Honey Bee Colonies

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

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

Honey bees are social bees, belonging to the family ‘Apidae’ along with bumblebees who belong to the same group.

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. 

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!

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 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 mate with drones (the male bees).  In fact, a productive queen will lay about 1,000 eggs per day! 

When do bees kill the queen?

If the 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.

But when bees swarm, which queen leaves?

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.


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


Males (drones) differ from females in that they are slightly larger, and have bigger eyes. Read more about drone bees.

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.  You can read more about the honey bee queen on this page.

Despite their huge colonies, there are many challenges currently facing honey bees. Predators, viruses, and the activities of humans are all taking their toll.  You can read more about the problem here.  Isn’t it time to try and help all our bees?

How long do bees live?

Learn more about honey bees

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