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Different Kinds of Bees in a Colony
A honey bee colony has 3 different types of honey bees in a hive. Each member of the colony is important to colony life and growth. This family unit is a super organism composed of thousands of members acting as one. 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.
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.
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 insects, the colony overwinters as a family group in the hive.
Types of Bees and Their Roles in the Colony
Inside a beehive you will find 3 different types of honey bees: a queen, drones and workers. The number of each 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
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 bee and drones are responsible for reproduction. And, we know it for a fact that worker bees have a great variety of tasks to perform to maintain the hive.
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.
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 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 one who is able to mate and therefore 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 – 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 bee. The old queen is replaced with a new monarch who will now fulfill the role of the queen bee in the beehive.
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 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.
A queen honey bee develops 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.
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 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 (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 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 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.
The 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.
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.
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 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 Bee – large eggs to see queens in flight, penis and semen
- Worker Bee – 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.
How to 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.
How to Identify Drones
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. 🙂
How to Identify Workers
Most of the members 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 Different Types of Honey Bees in a 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. Whether as a foragers, defender, egg layer or reproduction specialist. The combined efforts of all members of the bee colony make sustainable life possible.