees-digging into all the facts about honey bees that we can find. The story of how all these bees work together is unique in the insect world.
What is a Bee Colony?
Honey bees are social insects that live in large family groups. Colony size can grow to a population of 40,000 to 60,000 bees during the Summer.
The honey bee colony works together to protect the hive, rear young and store food to be used during the cold Winter months. Unlike most bees, the honey bee overwinters are a family group.
Each Type of Bee Has a Specific Role to Play
A honey bee colony has a remarkable system for communication and division of the tasks for its work force.
Each type of bee found inside the hive has a primary role. The Queen bee and drones are responsible for reproduction. And, we know that worker bees have a great variety of tasks to perform.
How they are able to communicate and know what needs done is still not completely understood. No one tells them what to do – or do they? Some of these questions still puzzle researchers.
Types of Bees in a Hive
Inside a beehive you will find 3 different types of adult honey bees: a queen, drone bees and worker bees.
The number and combination of each type of honey bee will vary due to hive conditions and the time of year.
For instance, drone bees are males and will usually not be present in a healthy hive during Winter.
- Queen Honey Bee – one per hive
- Drone Honey Bee – few hundred during Spring/Summer
- Worker Honey Bee – thousands
The Queen Bee
The queen bee is the mother of all bees in the hive. In normal circumstances, there will only be 1 queen honey bee in a hive. The exception to this is when a mother/daughter queen will coexist for a short time.
As the only reproductive female in the hive, she is the only bee who is able to mate and is capable of laying fertilized eggs. Without a fertile laying queen, the colony will not survive for very long.
In addition to egg laying, the queen bee also gives off queen pheromones. These external hormones (chemical messengers) are very important to the honey bee colony.
Pheromones serve as a communication system that governs colony activity. A queen bee with declining egg production or declining pheromone production is a bad sign.
This signals the colony to create a new queen bee. The old queen is replaced with a new monarch who will now fulfill the role of the queen bee in the beehive.
During the warm season, an aging queen bee may leave with hive with a bee swarm. Swarming is the honey bee way of reproducing on the colony level.
When ready to swarm, a queen and about 50% of the population will leave to form a new colony. This leaves the original hive with queen cells to make a new queen bee.
Life Span of the Queen Honey Bee
A queen honey bee developes from a fertilized egg that is fed a special diet from a very young age. Her development time is the shortest of any bee in the hive at 16 days from egg to adult.
Queen bees can live several years but they rarely do. The colony will be able to tell when her production is lagging and often replaces her with another new queen.
The Drone Bee
Drone bees are the only males in the colony. We normally only see drone bees during the warm months. Drones develop from unfertilized eggs! Yes, a queen does not have to be mated to produce drones.
The sole purpose for male Drone bees is reproduction. Upon maturity Drones leave the hive on warm afternoons looking for virgin queens.
The drones that are successful in mating with a queen will die shortly after. The unsuccessful male bees (that’s most of them) return to the hive to eat and rest. They try again on another day.
It takes 24 days for the drone bee to develop from egg to adult. This is the longest development time of any of the bees.
Drones can be found in the hive Summer if foraging conditions are good. When Fall arrives, the honey bee colony will force the male Drone bees out of the hive to die.
They don’t need them during the Winter when no new queens will need mating. So, why feed them? Very practical – our honey bees.
The Worker Bee
The worker bee is the most populous member of the hive. Thousands of worker bees do the tasks that keep the colony fed and safe.
Summer colonies have worker populations numbering well into the thousands. During Winter, you may find a smaller population.
Exactly how big the Winter population will be depends in part on the genetics of the colony.
Honey bees from the Italian race of honey bee tend to have larger Winter populations. Russian bees and Carniolans usually keep smaller populations over Winter.
The role of the worker bee is filled with variation. Different tasks are assigned to the bees depending on age of the bee and needs of the colony.
Worker bees are female and develop from fertilized eggs that have been laid by a queen. Their time from egg to adulthood is 21 days.
Upon emergence, the first 3 weeks of the worker bee’s life are spent working inside the hive. During the last 3 weeks, our worker bee becomes a forager.
Worker bees are aptly named because during the Summer they work themselves to death. Flying to collect food requires a lot of energy and experience a lot of wear and tear.
After weeks of foraging, their bee wings and body parts begin to wear out. Once the wings are tattered and won’t support flight – the bee is done.
Anatomical Differences of Bees in the Hive
Though all honey bees share a multitude of physiological and anatomical traits, there are some marked differences. Each type of bee in the hive has some special parts to help them in their role.
- Queen Bee – long abdomen to hold large ovaries and store semen
- Drone Bees – large eggs to see queens in flight, penis and semen
- Worker Bees – honey crop to collect nectar, pollen baskets for pollen
If you want to know more details, my post on honey bee anatomy looks a bit deeper into the miraculous form of the bee. If you really want to go deep, I suggest – The Buzz about Bees or Biology of the Honey Bee.
Identifying the Different Kinds of Bees in the Hive
There is no teacher better than experience. Some things just take time – even when you think you know what you are looking for. Still, being able to identify the different types of bees in the hive is important for beekeepers.
Identify the Queen
She will often be near the brood nest because this is where she does her work of laying eggs. A queen bee normally moves slowly across the comb.
Identify Drone Bees
You will not always see male honey bees or drones in the hive. Some colonies keep drones over Winter but most do not.
New beekeepers sometimes mistake drones for a queen because of their larger size. Drones are noticeably larger than workers. They are not as long as a queen but are wider.
They also have 2 large compound eyes that cover the top of their head – and… um round fuzzy butts. 🙂
Identify Worker Bees
Most of the bees in the hive are worker bees. If it’s not a queen and it’s not a drone…. it’s a worker bee. You will see workers going about their tasks inside the hive.
Any bee that you find with colorful pollen on her hind legs is a worker bee that has been out foraging for the hive.
Final Thoughts on the 3 Types of Bees in a Hive:
Which kind of bee is the most important to the colony? Honestly, they all are. Each type of bee has a role to play.
The combined efforts of all members of the bee colony make sustainable life possible.