The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Field Guide to Beekeeping

The Members of a Honey Bee Colony

- June 1, 2015 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

There is a lot of information one needs to know before keeping bees. Perhaps the most difficult part of getting started is learning all of the terminology associated with beekeeping. Beekeeping is, in fact, full of jargon. We put frames in supers. Bees pull comb and apply propolis to cracks and crevices around the hive. Worker bees like to waggle dance and drones leave the hive every day in search of a queen at drone congregation areas.

A non-beekeeper would have had a hard time understanding anything I stated in the preceding paragraph. This illustrates the importance of learning to speak the beekeeping language before ever opening your first hive. Therefore, I am going to devote the next few articles in my column discussing common terminology associated with our craft, beginning with the members of the colony.

There are only three types of bees in the colony so one would think that learning the terminology associated with a colony’s members would be easy. However, I feel it is useful to meet a colony’s members and know how to discuss them correctly, especially given that they are the ones that advance the colony and with which a beekeeper must interact, nay, appease regularly. My strategy for emphasizing the terminology I am defining is by bolding the words that should be known and understood.

Adult honey bees
There are three types of bees in the honey bee colony. Some people say that there are three castes, and they are correct, in one sense. However, it may be more appropriate to say that there are two sexes of adult bees in the hive and only one sex (the female sex) has two castes. Regardless of how you define caste, there certainly are three types of bees in the colony and they are the queen, worker, and drone honey bees.

Queen honey bees (Figure 1) are the single most important honey bees in any colony. The typical honey bee colony usually only has one queen. I say usually because colonies often (maybe 5-10% of the time) have more than one queen, though this probably is only a temporary occurrence. I make this claim because I have conducted a lot of research using observation hives and I often see colonies with two queens. I am convinced that the reason we beekeepers do not notice this much is because we stop looking when we see the first queen.

Queen honey bees are not “queens” in the sense that they rule the colony and direct its intentions and behaviors. They do not govern the workers or otherwise tell any other bees what to do. They only make a handful of decisions, most notably: “I want to lay an egg,” “this cell is clean and can receive an egg,” “I am hungry,” etc.

I do not want to over simplify the role the queen plays in the colony. The queen is the mother of all of a colony’s members. During peak season, she can lay 2,000+ eggs per day, over 500,000 in her lifetime! She usually is the sole reproductive female in the nest. The workers take care of her, feed her, spread her pheromones (chemical signals) around the hive, etc. In fact, a queen’s pheromonal bouquet helps to stabilize the nest and to keep the workers from rearing additional queens. Arguably, ensuring colony homeostasis (nest stability and continuity) is one of the most important functions of a queen.

Queen honey bees have many interesting attributes and behaviors. They result from fertilized (female) eggs. They are fed a considerable volume of food as an immature bee. This food, called royal jelly, pushes the female larva in the direction of becoming a queen. Queens only take 16 days to develop from egg to adult. They take one, at most two, true mating flights about one week after they emerge from their cell. They will mate with a wide range (5 – 30+ with the average being 10-17) of drones (male bees) on this mating flight and store all the semen they collect from the drones in a special organ inside their body. This organ, the spermatheca, can nourish the sperm it houses, keeping it ready for use at the queen’s disposal.

Queens return to the hive after their mating flight and live in the colony, laying eggs, and otherwise surviving at the mercy of the worker bees within the nest. Queens can live 2+ years, though I suspect the majority of queens die within 6 months – 1.5 years of emerging as adult bees. I believe this to be true based on data on queen longevity in managed hives that have been published recently.

Worker honey bees (Figure 2), as the name implies, do all of the main tasks in a colony. Like queens, worker bees come from fertilized eggs and are female. This is very important and scientifically significant. Queen bees can elect to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs (more on that later). All fertilized eggs result in female bees. Notice I said female bees. Every fertilized egg contains the potential to be either a queen or a worker honey bee. The deciding factor that directs the path of the immature female is the amount and type of diet it is fed as it develops. All female larvae receive the same food for the first few days of their lives. After this, worker bees change the volume and composition of food they offer to female larvae that they want to become queens. Queens get more food while developing than do worker bees. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but queens are overfed workers and workers are starved queens.

I hope you grasp the significance of this concept. A queen could have been a worker while a worker could have been a queen. Their environment (i.e. the amount and type of food they received) dictated their future. I would like to state this another way. Workers possess all the same genes that queens possess and vice versa. Thus, the real difference between queens and workers is the turning on and off of certain genes and gene combinations, or the level of expression (how long a gene is turned on) of a given gene in both types of bees. Queens and workers share all the same genes but are otherwise two different bees.
I recognize that my discussion of queen and worker genetics may appear to be a digression, but I believe it is of critical importance. Consider this practical example: queens can live 2+ years while workers live 6 weeks to 6 months. Two bees with the same DNA have two completely different lifespans. This has considerable implications for the biology of aging. Furthermore, workers and queens look nothing alike, share no tasks, and are behaviorally, morphologically, and physiologically different, yet the same blueprint was used to build both – fascinating.

Ok, so that tantrum highlighted the nerd in me. I will refocus my discussion on worker bees specifically. Worker honey bees take 21 days, more or less, to develop from egg to adult. They possess a few, key morphological adaptations that queen bees do not have. For example, worker bees have stingers that possess significantly sized barbs, making workers more apt to leave the stinger behind in their stung victim. The barbs on a queen’s stinger are reduced, making it possible for a queen to sting her victim repeatedly. Furthermore, worker bees have a pollen basket which is a special feature on their hind leg that they use to transport pollen. Queens do not possess a pollen basket since they do not forage for pollen.
Unlike the worker caste of many other social insects, worker honey bees are not born into a task in which they remain their whole life. Instead, they progress through a fairly predictable series of tasks that ultimately end in the workers’ employment as forager bees, a task that claims the lives of all of its practitioners. We call this task progression temporal polyethism (literally: time-related “many” behaviors) or age related division of labor, the latter being the term most used by beekeepers. Not all workers do all tasks, but all workers progress through many of the tasks in a predictable order. Worker bees are the nursery workers, the queen attendants, the colony’s architects, the cleaning staff, the undertakers, the guards, and the food processors and gatherers. They do all of these tasks selflessly, even being willing to forfeit their life for the good of the colony.

Drone honey bees (Figure 3) result from the queen’s conscious decision to lay an egg that she does not allow sperm to contact. Therefore, drone honey bees are produced from unfertilized eggs and are haploid; they contain half of a complete set of chromosomes (see my article in the American Bee Journal September 2014 issue for an explanation of this process). Drones are the male honey bees. Arguably, they have the easiest life of all bees in the colony.

Drones take about 24 days to …