Honeybees

Types of honeybee

There are three types of honeybee in a hive. Most of them are sterile females, the ‘workers’. Worker bees do all the work of the colony. When they first hatch, they spend a few days in ‘domestic duties’ - feeding the developing grubs; converting the nectar into honey as it is brought in by the foraging bees and packing it away, building fresh comb where needed, feeding the drones and the queen, and generally tidying up. After a few days, they move on to ‘guard duties’, guarding the hive entrance against marauders such as wasps and robber bees from other colonies. Eventually they join the flying bees that leave the hive to gather pollen and nectar for feeding to the grubs and storing for the winter. Worker bees have a short life in the summer, living for only a few weeks, but bees that hatch in the autumn will live much longer, say around six months, and will survive the winter.


The second type of bees in a colony are the drones, of which there may be several hundred in a hive during the summer. They are the male bees, and they do very little other than just loafing around in the hive and being fed by the workers. On sunny days, they fly out to look for queen bees to mate with. But this life of idleness does not last for ever. When the worker bees are preparing the colony for winter, they stop feeding the drones and forcibly expel them from the hive. It is quite sad to see little groups of worker bees dragging weakened and struggling drones out of the hive, chewing off their wings and dumping them on the ground to join their dead and dying brothers!


The last and most important bee in the honeybee colony is the queen. She is larger than the workers and drones, and spends almost her entire life laying eggs. In the late spring and early summer, she may lay up to fifteen hundred eggs in a day as the colony is building up after the winter, but egg-laying declines towards autumn, and almost stops during winter.


The queen bee

The queen has a bigger and longer body than the worker bees around her. This queen often has a spot on her back, painted on by the bee keeper to make her easier to see. Different colours can be used to indicate the age of the queen. Some beekeepers may replace the queen after a couple of years because her egg-laying capacity may decline as she gets older, resulting in fewer bees in the colony and less honey.


Although the egg from which the queen is hatches is identical to nearly all the other eggs she lays, workers feed the grub that hatches with royal jelly until it pupates - the grub floats in it! Royal jelly is a very rich protein mixture that the worker bees exude from a gland on their heads. Grubs destined to be worker bees are only fed royal jelly for a day or two before being weaned onto a mixture of pollen and nectar. This restricted diet results in them hatching as sterile females. The cell in which the queen grows is larger than the cells that worker grubs grow in, and hangs down from the comb. They are very characteristic.


The worker bees may initiate several queen cells in a hive, if they think the existing queen is failing. The first new queen to hatch will immediately find the old queen and sting her to death, and then go and sting and kill her royal sisters in their cells before they hatch. In the next few days, she will go on a short flight from the hive to find drones and mate with them in the air, before returning. The drones die after mating, as their mating organs are ripped out when the drone and queen separate. She will mate with several drones on that flight, and only leave the hive again if the hive swarms.


If the hive is beginning to get crowded, because the bee numbers have increased strongly during the spring for example, the bees may start preparing to swarm. Swarming often happens in about the middle of the year, in the ‘June gap’. The bees will initiate a number of queen cells, and shortly before these cells hatch, between a third and a half of the older bees and the old queen will leave the hive, to establish a new colony somewhere else. Beekeepers use various techniques to try to prevent their bees from swarming, because it seriously reduces the number of bees in the hive and reduce the honey crop.

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Bee comb with grubs and freshly laid eggs.
Bee comb with grubs on the left and freshly laid eggs on the right.
The queen and worker bees.
The queen is the bee in the centre of this picture, surrounded by attendant workers. She has a bigger and longer body than the worker bees around her.
A typical queen cell.
A typical queen cell.
A beekeeper holding a frame from a commercial beehive.
A beekeeper holding one of the frames he has removed from the brood box of a typical commercial beehive.
Dead drones and drone pupae scattered in front of a hive in autumn.
Dead drones and drone pupae scattered in front of a hive in autumn.