It is important to know about the three kinds, or castes of bees in your hive and which role each of them play, so when you open up your hive you will know what kinds of bees you are looking at.
Being able to identify each kind of bee will tell you a lot about the health and strength of your hive.
The three castes of bees are:
- Queen Bee
- Worker Bees
All three have a vital role to play in the survival of the colony.
In each hive there is a single queen bee. The queen’s main function is to lay eggs into the cells on the frames. The queen begins her life as a normal fertilized egg that would usually become a worker bee, except that she is fed royal jelly for the duration of her development.
Royal jelly is a special substance secreted by the honey bee that is used in the nutrition of all bee larvae, but a queen bee is fed it in copious amounts. This diet of royal jelly triggers an epigenetic response, altering the physical structure of the bee’s DNA, turning the larva into a queen bee.
A beekeeper can recognize the cell of a queen bee because it is shaped a bit like a peanut and usually hangs from somewhere near the bottom of the frame.
Once hatched, the queen bee flies out to mate with a number of congregated drones before returning to the hive to begin laying her eggs. The sperm are stored and used by the queen, in the reverse order she received it.
Queen bees are larger than both the worker bees and drones. They have an elongated abdomen that stores all the eggs they will lay throughout their lifetime. Amazingly they lay many thousands of eggs and typically live up to three years, sometimes longer. However, the length of each queen’s life depends upon how well she has mated.
Once the queen lays an egg into the cell she plays no more part in rearing the developing bee. That task is taken by the female nursery bees who are worker bees undertaking that particular role at that time.
The queen emits a pheromone, a secreted chemical factor that becomes the scent of the hive and signals to the bees that this hive is their home. At the entrance to the hive, the guard bees check each bee as it enters, testing for the right scent. They will reject any bee that does not smell right.
As the queen ages, her ability to produce the pheromone weakens and this signals to the bees that the queen needs to be replaced. The worker bees will select several eggs to become future queens and feed them royal jelly for their development. This is to instigate the epigenetic response that turns them into queens. Several eggs are selected to ensure the life of the colony continues. If only one queen is developed something may happen to her and the colony would be left queen-less.
Queens, unlike the other two castes of honey bees, are often difficult to find amongst the tens of thousands of bees in the hive. They move quickly around the frame, avoiding the light. I’ve found it best to start looking for the queen on the frames with brood on them. These are located towards the center of the hive where it is the warmest, and where the queen has been most recently.
Most people believe the queen makes the decisions for the colony, such as how many worker bees or drones will be laid, or if and when the colony will swarm. However, these major decisions are made collectively by the worker bees.
Within the hive are thousands of female worker bees. They make up around 95% of the colony. Depending on the season, somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 worker bees will be present.
In Spring there will be many more workers because the majority of plants are in flower. Worker bees undertake all the work of the colony, from tending the eggs and larvae, feeding and protecting the queen, guarding the entrance, cleaning the cells and foraging for pollen, nectar and water.
Foraging is the last task they undertake before they die. To forage, worker bees fly in a five to eight kilometer (three to five mile) radius from their hive. In total each worker makes around a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
Worker bees are always looking for an abundant nectar source. When they locate one they return to the hive and communicate the location to other foragers by performing a specific dance to indicate the direction and distance of the nectar source. It’s commonly referred to as the ‘waggle dance’ because the bee will waggle is abdomen as it moves in a figure eight pattern.
When bees swarm and land nearby worker bees leave the cluster to scout for possible new hive locations. When they return they use the waggle dance to communicate to the swarm the location of their new home.
In the Summer months a worker bee typically lives between 30 and 50 days after coming out of her cell. However in very cold areas this period is quite a bit longer, because the bees are unable to leave the colony and don’t do as much work outside the hive. All the bees are required to stay inside and keep the hive warm enough for the health of the brood, the colony and the queen.
Drones are the male bees whose primary function is to mate with queens from other colonies. They are larger and noisier than worker bees and can be distinguished by their large eyes and shorter, more rounded abdomens. Drones are the result of the queen laying unfertilized eggs.
You can recognize the drone cells because when capped they create raised bumps on the frame. Usually they are located together and can be seen as the warmer Spring weather approaches. This indicates the hive is preparing for the mating season.
In the Spring the drones will fly to an area with other drones to mate with a queen bee from another hive. Unfortunately the drones only get to do this once because their genitals are damaged during the ritual and they fall to the ground and die.
Drones don’t feed themselves, they are fed by the worker bees. As Winter approaches and with no queens to mate with, the worker bees will expel the drones from the hive after chewing their wings so they can’t return. In this way the colony preserves its food supplies for the workers, developing brood and the queen.
Knowing the three kinds of bees and just how many there are in the hive is important information. When you conduct early inspections as a new beekeeper it can be quite daunting to see and hear the many thousands of bees swirling around the hive.
It’s a good idea to ask an experienced beekeeper if you can join them during one or more of their hive inspections when first starting out. This will give you confidence when opening up your own hive. Most beekeepers love to help other beekeepers too, so they may join you during your early inspections and point out the types of bees you are looking at.