Typically, there is only one queen in a hive. She is also the only fertile female in the hive. It is thought that much of the behavior of the hive is dictated by her. There was some thought early on that this larger bee was actually a male and some called it the King bee. However, today we know this to be false. She is easily spotted by her wider and much longer abdomen. Her main goal in life is reproduction.
Not soon after she has chewed her way out of her cell the queen bee takes flight to get impregnated. On this flight she is looking for a drone congregation area where she will get the sperm she needs for the rest of her life. She may take multiple suiters during this flight or multiple flights. It makes sense that the more drones she mates with the more diversity the hive will have. The drone congregation is said to be in a clearing about 30 feet high. You can read more about this in the drone section.
After returning to the hive she will begin to lay eggs. She can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day at her peak. A lot of how she is laying is dictated by the amount of nectar and pollen that is available at the time. Queens typically lay most of their eggs during the spring when there is a good nectar flow, slow down during the summer and fall and often times stop laying in the winter.
The queen emits a pheromone while she is active. This pheromone is believed to control whether the hive breeds a new queen and swarms or continues its current trajectory. As she gets older her pheromone levels drop and this will activate the worker bees to start building queen cells for a new queen. Queen cells are different than other cells because they hang vertically in the hive. The queen can typically live up to 4 years making her by far the oldest bee in the hive. Some beekeepers will kill the queen and put in a new queen every year. The goal is to keep the queen at her peak performance and keeping her pheromone high in hopes to keep swarming down. This allows the beekeeper to maximize his honey production. This practice seems to be slowing due to the poor quality of queen bees that are being produced and the cost of requeening.
Drones are the male bees in a hive. Like the queen their goal in life is to reproduce. Drones are easily spotted because they are larger than worker bees but not as long as queens. Drones also have larger eyes than the rest of the bees in the hive. Drones are raised in wider cells than worker bees because they need more room to grow. The wider cells tell the queen to lay drone eggs in the cell. Drones are haploids meaning that they have a single set of chromosomes.
As mentioned previously their main goal is to reproduce. When ready, drones leave the hive and go converge in and around the drone congregational areas. These congregational areas are thought to be located in the same place for years. The congregational area is place where the drones sit and wait for an unfertile queen or a queen that does not have a full spermatheca (an organ within the queen) to pass through. They recognize the queen by her scent as she flies by the congregational area.
At about 30 feet in the air is where the mating flight comes to its climax. The drone rest on the top of the queen’s abdomen where he inseminates her. During this process the drone falls back, and the end of his abdomen is popped off. The remaining part of his abdomen is left connected to the queen until she has received as much sperm as possible. Mating with the queen mortally wounds the drone. This drone has completed his life’s goal.
Drone’s are not a necessity to the hive and at the end of the season (late fall) the remaining drone’s that are alive are kicked out of the hive so that they do not take up resources going into the winter. This allows the hive optimal chance of surviving the winter.
These busy bees are the backbone of the hive. Most of the bees in a hive are worker bees. They are all female but are not fertile. There can be up to 50,000 worker bees in a hive. They are the smallest bee in the hive. Today we split them into 2 groups, but they do more than these 2 basic functions like scout for new places to start a new hive.
The worker bees’ job is the most important, early on they are nurse bees. This group of worker bees take care of the eggs that have been laid by the queen. They nurture them by feeding them a mixture of pollen and honey. Once ready they cap the cells while the eggs finish out the pupa stage. They also decide which cells become queens based on the amount of royal jelly the pupa is provided and the way the cell is built.
The second group of worker bees is the foragers. This group of honey bees are the bees seen on flowers as they collect nectar and pollen. They bring it back to the hive where they deliver it to the cells. Pollen is placed closer to the eggs and honey is delivered to the outer part of the hive. Foragers can forage up to 5 miles from the hive. These honeybees are what help pollinate our plants so that they produce more fruit. When a good supply of nectar is found these bees are famous for doing the honeybee “dance” to communicate where this source can be found.