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The Honey Bee Colony – A Brief Outline

Honey bees are social insects and live together in large colonies. Each colony contains one fertile female known as the queen, and many thousands of sterile females known as workers. For three to four months in summer, a colony will also contain a few hundred males known as drones.

Worker Bee Foraging
Worker Bee Foraging

From early in the year until late autumn, colonies will have developing young, (eggs, larvae, pupae), collectively known as brood. These are reared in wax combs – the well known honeycomb structures which also contain the colony’s food stores (pollen and nectar). During winter, brood rearing either ceases, or is greatly reduced and the colony lives on the food stores it has accumulated during the summer.

At the height of the summer there can be a population of 50,000 -60,000 workers in a colony, together with a few hundred drones and the queen.  When population increases the colony may divide into 2 colonies. This is known as swarming. The old queen and the flying bees leaving to form a new colony, and the new queen emerges and takes over in the original hive.

During the winter, when there is little work to do, the colony population reduces to 15,000-20,000 workers and the queen. Normally, there are no drones in a colony during the winter months. The honeybee’s ability to survive on stored food during unfavourable seasons and to regulate the temperature of its nest independently of the temperature of the environment has enabled it to spread to most parts of the world.

There are many different strains of the honeybee. The subspecies differ in colour, temperament, productivity, resistance to pests and diseases and so forth. Some bees are very easy to control while others are virtually uncontrollable, especially in the hands of a beginner. Currently, there are thought to be 24 recognised subspecies of the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which is the honey bee present in the UK and Europe.

Honey Bees are Divided into Different “Castes” – The Queen, Workers, Drones, and Winter Bees.

The Queen

The Queen and her Attendants

The queen is the largest member of the colony. Her role is to lay eggs to produce more bees (up to 2000 per day during the summer months). She is the only bee that can lay fertilised eggs and hence she is considered to be the ‘mother’ of the colony. Her long abdomen contains ovaries that are capable of producing large numbers of eggs for prolonged periods of time.

The queen is able to determine the sex of the offspring that she produces by controlling the fertilisation of the eggs that she lays. If the queen lays a fertilized egg, it will develop into a female bee (worker or queen). Unfertilized eggs develop into males (drones). Having this control is important for the wellbeing of the colony, as a colony has to contain a large population of workers to carry out the majority of the work. A healthy queen can live for several years, but most often will last a maximum of 2 years.

After a queen emerges she will leave the hive on her virgin mating flight, and mate with several drones in a “drone congregation area”. This will provide enough sperm to last her a lifetime. It’s important that she mates with enough drones to ensure genetic diversity within the colony and viable eggs/brood.

The Worker

Worker Bees On the Top Bar of Frames
Worker Bees On the Top Bar of Frames

The worker does most of the necessary tasks in the colony except for laying eggs. These tasks include cleaning cells, feeding brood, producing wax, building combs, ventilating the hive, guarding the entrance, foraging for food and processing nectar into honey.

The task each worker carries out is often related to its age, for example, the youngest workers tend to act as cleaners within the colony, and the oldest workers are the foragers. This division of labour based on age (temporal polyethism) is adapted by the colony as necessary to meet its needs. Worker bees in the summer live for about 6 weeks, but in winter, when there is less work to do, they can live for up to 5 or 6 months. Their role in winter is to protect and keep the queen warm and fed, and to do a little foraging for water or winter food if necessary.

The Drone

Worker Queen and Drone Compared
Worker Queen and Drone Compared

The drone is heavier, larger and broader than the worker, but not as long or pointed in the abdomen as the queen. They have larger eyes and longer antennae to assist in finding a virgin queen on the mating flight. The drone is the male bee in the colony and his role is to mate with a queen so that she can lay fertilised eggs. They do not forage and they are cleaned and fed by nurse bees in the hive. The drone’s sex organs take up a large part of its abdomen. Drones live for several months during the summer but are ejected from the colony as the mating season ends and winter approaches. Drones die immediately after mating.

The 4th Caste: The Winter Bee

A Beekeeper Smoking the Hive Before Opening it
A Beekeeper Smoking the Hive Before Opening it

Not actually another cast, though many beekeepers tend to think of them that way because winter bees can live up to 5 or 6 months. Although they’re not the ones we typically see outside foraging busily, they play an important role in the colony. They develop large fat bodies in their abdomens. Fat bodies store and break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates and other molecules. They also produce Vitellogen, which allows nurse bees to produce brood food in the absence of fresh pollen. Strong winter bees determine the survival and strength of the colony coming into spring.