Who is the Queen Honey Bee and Who is in the Hive with Her?

The Role of The Queen Honey Bee, Drone Bees and Worker Bees in The Hive

queen-honey-bee

The honey bee hive is a busy place where every bee has a job. The hive consists of the queen honey bee, the drones and the workers. Part of learning how to raise bees is learning what role every bee fills.

You may be wondering, “Do all bees make honey?” The answer is no or not as their primary work. The honey bee hive is organized in a specific way to maximize the work that honeybees do. Other bee species organize their hives or nests based on the work they do.

Queen Honey Bee

While all bees in a hive work together to make the hive healthy, the queen honey bee is the most important bee in the hive for several reasons.

First of all, there is only one queen at a time. If the queen is old and the workers think she’ll stop doing a good job, or if the hive is preparing to swarm, they’ll create some queen cells in the comb and try to raise a new queen. They’ll raise as many as they can, anywhere from two to 20, over a three day period. The first one to emerge will be the new queen. This is also what happens if the queen bee dies.

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Sometimes the old queen will find out and destroy the new queen cells before the workers can raise a new queen. If the workers are successful at rearing a new queen, the new queen will look for any other queen cells and chew through the side of the cell and sting the developing pupa to death. If two new queens emerge at the same time, they will scrap it out until one is dead. If the old queen hasn’t swarmed, she and the new queen will scrap it out to the death. The point is, there is only one queen per hive and she’s important.

Even though there are thousands of female bees in a hive, only the queen lays eggs. That is her role. As a brand new queen she’ll go on a mating flight and mate with six to 20 male bees (drones) from other hives over several days. She stores the sperm and will use it to fertilize the 2,000 eggs she lays each day. Day after day she lays eggs in the brood comb that the workers provide. That’s it. That’s her job.

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The Drones

The drones are the male bees. They are the product of unfertilized eggs so they only have DNA from the queen. The workers will create drone cells in the brood comb, usually around the perimeter of the frame, and the queen will fill them with unfertilized eggs. The drone cells are larger than worker cells and are capped with a dome of wax instead of flat. This gives the drone more room to grow as they are bigger than worker bees.

The one job of the drones is to go on a mating flight and mate with a queen honey bee from another hive. A drone will not mate with the queen from his own hive; his role is to ensure the queen’s genetics get outside of the hive and into other hives.

Once a drone mates with a queen honey bee, he dies.

Since drones do not produce honey or wax, forage or help with any of the hive work, they are expendable. The workers will keep them alive as long they can but if the hive is struggling, they will start uncapping and removing the oldest larva to downsize their population. They will either eat the larva or carry them out of the hive and let them die. If they continue to struggle, they’ll remove younger and younger drone larva.

At the end of the season as the bees are preparing for winter, the queen will stop laying drone eggs and the workers will kick all the drones left out of the hive. Outside the hive they will die from starvation or from exposure.

queen-honey-bee

The Workers

In addition to the queen honey bee and the few hundred drones, a honey bee hive will also have several thousand female worker bees. The worker bees forage for pollen and nectar, make beeswax and build comb, guard the hive, take care of the larva, clean the hive and remove the dead, fan the hive when it’s too hot and provide heat when it’s too cold and take care of the queen and drones.

The worker bee starts out as a fertilized egg and has traits from both the queen honey bee and one of the drones she mated with. As a larva, she is fed the same food as the queen is fed but after three days the rations are cut and her reproductive and some glandular organs do not develop. She is not able to lay eggs, does not mate and is smaller than the queen honey bee.

After pupating she immerges as an adult worker bee and spends the first few days eating and growing. After that she begins working in the nursery taking care of larvae, cleaning the brood comb and tidying up after the queen. As she continues to mature, the gland on her head that produces royal jelly develops and she’ll feed the royal jelly to the larvae and the queen.

After a few days in the nursery, she’ll begin exploring the hive and eventually become a house bee. The house bee takes the loads from the foragers and packs the pollen, nectar, and water into empty cells. The house bees also clean up debris, remove dead bees, build comb and ventilate the hive.

After a few weeks, the worker bee’s flight muscles and stinging mechanism have matured and she’ll begin taking flights around the hive to guard the hive. Guards will be at every entrance and will check each bee trying to come into the hive. This check is scent based as each hive has its own distinct scent. If a bee from another hive tries to come in, she is turned away.

The guards will defend the hive from other insects such as yellow jackets, wax moths, roaches or any other insect that wants to steal the honey or wax.

They will also defend the hive against animals such as skunks, bears, raccoons and even beekeepers. They will start with a warning by flying at the intruder’s face without stinging. If that doesn’t work the guards will begin stinging which eventually kills the bee but releases a pheromone that alerts the other guard bees. More guards will come to harass and sting the intruder until the intruder leaves. If more guards are needed, foragers who are in the hive, house workers or resting guards will temporarily become guards and get in on the attack.

When the worker bee is mature and ventures out of the hive on a daily basis she becomes a forager. There are several kinds of foragers. Some are scouts and their job is to find nectar and pollen sources. They will collect some nectar or pollen and head back to the hive to share the location. Some foragers will only collect nectar and some will only collect pollen but others will collect both nectar and pollen. Some foragers will collect water and some will collect tree resin for propolis.

The forager has the most dangerous job on a honey bee farm. They are the ones who go the farthest from the hive and are alone. A lone bee can fall prey to spiders, preying mantis and other bee eating insects. They can also be caught in sudden showers or high winds and have trouble making it back to the hive.

There is so much to learn about queen honey bees, drones, and worker bees. What is most fascinating to you about how they work together?

Bee Type Importance Gender How Many in the Hive? Role in the Hive
Queen Honey Bee Most Important Female 1 Even though there are thousands of female bees in a hive, only the queen lays eggs. That is her role. As a brand new queen she’ll go on a mating flight and mate with six to 20 male bees (drones) from other hives over several days. She stores the sperm and will use it to fertilize the 2,000 eggs she lays each day. Day after day she lays eggs in the brood comb that the workers provide.
Workers Critical Female Thousands The worker bees forage for pollen and nectar, make beeswax and build comb, guard the hive, take care of the larva, clean the hive and remove the dead, fan the hive when it’s too hot and provide heat when it’s too cold and take care of the queen and drones.
Drones Expendable Male Zero to Thousands (depending on hive health) The one job of the drones is to go on a mating flight and mate with a queen honey bee from another hive. A drone will not mate with the queen from his own hive; his role is to ensure the queen’s genetics get outside of the hive and into other hives. Once a drone mates with a queen honey bee, he dies. At the end of the season as the bees are preparing for winter, the queen will stop laying drone eggs and the workers will kick all the drones left out of the hive. Outside the hive they will die from starvation or from exposure.
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