Honey bees are complex, social insects. There are three types of bees in a honey bee colony: the queen, female worker bees, and male drones. Worker bees typically live only 4-6 weeks in spring or summer but up to 140 days in the winter. Queens live 2-5 years and drones usually last 60 days at most.
The Queen Bee
The queen bee spends her life safely tucked away in the hive. A healthy, well-fed queen lays up to 2,000 eggs per day, and young worker bees act as her attendants, bringing her food and disposing of her waste.
If the queen is injured or killed, or her egg laying decreases, a process called supersedure takes place. Worker bees choose certain eggs and prime them to turn into queens. They feed these young nothing but royal jelly and after a week, the potential queens emerge from their beeswax-sealed cells and fight each other to the death until just one remains. The winner will then sting to death any potential queens still sealed in their cells, after which she mates with a number of drones in the air, an endeavour known as the “maiden flight.”
The new queen returns to the hive to lay her eggs after a few days. The old queen, if she is still with the hive, is usually killed by the worker bees. They do this by forming a tight ball around her, causing her to die from overheating. If the workers don’t kill her, the new queen will.
New queens may also be raised if a colony becomes so large and successful that a portion of it decides to split off and establish a new hive elsewhere. In this case, many of the workers leave with the old queen and the remaining workers raise a new queen.
The process of finding a new home is relatively democratic. Worker bees acting as scouts fly ahead and identify potential new homesites, after which they return and do dances to tell other bees about the locations they’ve found. The most enthusiastic dances draw the most interest, influencing additional scouts to check out the new sites. If they’re suitably impressed, they’ll come back and dance along with the bees that recommended the site they like.
Several groups of bees may dance on behalf of a number of different locations. The group that gets the most converts the quickest will usually get its way. Researchers have found that 15 bees in a group tends to be the magic number for convincing the rest to move to a specific location.
The Worker Bees
There are typically 20,000-60,000 worker bees in a honey bee colony and these bees don’t reproduce unless the colony has lost its queen or is headed by a failing queen. In such cases, the eggs they lay develop into drones, though in some species, such as the Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis), worker bees can produce female workers.
From 1-12 days of age, worker bees act as nurses, feeding the brood. At 10-20 days of age, they build combs, clean house, accept pollen and nectar from adult foragers, act as undertakers, and guard the hive. At about 20 days of age, they are promoted to foragers, collecting not only nectar and pollen but also water and plant resin.
To create a teaspoon of honey requires about 12 worker bees, each visiting 2,600 flowers, travelling a collective 850 miles. When a worker bee finds a good nectar source, after stocking up, she’ll come back to the hive and do a little dance to indicate the location to other bees. When the source is close by, she does the round dance, which comprises narrow circles and may include offering samples of the nectar to onlookers. If the source is more distant, the more complicated waggle (figure-eight) dance is used.
During the coldest months, worker bees huddle together in the hive, generating heat by flexing their flight muscles. Wintering worker bees take turns acting as insulators on the outside of the bee cluster, with those at the periphery moving toward the center when they need to warm up. During this time, they live off the honey they have stockpiled during the warmer months.
Drones, or male bees, are larger than worker bees, and lack stingers. Drones have no purpose other than to mate with passing queens. They keep themselves in shape for these midflight matings by engaging in practice flights, but otherwise, contribute nothing to the hive. They eat the pollen and nectar collected by the female workers, but don’t collect any themselves.
Despite this life of leisure, there is a downside to being a drone. When he does mate with the queen, his genitals snap off and he dies. Also, unmated drones are considered a drain on the hive during the cold season, so any still alive when fall rolls around are viciously attacked by worker bees and, if they manage to survive the brutal onslaught, are shoved out into the cold to starve.
More Information About Bees
Bees are endangered. For more information about the importance of bees and what people can do to save them, see the main Bees page.
- Brackney, S. (2009). Plan Bee. New York: Penguin Group.
- Frazier, M. (2001). “Understanding Honey Bee Biology – The Key to Successful Beekeeping [PPT].” Pennsylvania State University Department of Entymology and MAAREC, hirschbachapiary.com.
- DeGrandi-Hoffman, G. (1991). “The Cape Honeybee (Apis Mellifera Capensis): From Laying Workers to Social Parasites.” NebraskaBeeKeepers.org.
- Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC). (n.d.). “The Colony and Its Organization.” MAAREC.cas.psu.edu.
- Rueppell, O., Fondrk, M.K., & Page, R.E., Jr. (2005). “Biodemographic Analysis of Male Honey Bee Mortality.” Aging Cell, 4(1): 13-19.
- Science Daily. (9 May 2007). “Scientists Explore Queen Bee Longevity.” ScienceDaily.com.