Different Types of Bees in a Hive

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You will find 3 different types of bees in a hive. The members of a honey bee colony are an excellent example of cooperation for the greater good. Most of them are workers who are responsible for supporting and defending the colony. But, we can not ignore the other bees 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.

3 kinds of bees found in a hive - worker, queen and drone.

Honey bees are social insects that live in large family groups. Colony size varies but can grow to a population of 40,000 to 60,000 during the Summer. Each bee in the hive represents a group which has a special role to fulfill.

Roles of Colony Members

Inside a beehive you will find: a queen bee, drones and workers. The number of each kind of bee in the hive will vary due to hive conditions and the time of year.

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 physically designed for their tasks.

  • Queen – one per hive
  • Drones – few hundred during Spring/Summer
  • Workers – thousands
Many types of bees in a beehive on the comb image.

Two kinds of bees in the hive (queens and drones) are primarily designed for bee reproduction. Mating and egg laying must take place in proper fashion to maintain the population. The colony could not continue otherwise.

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.

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.

Queen Bee

An important fact about the queen bee – 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-the hive needs a lot of those.

Part of the role of the queen bee is to also lay unfertilized eggs. These develop into drones or male bees and the colony needs them too. Without a fertile laying queen, the colony will not survive for very long.

Picture of queen honey bee and worker bees.

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.

Bee pheromones serve as a communication system that governs many colony activities. 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.

Aside from her time of mating, the queen remains inside the hive throughout her life. The only exception is when the queen leaves the hive with a bee swarm.

Queen bees can live several years but they rarely do. If she is not replaced earlier, when the queen bee dies, the colony will produce a replacement.

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. Then, they try again on another day.

Drone honey bee with worker bees in hive image.

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.

Worker Bees

Most of the bees in a 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 or types of honey bees keep larger populations over Winter.

Picture of worker honey bees.

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. 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.

t 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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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, stinger, wax glands

A study of honey bee anatomy reveals the miraculous form of the bee. If you really want to go deep in this subject, I suggest reading these books – The Buzz about Bees or Biology of the Honey Bee.

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.

Queen honey bee circled in red on frame with other honeybees.

Identify the Queen

In general, the queen bee is the largest size (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.

Drone honey bee inside hive circled in red.

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. 🙂

Worker honey bee with full pollen baskets.

Worker Appearance

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.

Final Thoughts

Which type of bee in the hive is most important? 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.

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