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Types of Bees in a Hive

A honey bee colony is an excellent example of cooperation. This family unit is a super organism composed of thousands of members acting as one. You will find 3 individual types of bees in a hive. Most of them are female workers who are responsible for supporting and defending the colony. But, we can not ignore the other members of the hive without whom honey bee life could not continue. The story of how all these individuals work together is unique in the insect world.

3 bees found in a hive worker, queen and drone image.

Bees in a Colony – Honey Bees That Is

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. Over Winter, the population in the hive is reduced.

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The individual bees in the colony work together to protect the hive, rear young and store food to be used during the cold Winter months. Unlike most insects, the colony overwinters as a family group in the hive.

Many types of bees in a beehive on the comb image.

Roles in the Colony

Inside a normal beehive you will find: a queen, drones and workers. The number of each kind of 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. However, during Spring and Summer it is common to have several hundred drones. They are needed for mating with new queens.

  • Queen Honey Bee – one per hive
  • Drone Honey Bee – few hundred during Spring/Summer
  • Worker Honey Bee – thousands

A honey bee colony has a remarkable system for communication and division of the tasks for its work force. Each member of the colony has a primary role and are physcially designed for their tasks.

The Queen and drones are responsible for bee reproduction. Certainly, worker bees are well named due to the great variety of tasks needed to maintain the hive.

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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. Perhaps this is why we find a honey bee colony still intriguing after so many years of research.

The Queen Honey Bee

The queen bee is the mother of all individuals in the hive. In normal circumstances, there will only be 1 queen in a hive. The exception is when a mother/daughter queen will coexist for a short time.

I have seen this happen in my hive upon occasion. Usually, after a few months – the younger daughter takes over as leader.

As the only reproductive female in the hive, she is the only one who is able to mate and lay fertilized eggs. These develop into worker bees.

Without a fertile laying queen, the colony will not survive for very long. Unfertilized eggs develop into drones. They do no work inside the hive.

Picture of queen honey bee and worker bee on comb in hive image.

In addition to egg laying, the queen bee also gives off queen pheromones – often called “queen substance”. 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. The new monarch will be capable of laying the thousands of eggs needed by the colony.

Aside from her time of mating, the queen bee remains inside the hive throughout her life. The one exception is that she may leave with a bee swarm. Swarming is the honey bee’s 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. Before leaving, queen cells are left behind – one will become the new mother of the hive.

A queen bee develops from a fertilized egg. The larva is fed a special diet. Her development time is the shortest of any bee in the hive: 16 days from egg to adult.

Queen bees can live several years but they rarely do. The colony replace her with another queen when production lags or if she dies.

Drones

Drone bees are the males in the colony. We normally only see drones 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 drone bees is reproduction. Upon maturity they fly from the hive on warm afternoons looking for virgin queens.

Those that are successful in mating with a queen will die shortly after. The unsuccessful male (that’s most of them) returns to the hive to eat and rest. They try again on another day.

Drone honey bee with worker bees in hive image.

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 throughout Summer if foraging conditions are good. When Fall arrives, the workers will force the males 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.

Worker Bees

The worker bee is the most populous member of the hive. Thousands of workers 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. Some races of honey bees keep larger populations over Winter.

picture of worker honey bees inside hive image.

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.

Workers are female and develop from fertilized eggs that have been laid by a queen. Their time from egg to adulthood is 21 days.

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. These are averages of course and the time at each stage varies with colony needs.

It is the worker bees who are responsible for making honey from collected plant nectar. Honey production is vital to colony survival during the cold Winter months.

Anatomical Differences

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 – long abdomen to hold large ovaries and store semen
  • Drone – large eggs to see queens in flight, penis and semen
  • Worker – honey crop to collect nectar, pollen baskets for pollen

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 Members of the Colony

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

In general, the queen bee is the largest (longest) member of the colony. It takes a bit of time to learn how to find the queen bee quickly.

She will often be near the brood nest because this is where she does her work of laying eggs. Look for a large bee with a long abdomen moving slowly across the comb.

Drones – Males in the Hive

You will not always see male honey bees 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. 🙂

picture of worker honey bee with full pollen baskets image.

Worker Appearance

Most of the members in the hive are workers. 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.

Get to Know the Bees in Your Hive

Which type of honey bee is the most important to the colony? Honestly, they all are. Each members has a role to play in bee life.

Some are foragers, some destined to lay eggs and other defend the hive. But, it is the combined efforts of all members of the colony that makes life possible.

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