Honey bee colonies are large, and consist of thousands and thousands of
This is in sharp contrast to bumble bees, which have at most,
around a few hundred individuals.
Honey bees are social bees, belonging to the family ‘Apidae’ along with bumble bees 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!
A typical honey bee colony may have:
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.
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.
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.
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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