Honey Bee Colonies

Honey bee colonies are large, and consist of thousands and thousands of bees! 

This is in sharp contrast to bumble bees, which have at most, around a few hundred individuals.

Honey bees are social bees (actually 'eusocial'), belonging to the family ‘Apidae’ along with bumble bees who belong to the same group.

About Honey Bee Colonies

Colonies are well organized to ensure the smooth running of the colony.  In fact, honey bee colonies are 'superorganisms'

A superorganism is an organised society or group consisting of many individuals, that together function as a whole unit.  This efficient organisation of a colony is vital, and all of the bees play an important role in the nest or hive

At any time there may be thousands of mouths to feed (new larvae) and egg cells to tend to, honeycomb to build, as well as predators to fight .......all on top of general ‘house-keeping' tasks!

a honey bee queen with workers on capped comb cells.  The queen is larger with a longer body than the workers.  she has been marked with a spot of paint by the beekeeper.

How Many Bees In A Honey Bee Colony?

A typical honey bee colony may have:

1 queen

50,000 very busy workers performing various tasks

300 drones

9000 hungry larvae needing food.

20,000 older larvae and pupae in sealed wax cells, needing to be kept warm.

6000 eggs from which new larvae will hatch.

The Different Roles In The Honey Bee Colony

The Honey Bee Queen:
The main role of the honey bee queen, is to lay thousands of eggs.  In order to be able to lay lots of eggs, she will go off on multiple nuptial flights to mate with different drones1 (the male bees). 

A productive queen can lay about 1,000 eggs per day.

How do honey bees get a new queen?  
If the honey bee queen lays too few eggs, her workers will replace her with a new queen.  This is called 'supersedure'

When do bees swarm?
When the existing colony is large and it's time to split it and establish a new colony, the queen achieves this by swarming.  When the time is right, a new queen is produced in a colony, so there are now 2 queens.  

It's actually the original queen who takes off with part of the colony, to start a new one, leaving the new queen behind with the rest of the colony.

The roles of workers vary depending on their stage of life.  Once the worker bee emerges, she immediately gets to work, removing waste from cells, and adding a disinfecting material ready for the new eggs. 

After around 3 days, she becomes a brood nurse, meaning that it is her job to feed the larvae with pollen and honey.  Later, they will feed royal jelly to queen larvae and drones.

After about 16 days, she will begin secreting wax from her abdomen for building hexagonal-shaped honeycombs

After about 20 days, she will perform guard duties, defending the entrance of the hive or nest from predators.  Soon after, she will begin foraging for nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive.

Additional duties of worker bees include: fanning the hive to regulate the temperature, removing dead bees and larvae from the hive, and carrying water to the hive.

Sometimes, honey bee workers lay eggs, but if they develop into adults they will be males (drones).

Drones (males) perform the function of mating with queens.

What is the difference between the honey bee queen, workers and drones (appearance)?

a honey bee queen, drone and worker.   The queen is the largest and the worker is the smallest member of the colony.From left tp right, a honey bee queen, drone and worker.

Males (drones) differ from females in that they are slightly larger, and have bigger eyes.   They will never be seen carrying pollen, since they do not forage for the colony. 

However, a honey bee not carrying pollen could simply be a worker with empty pollen baskets, so that the rest of its physical features would need to be taken into account.

The queen is about twice the size of a worker honey bee, and one and a half times the size of a drone, measuring around 2 cm in length.  Beekeepers tend to mark the queen with special bee paint on the thorax (upper body) to make it easier to spot her during hive inspections.

References and resources

1. Schlüns H, Moritz RFA, Kryger P. Multiple nuptial flights and the evolution of extreme polyandry in honeybee queens (Apis mellifera L.). Anim Behav. 2005; 70: 125–131

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