Honey bees are social insects, which means that they live together in well-organized groups. Each colony consists of one queen, a few hundred drones, and several thousand worker bees, and they must all work together to ensure the survival of the hive. The cooperation that it takes to maintain this survival is what makes the honey bee one of nature's most fascinating creatures.
Queen Honey Bees
New queens are started in the hive for three main reasons. The first reason is that the hive is full of honey (plugged out), and the current queen does not have any more room to lay eggs. The bees will then begin the swarming process. They will construct swarm cells for new queens that hang from the bottom of the frames. They will also cut back on the amount of food that they are giving to the old queen, so that she does not weigh as much and is able to fly. As soon as the new queen cells have been made, the swarm will leave the hive with the old queen, leaving just enough bees behind to care for the queen cells and brood.
The second reason is for supersedure of the current queen. Each queen bee emits her own pheromone, and as she gets older that pheromone diminishes and tells the other worker bees that it is time to replace her with a new queen. They will usually start the queen cells on the face of the comb, as opposed to the bottom of the frame as with swarm cells. There will also be just a few supersedure cells, where as with swarm cells there can be a lot. Shortly after the new queen is available, the worker bees will "ball" the old queen by clustering tightly around her. This makes her body temperature raise, causing her to overheat and die.
The third reason is for emergency queen replacement. Sometimes the queen can be accidentally killed or removed, so the worker bees will select younger worker larvae to produce emergency queens. Since these queens are raised in normal worker cells that are modified to hang vertically on the surface of the comb, the queens usually are smaller than queens produced for swarming or supersedure.
When a young virgin queen emerges from a queen cell, generally she will go around the hive, seek out all other virgin queens and kill them. She will do this by either chewing open the side of queen cells and stinging the queen that is inside, or finding other queens that have already emerged from their cells and fighting with them until there is only one left alive. This ensures that the remaining queen will be the strongest one. The only exception to this is when the bees are in swarming mode, they will prevent the virgin queens from fighting, and other swarms will leave the hive, each one taking a virgin queen with them.
About one week after the virgin queen has hatched from her cell, she will leave the hive and fly to a "drone congregation area" where she will mate with several different drones that have come there from different hives in the area. This ensures that different genetics are spread around to different hives. If bad weather forces the queen to stay inside the hive for several days and she is unable to fly out to mate, she will turn into a drone layer and will only be able to produce drones, which will cause the downfall of the hive if they are unable to requeen again.
Directly after mating the queen will return to her hive and in 2 - 3 days she will begin to lay eggs. The queen is easily recognizable from the worker bees and drones because of her elongated abdomen, which is able to reach into the bottom of each cell to deposit the egg. A queen bee will determine the size of the cell before laying her egg; if it is a larger cell, she will lay an unfertilized egg that will turn into a drone bee, and if it is a smaller cell she will lay a fertilized egg. Queens lay the greatest number of eggs in late spring and early summer, laying up to 1,500 eggs per day. They will gradually decrease the amount of eggs laid in early October as the weather turns colder, and will produce few or no eggs until early the next spring. A good queen will produce more than 250,000 eggs during her 1-2 year lifetime.
Even though the queen bee and the worker bee start out from the same fertilized egg, there are several differences between the two bees. The queen is able to produce both fertilized and unfertilized eggs, whereas if a worker bee starts laying eggs because there is no queen, she will only be able to lay unfertilized eggs. Queens are larger than worker bees, but yet queens have shorter wing spans. The wings of worker bees almost reach their abdomen when folded against their bodies. A queen does not have functional wax glands on her abdomen, or pollen baskets on her legs. Her stinger is curved and longer than a workers, with fewer barbs. She is able to retract her stinger after stinging, but a worker bee pulls away to leave the stinger and venom sac behind. The queen can also live for several years, while the worker bee will die within a few weeks.
The only job that the queen has is to lay eggs. In most queens' lifetimes, the only time they leave the hive is for their mating flight. The worker bees feed the queen, groom her and dispose of her waste.
Male bees are called drones and are usually present only during spring, summer and early fall. They normally rely on worker bees for their food, and they do not have stingers, pollen baskets or wax glands. Their main function is to fly out and mate with queens. Although generally thought of as having no other purpose in the hive, the drones do cover the brood and help to keep it warm. This allows more worker bees to get out of the hive and forage for food. Once the weather starts turning colder in the fall, the worker bees will force the drones outside of the hive where they will starve and die. This can also happen during lean times when there is not much nectar.
The female worker bees are responsible for all of the rest of the work in the hive. The younger bees are in charge of all of the work inside of the hive, which includes cleaning the cells and getting them ready for the queen to lay in again, attending the queen, feeding and caring for the growing larvae, getting rid of the bees that have died inside of the hive, building new comb, capping comb, packing the pollen into the cells, fanning the nectar to evaporate excess moisture, repairing the cracks in the hive and gluing everything down with propolis.
Older worker bees are in charge of collecting nectar, pollen, propolis and water as needed for inside the hive. There are several bees that will act as guard bees, watching the entrance to make sure that there are no intruders trying to come in. They will emit a certain pheromone to warn all of the other bees of danger. Once the honey flow starts, most of the bees will go out to forage and bring back nectar, with just a few bees left inside the hive to care for the brood.
The average life span of a worker bee is only about 6 weeks, but sometimes during the middle of summer they work so hard that they will only live for about 3-4 weeks. The bees that are reared in the fall may live for as long as 6 months, helping the colony to survive the cold winter months and helping to raise the next springs new bees before they themselves die.
Sometimes, when a bee colony becomes queenless, the ovaries of several worker bees will develop and they will begin laying eggs. These eggs are unfertilized, however, so if the beekeeper does not provide the hive with a new queen, the bee hive will end up dying. The easiest way to tell this is when the cells on the frame have lots of eggs inside of them, instead of just one egg inside the bottom of each cell. Even if there are queen cells in the hive during this time, it is generally always best to scratch the queen cells off and place a new queen inside the hive, because more than likely the queen cell will be from an unfertilized egg and will not be a queen.
These are just a few of the characteristics of each of the different types of bees that make up a colony. If you have any questions that were not covered by this tutorial, please feel free to contact us. We are always happy to answer any questions!
From all of us here at Lappe's Bee Supply and Honey Farm LLC,