What's the buzz on the inhabitants of a honey bee hive?
Just who is in a beehive?
Three kinds of bees live in a hive:
One female Queen bee
Many female Worker bees
A few male Drones
The term “Queen bee” is widely used to describe powerful women. Good pick, since the insect Queen bee is one impressive female. Her pheromone signals regulate the hive. In addition, as you can see in the photo above, she is much bigger than the Worker bees.
The Queen is the life of the hive. Not in a “life of the party” way, but as the giver of life. The Queen is the largest bee and lays all the eggs that maintain the hive population. To keep her strength up the Worker bees (other females) prepare her a special diet of royal jelly.
What do the male Drones do? Well, you can guess. They fly around outside the hive, waiting to mate with the Queen. Then they die off.
In a healthy hive this routine fluctuates with the seasons and goes on for years.
An aging Queen may leave the hive with up to 60 percent of the workers and fly off to start a new hive leaving a daughter queen to inherit the original hive. If she is ailing or no longer producing viable bees, the colony may sting her to death.
A replacement Queen can be added by a beekeeper, or, if there are viable eggs, the colony can feed a continuous diet of royal jelly to a larvae and create a new Queen. If there are several brood being nurtured as possible Queens, the first new Queen bee to emerge will kill all the other developing Queens. Yikes. Then she reigns supreme and the life of the hive goes on.
Does that make you appreciate the honey you’re spooning onto your cereal?
Where did that expression “busy as a bee” come from? If you’ve ever watched ceaseless toil of the female Worker bees on the honeycomb and around the garden the answer is obvious. Workers are responsible for everything besides reproduction (and if a Worker has a job as a Nurse bee she is in on nurturing the larvae of the hive).
Workers cycle through a range of specialized jobs. Young Workers stay in the hive and focus on domestic tasks for the first few weeks. They may be attending the Queen, cleaning the hive (which includes hauling out dead bees), and also removing debris, dust, and pollen from other bees. Once the wax glands are functioning the Workers can build honeycombs, and use wax to cap the cells holding pupae. They help store food by packing empty cells with pollen for later use, and fanning (increasing evaporation) to preserve honey in cells.
Older Workers are out and about, gathering nectar, water, and pollen for the hive. Did you ever feel threatened when you got too close to a hive? Good. That meant the Workers acting as guards were doing their jobs. If you were seen as a real danger they would also have produced an alarm pheromone to warn the hive of your presence.
If you want to visualize the life of male Drone bees, imagine them lined up on bar stools, sipping royal jelly (created for them by a Worker bee). After a few days of this they change their diet to honey, and fly out of the hive together on patrol flights, looking for Queens with whom to procreate.
They’re big guys with big eyes but no sting.
Let’s talk numbers. How many bees are there in a hive?
A lot of bees live in a hive. The number is highly variable based on the time of the year and location. Hives in the west can contain from 10,000 to 60,000 honey bees. The larger the hive the more effective it is at producing honey. A hive of 30,000 bees produces one and half times more honey than two hives of 15,000. You can see that the Queen keeps busy laying eggs.
The life span of a bee is short. That bar-stool lifestyle of the Drones? Only lasts a few months at the most. They appear in late spring and by fall they are often forced from the hive to go starve in the outside world.
The Workers spend only a few weeks or months on their specialized tasks. A summer-born Worker bee will typically live only six weeks, while others have the chance to work at a less frantic pace and live for six months.
We have all you need in our new Beekeeping Supplies section, from beehives with copper roofs to those white beekeeper suits for adults and kids (you’ll never have to dream up a Halloween costume again)—everything but the honey bees themselves.
We show you how to get going with beekeeping in two new videos. In the first, Beekeeping for Beginners—Hive Set Up, Tricia chooses the right site, preps her hive, and gets it ready for the arrival of the honey bees. In the second video Tricia places bees in the new hive and feeds them while they settle in.
Wondering about keeping your own bees? Just plain curious about all things apian? You can’t do better than The Beekeeper’s Bible. This handsome, hardback tome is part history book, part handbook, and part cookbook (with over 100 honeyed recipes)—page through it for fun facts, or to help you get your backyard buzzing. Check out all our excellent bee books and see which you like best.
For buzzwords, try the Honey Bee Glossary (generated at the research facility on Bee Biology Road—10 out of 10 points to UC Davis for a great street name).
Honey bees have a fascinating social structure—and will add fruitfulness to your garden.