Educational Guide

Science of Bees

Honey bees are the only insects that produce a food consumed by humans. Honey is produced in one of the busiest yet most efficient factories in the world — a beehive. Honey bees are social insects with a marked division of labor among the various bees in the hive. A colony contains one queen, 500 to 1,000 drones and about 30,000 to 60,000 workers.

Honey bees are social insects, which mean that they live together in large, well-organized family groups. Social insects are highly evolved insects that engage in a variety of complex tasks not practiced by the multitude of solitary insects. Communication, complex nest construction, environmental control, defense, and division of the labor are just some of the behaviors that honey bees have developed to exist successfully in social colonies. These fascinat¬ing behaviors make social insects in general, and honey bees in particular, among the most fascinating creatures on earth.

A honey bee colony typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen (Figure 1). Several thousand worker bees cooperate in nest building, food collection, and brood rearing. Each worker has a definite task to perform, related to its adult age. But surviving and reproducing take the combined efforts of the entire colony. Individual bees (workers, drones, and queens) cannot survive without the support of the colony.

In addition to thousands of worker adults, a colony normally has a single queen and several hundred drones during late spring and summer. The social structure of the colony is maintained by the presence of the queen and workers and depends on an effective system of communication. The distribution of chemical pheromones among mem¬bers and communicative “dances” are responsible for controlling the activities necessary for colony survival. Labor activities among worker bees depend primarily on the age of the bee but vary with the needs of the colony. Reproduction and colony strength depend on the queen, the quantity of food stores, and the size of the worker force. As the size of the colony increases up to a maximum of about 60,000 workers, so does the efficiency of the colony.

The matriarch of the colony is the queen. Nurtured on a special diet of royal jelly, the queen is the only sexually developed female in the hive. A few days after hatching, the queen mates with drones in flight. The drones, which are stout male bees that lack stingers, fulfill their single purpose in the colony by mating with the queen. During this “mating flight,” the queen receives millions of sperm cells that last her entire life — often two years or more. A productive queen will lay up to 3,000 eggs in a single day. The sexually undeveloped female bees perform the work of the colony. Once hatched, these worker bees do a sequence of jobs – cleaning the nursery, caring for and feeding the larvae, collecting nectar, making wax comb, guarding the hive and fanning their wings to keep the hive cool.