Educational Guide

Kinds of Honey Bees

Everything bees do is for the good of the hive. Honey bees live in large groups called colonies. There are approximately 10,000 to 60,000 bees in each colony. There are three kinds of honeybees: Queen Bee, Workers, Drones.

1. Queen Bee

Each colony has only one queen, except during and a varying period following swarming preparations or supersedure. Because she is the only sexually developed female, her primary function is reproduction. She produces both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Queens lay the greatest number of eggs in the spring and early summer. During peak production, queens may lay up to 1,500 eggs per day. They gradually cease laying eggs in early October and produce few or no eggs until early next spring (January). One queen may produce up to 250,000 eggs per year and possibly more than a million in her lifetime. A queen is easily distinguished from other members of the colony. Her body is normally much longer than either the drone’s or worker’s, especially during the egg-laying period when her abdomen is greatly elongated. Her wings cover only about two-thirds of the abdomen, whereas the wings of both workers and drones nearly reach the tip of the abdomen when folded. A queen’s thorax is slightly larger than that of a worker, and she has neither pollen baskets nor functional wax glands. Her stinger is curved and longer than that of the worker, but it has fewer and shorter barbs. The queen can live for several years—sometimes for as long as 5, but average productive life span is 2 to 3 years.

The second major function of a queen is producing pheromones that serve as a social “glue” unifying and helping to give individual identity to a bee colony (Figure 2). One major pheromone—termed queen substance—is produced by her mandibular glands, but others are also important. The characteristics of the colony depend largely on the egg-laying and chemical production capabilities of the queen. Her genetic makeup—along with that of the drones she has mated with—contributes significantly to the quality, size, temperament, and productivity of the colony.

About one week after emerging from a queen cell, the queen leaves the hive to mate with several drones in flight. Because she must fly some distance from her colony to mate (nature’s way of avoiding inbreeding), she first circles the hive to orient herself to its location. She leaves the hive by herself and is gone approximately 13 minutes. The queen mates, usually in the afternoon, with seven to fifteen drones at an altitude above 20 feet. Drones are able to find and recognize the queen by her chemical odor (pheromone). If bad weather delays the queen’s mating flight for more than 20 days, she loses the ability to mate and will only be able to lay unfertilized eggs, which result in drones. After mating, the queen returns to the hive and begins laying eggs in about 48 hours. She releases several sperm from the spermatheca each time she lays an egg destined to become either a worker or queen. If her egg is laid in a larger drone-sized cell, she normally does not release sperm, and the resulting individual becomes a drone. The queen is constantly attended and fed royal jelly by the colony’s worker bees. The number of eggs the queen lays depends on the amount of food she receives and the size of the worker force capable of preparing beeswax cells for her eggs and caring for the larva that will hatch from the eggs in 3 days. When the queen substance secreted by the queen is no longer adequate, the workers prepare to replace (supersede) her. The old queen and her new daughter may both be present in the hive for some time following supersedure.

New (virgin) queens develop from fertilized eggs or from young worker larvae not more than 3 days old. New queens are raised under three different circumstances: emergency, supersedure, or swarming. When an old queen is accidentally killed, lost, or removed, the worker bees select younger worker larvae to produce emergency queens. These queens are raised in worker cells modified to hang vertically on the comb surface (Figure 3). When an older queen begins to fail (decreased production of queen substance), the colony prepares to raise a new queen. Queens produced as a result of supersedure are usually better than emergency queens since they receive larger quantities of food (royal jelly) during development. Like emergency queen cells, supersedure queen cells typically are raised on the comb surface. In comparison, queen cells produced in preparation for swarming are found along the bottom margins of the frames or in gaps in the beeswax combs within the brood area.

2. Drones

Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony. They are generally present only during late spring and summer. The drone’s head is much larger than that of either the queen or worker, and its compound eyes meet at the top of its head. Drones have no stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Their main function is to fertilize the virgin queen during her mating flight, but only a small number of drones perform this function. Drones become sexually mature about a week after emerging and die instantly upon mating. Although drones perform no useful work for the hive, their presence is believed to be important for normal colony functioning. While drones normally rely on workers for food, they can feed themselves within the hive after they are 4 days old. Since drones eat three times as much food as workers, an excessive number of drones may place an added stress on the colony’s food supply. Drones stay in the hive until they are about 8 days old, after which they begin to take orientation flights. Flight from the hive normally occurs between noon and 4:00 p.m. Drones have never been observed taking food from flowers.

When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become scarce, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve. Queenless colonies, however, allow them to stay in the hive indefinitely.

3. Workers

The worker bee is a female with undeveloped reproductive organs so she does not normally lay eggs. She has pollen baskets on her hind legs and antennal cleaners on her forelegs. She has several specialized glands for the secretion of scent, wax, and food for larval bees. Her tongue is very long for lapping up nectar. Her jaws (mandibles) are flat and designed to manipulate wax for building the honeycomb. Her sting is straight and barbed. Worker bees do all of the foraging for the hive and are, therefore, the agents of pollination.

They clean and polish the cells, feed the brood, care for the queen, remove debris, handle incoming nectar, build beeswax combs, guard the entrance, and air-condition and ventilate the hive during their initial few weeks as adults. Later as field bees they forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis

The life span of the worker during summer is about 6 weeks. Workers reared in the fall may live as long as 6 months, allowing the colony to survive the winter and assisting in the rearing of new generations in the spring before they die.