Honey bees are social insects, meaning that they live together in large,
well-organized family groups. Social insects are highly evolved insects that
engage in a variety of complex tasks not practiced by the multitude of solitary
insects. Communication, complex nest construction, environmental control,
defense, and division of the labor are just some of the behaviors that honey
bees have developed to exist successfully in social colonies. These fascinating
behaviors make social insects in general, and honey bees in particular, among
the most fascinating creatures on earth.
A honey bee colony typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers,
drones, and a queen. Several thousand worker bees cooperate in nest building,
food collection, and brood rearing. Each member has a definite task to perform,
related to its adult age. But surviving and reproducing take the combined
efforts of the entire colony. Individual bees (workers, drones, and queens)
cannot survive without the support of the colony.
In addition to thousands of worker adults, a colony normally has a single
queen and several hundred drones during late spring and summer. The social
structure of the colony is maintained by the presence of the queen and workers
and depends on an effective system of communication. The distribution of chemical
pheromones among members and communicative “dances” are responsible for
controlling the activities necessary for colony survival. Labor activities
among worker bees depend primarily on the age of the bee but vary with the
needs of the colony. Reproduction and colony strength depend on the queen, the
quantity of food stores, and the size of the worker force. As the size of the
colony increases up to a maximum of about 60,000 workers, so does the
efficiency of the colony.
Each colony has only one queen, except during and a varying period following
swarming preparations or supersedure. Because she is the only sexually
developed female, her primary function is reproduction. She produces both
fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Queens lay the greatest number of eggs in the
spring and early summer. During peak production, queens may lay up to 1,500
eggs per day. They gradually cease laying eggs in early October and produce few
or no eggs until early next spring (January). One queen may produce up to 250,000
eggs per year and possibly more than a million in her lifetime.
The second major function of a queen is producing pheromones that serve as a
social “glue” unifying and helping to give individual identity to a bee colony.
One major pheromone—termed queen substance—is produced by her mandibular
glands, but others are also important. The qualities of the colony depend
largely on the egg-laying and chemical production capabilities of the queen.
Her genetic makeup—along with that of the drones she has mated with—contributes
significantly to the quality, size, and temperament of the colony.
About one week after emerging from a queen cell, the queen leaves the hive
to mate with several drones in flight. Because she must fly some distance from
her colony to mate (nature’s way of avoiding inbreeding), she first circles the
hive to orient herself to its location. She leaves the hive by herself and is
gone approximately 13 minutes. The queen mates, usually in the afternoon, with
seven to fifteen drones at an altitude above 20 feet. Drones are able to find
and recognize the queen by her chemical odor (pheromone). If bad weather delays
the queen’s mating flight for more than 20 days, she loses the ability to mate
and will only be able to lay unfertilized eggs, which result in drones.
After mating the queen returns to the hive and begins laying eggs in about
48 hours. She releases several sperm from the spermatheca each time she lays an
egg destined to become either a worker or queen. If her egg is laid in a larger
drone-sized cell, she does not release sperm. The queen is constantly attended
and fed royal jelly by the colony’s worker bees. The number of eggs the queen
lays depends on the amount of food she receives and the size of the worker
force capable of preparing beeswax cells for her eggs and caring for the larva
that will hatch from the eggs in 3 days. When the queen substance secreted by
the queen is no longer adequate, the workers prepare to replace (supersede)
her. The old queen and her new daughter may both be present in the hive for
some time following supersedure.
Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony. They are generally
present only during late spring and summer. The drone’s head is much larger
than that of either the queen or worker, and its compound eyes meet at the top
of its head. Drones have no stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Their main
function is to fertilize the virgin queen during her mating flight. Drones
become sexually mature about a week after emerging and die instantly upon
mating. Although drones perform no useful work for the hive, their presence is
believed to be important for normal colony functioning.
When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become
scarce, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.
Queenless colonies, however, allow them to stay in the hive indefinitely.
Workers are the smallest and constitute the majority of bees occupying the
colony. They are sexually undeveloped females and under normal hive conditions
do not lay eggs. Workers have specialized structures, such as brood food
glands, scent glands, wax glands, and pollen baskets, which allow them to
perform all the labors of the hive. They clean and polish the cells, feed the
brood, care for the queen, remove debris, handle incoming nectar, build beeswax
combs, guard the entrance, and air-condition and ventilate the hive during
their initial few weeks as adults. Later as field bees they forage for nectar,
pollen, water, and propolis (plant sap).
The life span of the worker during summer is about 6 weeks. Workers reared
in the fall may live as long as 6 months, allowing the colony to survive the
winter and assisting in the rearing of new generations in the spring.