Honey Bee Biology

The following is a discussion of the members of a honey bee colony, their development and their duties within the colony.

The vast majority of adult honey bees in any colony are female worker bees. The jobs of the worker bees are: tending and feeding young bees (larvae), making honey, making royal jelly and beebread to feed larvae, producing wax, cooling the hive by fanning wings, gathering 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 bees. On the first day, the queen bee lays a single egg in each cell of the comb. The egg generally 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 colony, the drones, are somewhat larger and make up only about five percent of the hive population. Drones are fed royal jelly, and develop in a slightly larger cell than worker bees from unfertilized eggs. Drones remain in the pupal stage for 15 days, so they don't emerge until day 24. Drones have huge compound eyes that meet at the top of their head and an extra segment in their antennae. In comparison to worker bees, drones have wider bodies and their abdomens are rounded rather than pointed. Drones, like all other male bees and wasps, do not have stingers.

There is only one queen in a honey bee colony. She is slightly larger than a worker bee, with a longer abdomen. She does not 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 bees also have stingers and use them in battles with each other for dominance of the colony. If 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 colony is maintained. When a queen gets old or weak and slows her production of queen substance, she is generally replaced by a new queen. New queens are also produced in colonies about to swarm.

Virgin queen bees take what is 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 created especially for this purpose. A queen can lay her own weight in eggs every day and, since she can maintain the sperm she has collected for her lifetime in a special pouch in her body, she can continue laying eggs indefinitely. The fertilized eggs laid by a queen become female worker bees and new queens. The queen also lays some unfertilized eggs, which produce the drones. Since they come from unfertilized eggs, the drones carry only the chromosomes of the queen.

The drones could 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. If 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 bees live for about a year-and-a-half, although some have been known to survive for up to six years. While she is alive and active, the queens are constantly cared for by workers acting as attendants. In cases where a queen dies prematurely and the colony had no new queen to replace her, some worker bees develop the ability to lay eggs but, because they cannot mate, they produce only drones and the colony eventually perishes.

When the colony starts to become too crowded, some of the 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 colony breaks off with the old queen and flies off looking for another place to call home. The 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.

A honey bee swarm in a tree.

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