We love our bees and amaze at their industry when it comes to working as a collective for the good of the hive. But how does a bee hive function, and what are the roles of the different bees?
A honey bee hive typically contains three types of bees: the queen, drones, and worker bees.
The Queen Bee
The Queen Bee is the only female in the colony that can reproduce. She is larger than the other bees and is responsible for laying all the eggs in the hive, which can number tens of thousands per day. The queen also releases pheromones that help to regulate the behaviour and productivity of the other bees in the hive.
The queen bee becomes a queen through a process called “queen rearing,”. This involves selective feeding and the development of larvae. This begins when the worker bees in the hive select a young larva (less than three days old) and feed it royal jelly, a special food rich in proteins and hormones. This triggers a series of changes in the larva’s development, causing it to grow larger and more sexually mature than the other bees in the hive.
After several days of feeding, the developing queen bee is placed in a special cell in the comb, known as a queen cell. This is larger and oriented differently than worker bee cells and allows the queen bee to develop with more space. The worker bees cap the queen cell with wax, which creates a protective cocoon for the developing queen.
The queen bee then pupates and undergoes metamorphosis over several days, eventually emerging as a fully developed queen bee. The new queen will often kill any remaining queen pupae in the hive to eliminate competition for the throne.
The queen bee’s development is heavily influenced by the pheromones she produces, which signal her status and authority to the other bees in the hive. She also has a longer lifespan than worker bees, allowing her to mate and lay eggs for several years.
Queen bees help maintain genetic diversity in the beehive through a process called “polyandry.” Polyandry is a mating system in which the queen bee mates with multiple drones. During mating, the queen stores the sperm from each drone in a special organ called the “spermatheca,” which can hold millions of sperm for several years.
By mating with multiple drones, the queen bee ensures that the genetic diversity of the hive remains high. This is because each drone carries a different set of genes, and by mating with multiple drones, the queen mixes their genes together. When the queen lays her eggs, the genetic diversity of the drones is passed on to the worker bees and future queens.
In addition to polyandry, the queen bee also has a remarkable ability to selectively fertilise eggs – a process called “haplodiploidy.” The queen can choose to fertilise an egg with sperm from a particular drone or leave the egg unfertilised. Unfertilised eggs develop into male bees (drones), while fertilised eggs develop into female bees (workers or future queens). By selectively fertilising eggs, the queen can control the genetic makeup of the hive and ensure the survival of the most adaptive traits.
Drone bees are male bees that are produced by the queen during certain times of the year. Their primary role is to mate with the queen to ensure the genetic diversity of the colony. Drone bees do not have stingers, and they do not collect pollen or nectar like worker bees.
Drone bees have larger bodies than worker bees and have distinctive large eyes that meet at the top of their heads. Drone bees are produced by the queen bee laying unfertilised eggs.
The number of drone bees in a colony varies depending on the season and the needs of the hive. During the spring and summer, there may be hundreds or even thousands of drone bees in a hive, but in Autumn, the colony may begin to reduce the number of drones, and they are typically expelled from the hive before the winter.
Drone bees have a short lifespan, and after they mate with the queen, they die, or are driven out of the hive.
Worker bees are female bees in a honey bee colony, and they are responsible for performing most of the tasks required to maintain the hive and support the survival of the colony. Worker bees collect nectar and pollen, build and maintain the hive, care for the young, and defend the colony against predators.
Worker bees are produced by the queen bee laying fertilised eggs, and they are diploid, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes. The worker bees are sterile and do not mate with the queen.
The worker bees have a lifespan of about six weeks during the summer months, and their role changes as they age. They start as nurse bees, feeding the larvae, and then move on to other tasks such as building comb, guarding the hive, and finally, foraging for nectar and pollen.
Worker bees have specialised physical characteristics, such as pollen baskets on their hind legs for carrying pollen, wax glands on their abdomens for building comb, and a specialised gland for producing royal jelly, which is fed to the young larvae.
The worker bees communicate with each other through a variety of methods, including pheromones and “dances” that indicate the location of food sources. Worker bees are crucial to the survival of a honey bee colony, and their tireless efforts help ensure that the hive is healthy and thriving.