The following is a discussion of the members of a honey bee colony, their development and their duties within the honey bee colony.
The vast majority of adult honey bees in any colony are female worker honey bees. The jobs of the worker bees are – tending and feeding young honey bees (larvae), making honey, making royal jelly and beebread to feed larvae, producing wax, cooling the hive by fanning wings, accumulating and storing pollen, nectar and water, guarding the hive, building, cleaning and repairing the comb, and feeding and taking care of the queen and drones. In part, the job the worker honey bee performs on any given day depends on its age.
As insects, honey bees pass through four distinct life stages – the egg, larva, pupa and adult. The process is called complete metamorphosis, which means that the form of the bee changes drastically from the larva to the adult. Passing through the immature stages takes 21 days for worker honey bees. On the first day, the queen bee lays a single egg in each cell of the comb. The egg ordinarily hatches into a larva on the fourth day. The larva is a legless grub that resembles a tiny white sausage.
The larva is fed a mixture of pollen and nectar called beebread. On the ninth day the cell is capped with wax and the larva transfor ms into the pupa. The pupa is a physical transition stage between the amorphous larva and the hairy, winged adult. The pupa doesn’t eat. On day 21, the new adult worker bee emerges.
The male members of the honey bee colony, the drones, are somewhat bigger and make up only about five% of the hive population. Drones are fed royal jelly, and create in a slightly bigger cell than worker honey bees from unfertilized eggs. Drones remain in the pupal stage for 15 days, so they do not emerge until day 24.
Drones have huge compound eyes that meet at the top of their head and an additional segment in their antennae. In comparison to worker honey bees, drones have wider bodies and their abdomens are rounded rather than pointed. Drones, like all other male honey bees and wasps, do not have stingers.
There’s only one queen in a honey bee colony. She is slightly larger than a worker bee, with a longer abdomen. She doesn’t have pollen baskets on her legs. Eggs destined to become queens are laid in a larger cell, and the larvae are fed only royal jelly. The adult queen’s sole duty is to lay eggs, up to 2,000 a day! She is fed by the workers and never leaves the hive except to mate.
Queen honey bees also have stingers and use them in battles with each other for dominance of the honey bee colony. When a new queen emerges from her incubation cell and is detected by the current queen, the “old lady” often goes over and kills her rival.
In this way, the stability of the honey bee colony is maintained. When a queen gets old or weak and slows her production of queen substance, she is ordinarily replaced by a new queen. New queens are also produced in colonies about to swarm.
Virgin queen honey bees take what’s known as a “nuptial flight” sometime within the first week or two after emerging from the pupal chamber. The new queen flies out of the hive and begins to produce a perfume-like substance called a “pheromone.”
The drones in the area are attracted to the pheromone and the queen will mate with as many as 20 of them. After mating, the drones die.
Once the queen has mated, she heads back to the hive to start laying eggs in beeswax chambers that the workers have developed in particular for this purpose. A queen can lay her own weight in eggs every day and, since she can maintain the sperm she’s accumulated for her lifetime in a special pouch in her body, she is able to continue laying eggs indefinitely.
The fertilized eggs laid by a queen become female worker honey bees and new queens. The queen also lays some unfertilized eggs, which produce the drones. Considering that they come from unfertilized eggs, the drones carry only the chromosomes of the queen.
The drones can be called the couch potatoes of the insect world. While they wait for an opportunity to mate with a virgin queen, they are fed and cared for by workers, and only occasionally fly out of the hive to test their wings. When no opportunity to mate arises by fall, the drones are ejected from the nest by the workers and left to fend for themselves.
On average, queen honey bees live for about a year-and-a-half, although some have been known to survive for up to six years. While she’s alive and active, the queens are constantly cared for by workers acting as attendants.
In cases where a queen dies prematurely and the honey bee colony had no new queen to replace her, some worker honey bees create the ability to lay eggs but, because they can’t mate, they produce only drones and the honey bee colony eventually perishes.
When the honey bee colony begins to become too crowded, some honey bees split off to form a new colony. This is called swarming. First the eggs for new queens are laid in their special larger cells. “Swarming” occurs when part of the honey bee colony breaks off with the old queen and flies off looking for another place to call home.
The honey bees engorge themselves on their honey reserves before leaving so as to have sufficient energy to make it to a new location. There can be multiple swarms from one hive, since new queens can also emerge and fly off with part of the worker force.