Queen Bee Vs Worker Bee: What’s The Difference?

Queen bees and worker bees are the most well-known honey bee castes. Although queen bees and worker bees have some similarities, they have significant differences which relate closely to their role in the colony.

Queen bees are roughly twice the size as worker bees. They are larger because they have fully developed reproductive organs in their abdomen. Queen bees’ sole responsibility is to lay eggs and ensure the survival of the colony. Worker bees, on the other hand, perform virtually every other task needed in the colony, including raising brood, collecting food and guarding the hive.

Photo of a queen bee and a worker bee next to each other

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between queen bees and worker bees…

How Are Worker Bees And Queen Bees Similar?

The way in which queen bees and worker bees are most alike is that they are both female and come from fertilized eggs.  Anatomically, they have a few similarities as well. For example, their abdomens have the same number of segments (7 including the median segment) as opposed to drones which have 9. They also have eyes that are about the same size and similar reproductive organs.

Another similarity I bet you know well is the stinger. Drones, the male bees in the colony, don’t have stingers, but workers and queen bees do. The stinger is actually an ovipositor – an organ that allows them to lay eggs. However, over time it has evolved to become the poison-injecting structure we fear so much.

What Makes Queen Bees Different From Worker Bees?

While they have a number key similarities, queen and worker differ in many ways. Here are the most notable.

Number of Queens Vs Workers In A Beehive

OK, this is an easy one to start with. How many queen bees are there in a hive? Only one!

And how many worker bees? Thousands! Although numbers change depending on different factors, on average, you can find up to 50,000 – 60,000 workers in a beehive.

Early Life

The fate of a female honey bee is decided on its early development stages. Queen honey bees start the same way as a worker bee. They are produced from fertilized eggs laid by the queen bee of the colony.

Then, after the egg hatches and becomes a larva, it is fed a special diet that determines whether it will grow as a queen bee or a worker bee. All larvae are fed royal jelly – a special substance produced by nurse bees – during their first three days of life. However, from the fourth day on, future worker bees receive a different diet that also contains honey and pollen.

Another essential difference between queen bees and worker bees is the time they take to develop from egg to adult. Queens develop faster, taking only 16 days to grow into adults. That is about four days faster than workers which usually take around 21 days to fully develop.

Read more about how a queen bee is born here!  

Queen Cells vs Worker Cells

Queen bees are larger in size than worker bees and need more space to develop before they are ready to emerge. That’s why queen bees are raised in bigger and thicker cells known as queen cells.

Worker cells, on the other hand, are different from queen cells. They are flatter on the top surface and similar to the size of the cells used to store nectar and honey. In fact, some people find it hard to distinguish between capped brood and capped honey because of how similar they look.

Life Span

How long a worker bee lives is also different to how long a queen bee lives. Queen bees usually live longer than worker bees. Some beekeepers report having queens that live up to 6 years! In contrast, worker bees live 3 to 6 weeks during spring and summer and up to 4 months during winter.

Why do worker bees have a different life span during the warmer months? Turns out foraging and venturing out of the beehive not only is dangerous, but also makes them age faster. It’s not a surprise then, that bees who initiate foraging activities later in life are more likely to outlive those that start earlier.

The queen, in contrast, stays inside the hive most of her life. She only ever leaves to mate or swarm. She has her own royal court, called retinue, that makes sure she’s fed, groomed and cleaned, like the queen she is.

Role In The Colony

Most of the differences found in queen bees and worker bees are closely related to what they do. The queen bee has one main task within the hive while a worker bee will have many jobs throughout her life!

Queen bee

The role of a queen bee is quite simple – reproduction.

All she does is lay eggs after mating with drones. She literally doesn’t do anything else – not even feed herself. Worker bees do that for her!

Worker bees

Worker bees are the foundation of the colony. They do pretty much every single job in the hive except mating with the queen and laying eggs. It’s not a surprise they’re called worker bees, because that’s all they do – work!

The jobs of a worker vary according to their age. After they emerge from their cell, they start as housekeeping bees. Their main task is to clean the cells and other parts of the beehive so the queen can lay more eggs inside. Workers will then move on to nursing the brood, followed by taking care of the queen.

After this, their jobs become more diverse. They will be old enough to have fully developed wax glands, so they make wax to seal honey and repair or build honeycomb. They’ll also help their sisters storing pollen in cells and drying honey, fanning their wings before capping it with wax. That way they make sure the moisture level is ideal so the honey doesn’t ferment.

On hot days, some worker bees will take the task of cooling the hive using water and fanning their wings. Towards the end of their life cycle, they’ll take roles guarding the beehive to make sure pests and robbers stay outside. Then, they will be the buzzing foragers we usually see around flowers. They’ll fly around food sources collecting pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive and make food.

Physical and Anatomical Differences

There are significant anatomical differences between queen and workers bees. Most of these differences are a result of adaptions they have developed over time that allow them to perform their tasks efficiently.

Body PartsWorker BeeQueen Bee
Head– Has more of a triangular look– Rounded and wider relative to its length
– Slightly smaller than the head of a worker
Mandibles– Have smooth edges
– Shaped like a spoon
– Larger in size
– Have notched or toothed edges
Proboscis– Longer and stronger– Smaller and weaker maxilla (lateral parts of the proboscis) and labium (underlip)
Legs – The outer surface of the tibia is covered in long curved hairs that make the pollen baskets (also known as corbicula)– Tibia and metatarsus have no special use
– Have larger claws
Abdomen– Shorter sterna (exterior plates under a bee’s body)– Longer sterna
Stinger– Shorter and barbed– Longer and smoother
Hypopharyngeal Glands (glands on the sides of the head)– More complex in workers, attributed as the source of royal jelly– Smaller and simpler glands
Honey Stomach– More developed and larger– Not as developed
Reproductive Organs– Less developed ovaries
Has spermatheca
but shaped different and some of its parts seem to have degenerated
– Ovaries are more developed
– Has a spermatheca
Table of anatomical differences queen bee vs worker bee. Based on Snodgrass, R. E. (1910). The Anatomy of the Honey Bee. United States: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Summing up

Although both castes of bees are female and result from fertilized eggs, there are many differences between queen bees and worker bees.

Not only is the queen larger, but her role in the colony is very different. She spends most of her time laying eggs while worker bees are in charge of doing everything else.

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