The members of a honey bee colony are an excellent example of cooperation for the greater good. You will find 3 different types of bees in a hive. Most of them are workers who are responsible for supporting and defending the colony. But, we can not ignore the other members of the colony. Without them, honey bee life could not continue. The story of how all these individuals work together is unique in the insect world.
Life in the Honey 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. Over Winter, the population in the hive is greatly reduced.
This is due to the fact that not much is going on during the cold months. They are just trying to survive until Spring. Survival depends to a large degree on the preparations that took place during the warm season.
During Spring, Summer and early Fall, individual bees in the colony work together to protect the hive, rear young and store food to be used during Winter. This is different than many insects that do not overwinter as a family group.
Roles of Colony Members
Inside a beehive you will find: a queen, drones and workers. The number of each kind of bee in the hive 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 – one per hive
- Drones – few hundred during Spring/Summer
- Workers – 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.
Two types of bees in the hive (queens and drones) are primarily designed for bee reproduction. The colony could not continue without their involvement.
However, it is the female worker bees that perform the great variety of daily tasks needed. 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. For instance, when we see bees festooning – where bees hang in clusters inside the hive. There are theories that this may relate to comb building. But, it has not been definitively proven.
Another example is when worker bees congregate on the front of the hive – seeming to polish “something”.
Beekeepers call this “washboarding“. We still do not know why they do this action. Perhaps this is why we find a honey bee colony still intriguing after so many years of research.
An important queen bee fact – she 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. A fertilized bee egg becomes a worker bee.
Unfertilized eggs develop into males or drones. They do no work inside the hive. 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 – 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 bees to kill their current queen and make a new young one. She will be capable of laying the thousands of eggs needed by the colony.
Aside from her time of mating, the queen 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. Worker select several cells with fertilized eggs or female larvae.
These larvae are fed a special diet (including royal jelly) that allows them to develop into a reproductive queen. This development time is the shortest of any bee in the hive:16 days from egg to adult.
A Drone Bee
Drone bees are the male bees in the colony. They develop from unfertilized eggs. We normally only see drones during the warm months. 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. New virgin queens fly from their hive to locations called “drone congregation areas“. This is where mating takes place.
Drones 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.
It takes 24 days for the drone to develop from egg to adult. This is the longest development time of any bees in the hive.
Present in the hive throughout Summer-if foraging conditions are good, Fall is a sad time for these male members of the colony. Before Winter, 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.
Most of the bees in any beehive are workers. 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.
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.
Female workers develop from fertilized eggs that have been laid by a queen. The 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.
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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, stinger, wax glands
Identifying Your Bees
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 new beekeepers.
Identify the Queen
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. 🙂
Workers are the most easy to identify because most 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.
Those feeding young in the brood area are nurse bees. And, those that come out with stingers ready are likely guarding the entrance.
Honey bees do not sting without a reason. But, they will defend their home against wasps, predators and sometimes – beekeepers.
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 member has a role to play in bee life. No beehive could exist long term without each of the different members of the colony.
Some are foragers, some destined to lay eggs for the next generation and others are only flying semen banks.
But, hive chores, brood rearing and food storage must all happen. It is the combined efforts of all members of the colony that makes life possible.
The honey bee colony is a great example of cooperation that we could all learn from. Of course, they do this by instinct rather than choice. Consider taking a closer look into the world of bees – there is so much to learn.