Basic Honeybee Biology

Photo © Rachael Bonoan

There is a reason people use the idiom “busy as a bee”–bees are busy. With an average lifespan of only four to five months, a bee can accomplish an immense amount, including; raising thousands of larvae, gathering pollen, secreting wax comb, creating pounds of honey and royal jelly, and protecting the hive. These honey-producing pollinators are constantly at work. Below, get just a taste bee biology and, if raising honeybees is on your bucket list, explore our article on beekeeping. For more in-depth information and the latest honeybee research explore Bee Culture, a website devoted to science-based beekeeping.

WorkerDroneQueen

Photo © Sy, John Brandauerl

Honeybee biology is fascinating. They are eusocial animals, living cooperatively in a colony and organized into hierarchical castes with different corresponding responsibilities. A complex system of chemical cues helps to create the conditions that dictate the sex and caste of new bees.

  • Worker bees (pictured left) are female bees, born from fertilized eggs, that engage in the majority of the work: tending larva, collecting and processing pollen, making honey, guarding the hive, and other general housekeeping.
  • Drones (pictured center) are male bees produced from unfertilized eggs whose sole responsibility is to reproduce with queens at surrounding hives. They are only produced when the hive is growing, usually during peak pollination season, and before a swarm or when the queen is running low on sperm. Drones die once they reproduce. All drones from the same hive are clones of the queen since they are produced without genetic material from a male bee.
  • Queen bees’ (pictured right) are responsible for laying eggs. There is only one laying queen per hive and she can live several years under healthy conditions. She mates mostly with drones from other hives. When her health is weakening or the hive is preparing to swarm, she will emit pheromones to help create new, virgin queens which can start new colonies.
  • Queenbee

    Photo © John Brandauer

    Honeybees engage in cooperative care of offspring from one long-lived queen. The queen (pictured center) is capable of laying upwards of 1,500 eggs in one dayopen_in_new. She mates with various male drones (generally drones produced from other hives) and stores their sperm to be used throughout her life. A queen bee is larger than workers or drones and her chemical signals usually dictates the activities of the other bees. Queens are, however, not immortal. Hives can find themselves queenless, usually due to a swarm event where the queen leaves the hive with the swarming bees (see more about this below), or the natural death of the existing queen. Worker bees, with the help of the queen, are able to create the conditions for the emergence of a new virgin queen.

    healthy bees

    Photo © Katie68

    Worker bees are female and hatch from fertilized eggs laid by the queen. Workers are all genetically similar in that they share common ancestry with the queen. The sperm from multiple drones provides genetic diversity. Worker bees are equipped with stingers and pollen sacs, but unlike the queen, they are unable to reproduce. Instead, the female workers help to care for young, collect and process pollen, produce honey, guard the hive, and engage in general hivekeeping (think housekeeping).

    bee flying to flower

    Photo ©

    Honeybees maintain their hives using complex communication. Bees can signal when the hive is too hot, too cold, when a potential threat is close, when more pollen needs to be collected, when nectar stores are high or low, the direction of food and water sources, etc. Some may describe a healthy hive as a “well-oiled-machine”, that hums along maintaining itself.

    Bee colonies have a unique way of reproducing themselves–swarming. Swarming is when approximately half (sometimes more) of the worker bees leave the colony with the laying queen to seek out a new place to build another hive.

    Swarm of bees at Marin Sun Farm, Point Reyes

    Photo © Marc

    Aside from the instinctual need to grow their population by increasing their range and hive space, reasons for a swarm event can include; an unhealthy hive (mites, etc.), seasonal or environmental changes, queen running out of room to lay eggs, hives being too hot, etc. Think of it like a household with multiple generations of families living under one roof–it gets kind of crowded–inspiring some of the household to go off and build a new house.

    Virgin Queen

    Photo © Emma Jane Hogbin Westby, Ted van den Berghl

    The queen bee and the worker bees prepare, sometimes days in advance, for a swarm. The queen leaves behind virgin queens in the hive, one of which will become the new laying queen. Prior to a swarm, the queen bee will lay multiple “queen cups” (depicted above on the left). These cups are usually created at the bottom of the frames in the hive. Inside each cup is one fertilized female worker bee larva that will be “groomed” to be a potential queen with the feeding of royal jelly, aka bee milk, which is a special type of food for the chosen larvae.

    virgin queen arrow

    Photo © Steve Burt

    In order for the new bee to become a virgin queen she must be fed this jelly (pictured above on the right). Recent studies reveal that despite long-standing claims that this liquid concoction of water, proteins, and sugars has special components that virgin queens need to become queens, it might be the opposite. Instead, what virgin queens do not have access to–pollen or honey–is what makes they develop into virgin queens.open_in_new Larvae that become workers are fed honey and pollen as apart of their developmental diet.

    Once the virgin queens emerge, they are are not immediately recognized as the queen bee until they are fertilized by drones and emit the proper pheromones. Virgin queens will seek each other out and attempt to kill one another until just only one remains. The last one standing takes on the role of the egg-layer, aka QUEEN BEE, in the recently abandoned hive.

    beehive in wild2 Diane Drobka Graham AZ

    Photo © Diane Drobka

    A swarm will cluster together in a tree, in a shrub or any structure they can attach to, as a group. The swarming can last from several hours to a few days and will subside when the bees find a suitable new goldilocks location to move in to. That is, a space that is not too small, but not too big to accept as their new home–a notch in a tree (such as the one pictured in Graham, Arizona), an old building wall, or a rock crevice, are preferred locations. Once a destination is chosen, the entire swarm will move in and begin producing wax comb while the queen will begin to lay new eggs.

    honeybee on cardinal flower

    Photo © Joshua Allen

    You now have complete authority to say, “Wow, honeybees are cool”. Love them or fear them, there is no doubting their efficiency, complexity, and beneficial pollination services. Next time you are in your gardens and a honeybee lands on a nearby flower, take a minute to acknowledge these amazing insects. We even encourage you to whisper a, “Thank you”, to these hardworking ladies.

    For more in-depth information and the latest honeybee research, explore Bee Culture or connect with other local beekeepers.

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