Learn About Honey Bees

Honey bees are flying insects within the bee family. There are 8 different honey bee species with many subspecies. Honey bees make up a small percentage of the approximately 20,000 known bee species.

The western honey bee (Apis mellifera) has been domesticated for honey production and other bee products. Honey bees also play an important role in the pollination of plants, flowers and crops. 

Bee Castes

Bee castes queen bee, worker bee, drone bee

Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

Honey bees are social insects that live in colonies. Each hive contains a single queen bee, thousands of female worker bees, and during mating season, a few thousand drone bees (male bees). 

Queen Bees

Queen bee detail of face and side body

Each hive has a single queen bee and is the only reproductive bee in the colony. The queen bee will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day during the spring and summer. 

Queen bees are easily recognizable against worker bees. Queen bees have a longer abdomen and small wings. 

To rear a new queen, the colony will select a healthy larva and feed it exclusively royal jelly. The unique proteins in royal jelly allows the larva to grow into a queen.

Shortly after their birth, a virgin queen will embark on a mating flight, where she will mate with approximately 15 to 20 drones over the course of roughly three days. The queen mates only once in her lifetime and a mated queen will only leave the hive if the colony is swarming. The queen will continue to lay eggs for the remainder of her lifespan, which can be between 4-6 years. 

Worker Bees

Worker bee detail of face and side body

When the queen bee lays an egg, she determines if it will be a worker bee or a drone bee depending on the size of the honeycomb cell. In a standard size cell, the queen will release a fertilized egg which will later become a female worker bee.

After three days, the egg hatches into a larva. The larvae are fed a diet of royal jelly for the first 3 days, then switched to a mixture of honey and pollen. On the fifth day, the worker bee seals the cell with a capping of beeswax. The larva will spin a cocoon around themselves and turn into a pupa. After 12 days, the worker bee chews through the wax capping and emerges as an adult bee.

A worker bee’s very first job is to clean her cell and the surrounding cells to ready them for the next cycle of eggs. Young worker bees take on the role of ‘nurse bees’ and produce royal jelly to 

feed the larvae. After a number of days, the nurse bees will no longer be able to produce royal jelly and will move on to other tasks within the colony. This includes building and repairing cells, honey production and defending the hive. 

The last several days of a worker’s lifespan are spent outside of the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen. Worker bees live for 4-6 weeks on average. 

Drone Bees

Drone bee detail face and side body

Male bees are called drones and their primary purpose is to mate with a queen bee. Drones are about the size of a queen bee, but are distinguishable by their thicker abdomens, larger wings and larger eyes. Drones are also incapable of stinging.

An unfertilized egg is placed in a larger, drone cell. After emerging from the cell as an adult, the drone does not participate in any tasks around the hive. Instead, it will leave the hive and wait in Drone Congregation Areas for a queen to take her mating flight.

If a drone is successful in mating with a queen, it immediately dies. If unsuccessful, it will return to the hive. However, these drones are often pushed out of the hive by worker bees as they deplete the hive’s resources.

Drones play an important role in the survival of colonies by providing genetic diversity, as queens do not mate with drones of their own colony. 

Communication

There are two ways that bees communicate with one another. 

The first is through “dancing” where worker bees move in a pattern to communicate information. The “waggle dance” is used to relay information about food sources outside of the hive. The “circle dance” is used to summon worker bees to collect nectar from returning foragers. 

Bees also communicate through the use of pheromones. A defense pheromone is released to alert the hive of possible intruders and stimulate the attack response in surrounding bees. Researchers have recently discovered that honey bees may also use scents to locate their queen within the hive. 

Defense

A worker bee has a barbed stinger that releases bee venom into the victim. The barbed stinger will become stuck in the skin, and the attached venom sac will continue pumping venom into the victim even after the bee has died. 



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