You won’t find many male bees in a beehive, and the few you do find just lounge around the hive and don’t do any work! The majority of bees in a hive are female, and not surprisingly, they do all the hard labour. A honey bee colony is an amazingly organized society. We call this a superorganism because they all work together harmoniously almost as if they were a single animal. There are in fact only three types of bees in any honey bee colony.
So what are the three types of bees in a hive? A hive contains just one queen bee, and varying numbers of worker bees and drone bees. Worker bees represent the biggest part of a honey bee population, and drones only have a limited life expectancy. The driving force behind any colony is the queen bee.
These three types of bees each have their own important roles to play. But interestingly these roles can evolve over the lifetime of bees, and throughout the year, according to the needs of the colony as a whole. As a beekeeper, it’s not only fascinating but also very useful to understand these differences so that you can interpret what’s going on in your beehives at any particular time.
Types of Bees in a Hive
The colony in a beehive has three main types of adult bees of different ages, and also brood in various stages of growth. It’s a constantly changing organism which adapts to external conditions such as available food and climatic conditions.
The composition inside a hive will vary. In winter when resources are scarce and it becomes complicated to maintain a large population, bees die off and the population dwindles to as little as 5000 or 10,000 bees. Drones are of no use at this time of year so you won’t find any in the hive. In the summer, when the flow of nectar is good, the worker bee population increases dramatically to anything between 40,000 and 80,000 bees, with a few drones thrown in for good measure! Numbers depend of the health and productivity of the queen bee, whether conditions, and the amount of available forage. Whatever time of the year, there is only one queen.
Except for the queen bee who lives on average three or four years, bees have relatively short lifespans. But their sole objective is to expand their numbers and perpetuate the colony as a whole. Bees work for the benefit of the whole rather than for individual advantage.
The queen’s role is very specific and unwavering. Drones also have a simple purpose in life. But worker bees, who make up the majority of the population, take on different duties at different times, and are constantly working to satisfy the overall well-being of the hive.
The Definition of a Bee Colony
Honey bees are social creatures. A colony of bees is a family unit which consists of all the three types of bees: a queen, worker bees, and drones, even though drones are only present for a few months of the year. It’s important to realise that each of the members of a colony work together in synergy. In other words, by cooperating with each other, bees are able to achieve things which are much greater than what could be achieved by the individual bees alone. When you get a look inside a hive for the first time it probably looks like a jumble of random activity. Don’t be fooled!
One of the fascinating things about honey bees is how they manage to collaborate together to achieve a common goal. The success of the colony relies on good communication. Bees have amazing systems for communicating with each other. Honey bees do this mostly through the use of pheromones. One of these pheromones is known as queen substance and is emitted by a healthy queen to reassure the rest of the population that all is well in the hive.
The Roles of bees in a Hive
Understanding the different roles of bees inside the hive is an important part of the craft of beekeeping.
All bees begin life as an egg which is laid inside one of the cells of the honeycomb. All of these eggs are capable of becoming either a queen, worker, or drone bee. Each different type can be raised according to the needs of the colony.
The size of the comb cell, and the type of food fed to the brood, all have an influence on the type of bee to be raised. Depending on various conditions, and the amount and quality of food available, worker bees will emerge after 16 to 24 days, drones take 20 to 28 days, and a queen emerges after just 14 to 17 days.
The Queen Bee
When the need arises, a new queen can be raised from a normal fertilized egg which is laid inside a queen cell on the honeycomb. These cells are usually bigger and vertically oriented compared to the smaller horizontal cells on the rest of the comb. These distinctive looking cells are usually found along the sides or bottom of the frames inside the brood box of the hive. For example, honey bees will build queen cells in preparation for swarming if the population is growing too large. Also, if a queen dies unexpectedly, or becomes unproductive, she can be replaced. The worker bees will feed the larvae a continuous diet of royal jelly which allows the larvae to mature into a queen bee.
The absence of a queen or swarming activity are both bad news in beekeeping, so the signs of these events are important things to learn to recognize so that the beekeeper can take preventive measures.
The only role of the queen bee is to mate and lay eggs. She is somewhat larger than the other bees and has a longer abdomen. She also has shorter wings than the others which cover about two-thirds of the length of her abdomen when folded. She has a long stinger but with fewer barbs than those of the worker bees.
The queen only makes one flight when she leaves the hive as a virgin queen, to mate with nearby drones. The rest of her life is spent inside the hive (unless conditions become overcrowded because of a growing population, in which case she will swarm, taking part of the colony with her). It’s just too risky outside the hive, and she’s too important to the well-being of the colony. Her genetics, along with those of the drones she mated with, determine the quality and temperament of the colony as a whole.
A fertile queen bee can lay more than her own weight in eggs each day(up to 2000, or one every 20 seconds). She is basically an egg laying machine. This role is vital to the continued existence of all the bees.
Because the presence of a healthy laying queen is so essential to a colony it’s very important for beekeepers to be able to find and recognize the queen. Often the queen is marked to make her easier to spot.
The Worker Bee
The worker bee is a non fertile female. She cannot reproduce like the queen bee. She’s also the busiest bee in the hive! The worker bee takes on many different roles throughout her life. These tasks depend on her age and maturity and are essential to the survival of the colony.
Their first role in life is as nurse bees. The first few days of a young adult worker bee is devoted to looking after the brood. Tasks include preparing brood cells and feeding larvae with a mixture of honey and pollen. After about three days, special glands on the head of the worker become active and secrete a milky substance known as royal jelly. This very nourishing liquid is fed mostly to the larva of future queen bees and to adult queens. Other bees are fed small amounts of royal jelly. The nurse bees are also responsible for maintaining the temperature of brood at a steady 95° F / 35° C. If the temperature drops, the bees huddle together to generate body heat, and if it gets too hot, they deposit water drops around the hive, then fan the air with their wings to cool the hive by evaporation.
Next comes the care taking role of the worker bee. This involves cleaning debris from the interior of the hive and building and repairing wax comb. This role usually lasts about one week, and during this time they may also take on guard duties at the entrance to the hive.
The final role of the worker bee is foraging. Worker bees forage for nectar, pollen, water, and plant resins which bees use to make propolis (also known as bee glue, this is used to seal up gaps in the hive). Foraging is the final phase of a worker bees life. Bees usually die in the field during foraging duties. The length of time that they spend foraging will depend on the amount of energy they spend. If foraging sources are close to the hive then a worker bee can go on foraging for anything between 15 and 38 days. In the winter, when activity slows down completely, the worker bee can live as long as 140 days!
The Drone Bee
Drones are the laziest bees in the colony. They only have one thing on their minds, and that’s finding a virgin queen to mate with! Their only role is to reproduce.
These male bees are bigger in size than worker bees and have bigger compound eyes, and large muscular wings. They also have no stinger.
Males are created when the queen comes across a larger drone cell, and when laying the egg, she doesn’t fertilize it. This results in the drone. At first, drone bees are fed by the nurse bees, but as they grow older, they help themselves to honey directly from the food stores (funnily enough, that reminds me of my teenage kids!).
It is thought that the presence of drones in the hive is reassuring to the rest of the colony. If the queen needs replacing, then the drones are ready and eager to do their duty!
The life of a drone bee is short but sweet. Their lifespan is only around 3 months, and if for any reason food stores begin to get low, worker bees will kick them out of the hive. This is what happens in preparation for winter when the colony slows down and food is too precious to waste. Because drones don’t know how to forage, they will die of starvation.
Drones also make good decoys to protect the queen bee during mating flights. After all, there’s only one queen, but a few drones eaten by predators isn’t important. Drones are expendable!
And it’s not much better for any of the drones who actually succeed in mating with the queen. The mating process kills the drone since their abdomen is ripped off during the proceedings!