Honey bees must be extremely efficient and hard-working to survive. As a result, a honey bee colony is meticulously organized. Every single member has a role to play in order to feed, raise, and protect the rest of the family. Honey bees rely on teamwork and communication to grow and sustain a successful colony. Read on to find out more about how a honey bee colony is structured.
Let’s start at the beginning. Whether they’re male, female, or royalty, every honey bee starts the same way: in an egg laid by the queen. The eggs eventually grow into larvae, and then into pupae. These three groups make up the hive’s brood—the next generation of workers and drones. There are two types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized. The fertilized eggs are female and develop into worker bees or, on rare occasions, the next queen. Unfertilized eggs are male, which means they develop into drone honey bees.
After about three days, the eggs hatch as larvae. The larvae grow quickly (and eat a lot) under the care of worker nurse bees. All larvae initially feast on a special honey mixture known as royal jelly. However, most bees then switch to a diet of bee bread—a protein-rich mixture of honey and pollen. Future queens are an exception, as they continue to eat royal jelly throughout their development. At the end of this stage, the larvae spin themselves into a cocoon as the nurse bees cap their cells with beeswax, thus beginning the pupae stage. As pupae, the honey bees transform and begin to take shape. At the end of the pupae stage, the now-adult bee chews through the wax covering its cell and steps out to join the rest of the hive.
The Working Class
A lot of how a honey bee colony is structured comes down to the worker bees. These are females who haven’t mated and don’t lay eggs—except in extreme circumstances, when a colony develops laying workers. Instead, female worker bees perform most of the rest of the hive’s duties. They are the foragers, nurses, and guardians of the hive. Worker bees develop slightly differently than the queen or drones. They have special glands for making honey and other food, pollen baskets for foraging, and other structures that allow them to perform the majority of work in a hive. Throughout their lives, honey bee workers perform several different jobs in and out of the hive.
Worker bees start their lives inside the hive. They cycle through different jobs as they age, including keeping the hive clean, building cells, caring for the brood, caring for the queen, and making honey. Worker bees all work together within the hive to get their jobs done. For example, the honey-making process takes several steps and workers to complete. Some honey bees take nectar from the foraging bees, others help turn it into honey, and others are in charge of fanning the honeycomb cells to let the honey dry and thicken. Meanwhile, nurse worker bees use these honey stores to feed the brood—the next generation of foragers, nurses, and honey makers. This extraordinary teamwork is what allows the hive to function and thrive.
Worker bees are also responsible for finding and collecting pollen and nectar. These forager bees provide the hive with the food and supplies it needs to function. Foragers also use an immense amount of teamwork to help the hive. They communicate with each other through a surprisingly intricate waggle dance. This lets forager bees share information about the surrounding area, such as the locations of nearby food sources or water supplies. Foragers are usually older worker bees, making this the last role they’ll fulfill for the hive.
As mentioned above, some colonies have laying workers. This only happens in dire situations when a colony loses its queen and can’t replace her fast enough. Without the presence of a queen, several workers start laying eggs. However, worker bees and queen bees have some biological differences.
Unlike the queen, honey bee workers don’t have the proper bodies or experience to successfully lay eggs. They also haven’t been on a mating flight, which means they can only produce unfertilized eggs. This results in drones instead of workers, which ruins the hive’s population, food supplies, and overall productivity. Furthermore, because laying workers don’t have the egg-laying expertise that queens have, many of their eggs either don’t survive until adulthood or never hatch at all.
Drones are the male honey bees. They’re larger than worker bees, but they lack a stinger, pollen baskets, and many other structures found on female honey bees. Additionally, drones usually only exist in the hive during late spring and summer—mating season. A drone’s main purpose is to mate with another hive’s queen. Roughly a week after drones emerge from their cell as adults, they leave the hive to meet a queen on her mating flight. Hundreds of drones gather in congregation areas in an attempt to mate with a queen. Only a small number succeed, and they die immediately after. While drones don’t do any work within the hive, they are responsible for spreading their colony’s throughout bee populations.
There is only one queen in a honey bee colony. She is the only sexually developed female, which means she’s solely responsible for reproduction. In fact, after her mating flight, the queen’s life mostly consists of laying eggs. A honey bee queen mates with several drones during her mating flight and stores their sperm, which she then uses to lay fertilized eggs throughout her life. After a successful mating flight, the queen returns to her hive and begins her duties.
She is an expert egg-layer, knowing exactly how and where to place each new egg. She only lays in clean cells, and she makes sure to place fertilized eggs into worker-size cells and nonfertilized eggs into wider, drone-size cells. In addition to reproduction, the queen also emits a pheromone that influences the colony. This queen’s scent tells the rest of the colony that she is alive and well, thus inspiring them to remain productive. When workers can no longer sense the queen through this pheromone, they know it’s time to prepare for a new queen.
Each member of the hive works toward the entire colony’s betterment. As a beekeeper, it’s important to know about the different types of honey bees and the roles they each have to play. You can learn more about your bees and what it takes to keep them healthy and productive at Mann Lake. We supply you with the best beehive supplies, advice, and everything else you need for a successful beekeeping career.