Introducing the honeybee

There are three types of honeybee (Apis mellifera) inside the hive.

The queen

Every colony has a single queen. She is longer and larger than the other bees. Her main job is to lay eggs and provide the colony with a constant supply of new bees. The queen is the most important bee in the hive for without her the colony would not exist.

The virgin queen mates once in her lifetime, not long after hatching from her cell. The queen cannot mate with drones from her own colony, so she flies out to a drone congregation area and mates with drones from other colonies. From her mating flight she stores enough sperm to lay eggs throughout her life cycle. A queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs – the equivalent of her own body weight – every day.

She produces special chemicals containing pheromones (queen substance) which help to control the behaviour of her workers and make sure the colony works together. The queen is constantly sending chemical messages to the colony. If she is lost or dies these messages will stop and the workers will create a new queen by feeding royal jelly to a female egg or young larva. If the queen is unable to lay eggs, or her egg laying decreases, the workers may choose to replace her (supersedure) by creating a new queen.

The workers

If you see a honeybee foraging on a flower in summer then she is most likely a female worker bee. Almost every honeybee inside the hive is a worker and they are all female, but sterile.

Workers are very versatile. They begin to work from the moment they hatch starting as a cleaner and taking on various age-related roles, such as nursing, building wax comb, making honey, and guard duty to protect the colony from wasps and other pests. They even have undertaker duties to clear out dead bees from the hive. Eventually workers become foragers and fly away from the hive to collect nectar, pollen and water for the colony. As a forager in spring and summer, a worker will literally work herself to death by collecting food and water for the hive.

The drones

Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens. They are slightly bigger than the workers with larger eyes and a fatter, hairier bottom.

Drones hatch from larger cells than the workers. The queen measures each cell before laying an egg inside it. If it is a large cell she will not fertilise the egg with a sperm and a male drone will emerge. (If it is a small cell the queen will fertilise the egg to develop into a female worker.)

Drones don’t work inside the hive, although colonies without drones may be bad tempered – we don’t know why. In late spring to early summer, the drones fly to a drone congregation area to mate with the virgin queens of local hives. The act of mating kills the drone.

Those that do not mate with a queen live throughout summer being cared for by their sisters, but they are evicted in autumn when the colony reduces its numbers to survive the winter.