Inside every hive is a complex system of life that is constantly reproducing and replacing itself. This process requires 3 types of bee in the hive that all have a part to play in ensuring the colonies survival. It is important to understand that in this article I will be talking about the European honey bee and I will cover the bumblebee and their social structure in a later post.
A hive contains drone, worker and queen bees. Under normal circumstances, there will be a single queen responsible for producing and fertilising eggs. Workers tend to young, gather food and search out locations for new hives when the colony swarms. The male drone bees role is primarily to mate with a queen and provide sperm for fertilisation.
When a queen lays an egg she has can choose whether or not to fertilise it. A fertilised egg will produce either a worker bee or a queen. An unfertilised egg will produce a male drone bee. The size of the cell in the honeycomb is matched to the resulting type of larvae with drones growing in larger cells. Worker bees are intuitive when it comes to population control and they will alter the size of the cells in the honeycomb to create more worker bees when required.
The queen is the matriarch of the hive, tasked with laying and fertilising eggs to ensure the species survival. Spring and summer are the busiest time for the queen when she can lay as many as 1,500 eggs in a single day. This will slow gradually until the queen stops laying eggs in early October in preparation for the winter to come. In her prime, a healthy queen can produce up to 250,000 eggs per year a truly amazing feat. This number gradually decreases as the queen ages. Out of all 3 types of bees in the hive, only the queen can produce more workers and new queens.
A queen is tasked with not only reproduction but acts as a form of control for the other bees in the hive. She does this by releasing pheromones that will be sensed by bees all across the hive.
Before a queen can fertilise eggs she must first collect sperm from male drone bees. Approximately 7 days after the queen hatches she will take flight in search of drone bees from other colonies to mate with. The queen will leave the hive and fly in circles to orient herself with the terrain for her return later. She will then rise to around 20ft to mate.
Mating occurs in mid-air and normally involves 15-20 drone bees to ensure the queen collects enough sperm for the task ahead. Sperm is collected in the spermatheca or sperm pouch the organ used to collect and hold sperm during and after mating. This journey ensures that interbreeding does not occur and cause defects and poor health within the hive.
The 'queen substance' pheromone released by the queen allows the drone bees to identify her in flight. Mating normally occurs in the afternoon on warm sunny days. Poor weather and rain will leave the queen grounded until the weather clears. In instances when this continues for over 20 days the queen will lose the ability to fertilise eggs within the hive. If this occurs only unfertilised drone bees will hatch and the queen will quickly be superseded by a younger replacement.
Providing the queen is able to perform a mating flight she will return to the hive approximately 12 minutes later. Within 48 hours she will begin to lay and fertilise eggs as she chooses. As she lays eggs she will choose to fertilise based on the size of the cell. The worker bees will feed the queen royal jelly continuously to provide her with the energy required for producing eggs on such a grand scale.
The amount of eggs a queen can produce and fertilise is entirely based on the amount of food she can ingest and the speed worker bees can create new cells. Larger hives and colonies will be able to produce young at a much faster rate due purely to the numbers of worker bees within.
As soon as a queen hatches she will begin to produce a pheromone called queen substance. Queen substance is secreted via the mandibular glands within the queen bee. This substance will ensure that the worker bees within the hive will not begin rearing a new queen unless required.
It also functions as a method of identification for drone bees from other hives. When a queen ages, her queen substance will begin to weaken and in turn worker bees will start to feed royal jelly to a fertilised female larvae. This process is called supersedure and will occur when a queen is either ageing or suffering from a disease.
A queen is very different in appearance to her counterparts. The body is usually much longer and the wings shorter, only reaching 2/3 of the way down the abdomen. Her sting is slightly longer and curved but more slimline in appearance with fewer smaller barbs. The thorax is larger than that of the drone and worker bees with no functioning pollen baskets or wax glands. Queen bees have been recorded living as long as 5 years but on average you would expect a queen to live 2-3 years.
Drone bees are normally present in the hive through spring and summer. The largest of the 3 types of bee in the hive they are easily identified by their large eyes. Drones become sexually active at 7 days old and will take flight on warm sunny days to mate with queens from other hives.
Worker bees collect all the food for the drones while they are in the hive but they are capable of feeding themselves at 4 days old. A drone bee eats about three times as much as a worker bee and is a real strain on the stored honey.
Drones do have a secondary function while inside the hive. By vibrating they increase the temperature in the hive and aid the process of reducing the honey stored in cells. During the winter months, drones become expendable and can be forced out of the hive when their appetite cannot be fulfilled. Interestingly in cases where a hive is missing a queen, workers will allow drones to stay indefinitely.
After 7 days spent in the hive, drone bees will begin to take flight. Late afternoon on sunny days is ideal flying conditions and drones will take to the air to familiarise themselves with the surroundings. After a few flights, the drones will rise to 20ft in search of a queen bee from another hive.
Drones locate the queen using the queen substance. When a queen is located the male bee will fly just above her placing his thorax just above her abdomen. The male drone bee will extend his endophallus and place it inside the queen's sting chamber. The sexual contact will last only 5 seconds and will be repeated with up to 20 mates. A drone bee has completed its task and is killed when the endophallus is torn off after the act of mating.
Drones do not have any of the organs required to gather pollen. The pollen baskets and wax glands are not present meaning their role in the hive is minimal. The large eyes of the drone bee meet at the top of the head and are an easy identifier. No stinger means that drone bees are unable to defend themselves and an easy target for potential predators.
Of the 3 types of bee in a hive, the worker bee is the smallest in size but largest in numbers. A worker bee is classified as any female bee that does not have the reproductive capacity of the queen. Worker bees can still lay eggs but due to their inability to fertilise, they can only produce male drones.
A worker's primary task is to collect resources to aid the hive. Nectar, pollen and proboscis are all needed to ensure the safe operation of the colony throughout the year. There are many other tasks a worker bee must complete alongside foraging for food.
Just like humans, a bees hive will have guards stationed at or around the entrance. These worker bees are charged with defending the hive against any unwanted invaders like wasps.
A hives brood chamber must be kept at a consistent 34.4 degrees celsius for the young to develop properly. When this temperature is exceeded the worker bees will collect water to deposit inside the hive. After collecting the water the worker bees will fan their wings to cause evaporation and begin to cool the hive.
Just like temperatures soar in summer the bees have to deal with the plummeting temperatures of winter. If the hive temperature is at risk of falling worker bees will band together to generate body heat. The constant movement from their small bodies quickly warms the surrounding bees and in turn the hive.
As well as their role as door staff, young worker bees will attend to the queens needs feeding her almost constantly. This chore has secondary importance to the successful upkeep of the hive. The queen bee releases a queen substance that highlights her continued reign to the hives existing inhabitants, by feeding the queen worker bees become unknowing couriers of the queens will proceeding to spread the queen substance throughout the hive. This process ensures that worker bees at a distance from the queen do not begin to make new queens to supersede her unnecessarily.
As bees age and die the need for a form of undertaker becomes urgent. Worker bees are tasked with removing dead bees and larvae from the hive to prevent the spread of disease and infection.
Young drone bees are unable to feed themselves, at this young age worker bees must keep their fierce appetites at bey. Luckily for the worker bees, drones are able to begin feeding themselves from the hives honey supply after about 4 days.
Worker bees are tasked with collecting nectar, returning to the hive, processing and storing honey. They extract nectar from flowers using their proboscis and fly back to the hive to begin the honey production process. Enzymes within the bee instantly start to break down the nectar into sugar.
Upon returning to the hive the worker bee will regurgitate the transforming nectar into the waiting stomach of a nurse bee. This process concentrates the enzyme in the nectar, speeding up the honey production process. Once this process is complete the honey will be stored within cells in the honeycomb. These cells are capped with wax to complete the transformation much like the young larvae.
Pollen is used as a source of sustenance for the brood. Much like honey pollen is collected and stored within the cells of the honeycomb. Unlike honey however pollen is rich with bacteria and must be mixed with honey for its antibacterial effects, this ensures the pollen does not spoil in storage.
Propolis is collected from young tree buds and used for various tasks within the hive. Propolis is mixed with an enzyme from the worker bees to give it antibacterial and anti-fungal properties making it a perfect disinfectant for the hives entrance and embalming fluid for oversized invaders the workers are unable to remove from the hive.
Of the three types of bees in the hive, the worker bee by far outweighs her counterparts in numbers. The pollen baskets and proboscis (long tongue-like organ) make perfect foraging equipment honed over years of evolution. Unlike the other three types of bee in the hive, the worker bee may need the use of her stinger. This complex organ attached to the back of the abdomen is a blessing and a curse. When a worker bee stings very often she will leave the sting and toxin sacks in the victim, this, in turn, prolongs the pain caused but in most cases will forfeit the worker bees life.
This is not always the case and our article on 'Why do bees die if you?' an experienced beekeeper shows us how to remove a bee sting, bee attached!