Beekeeping For Dummies, 5th Edition
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During summer months, about 60,000 or more bees reside in a healthy hive. And while you may think all of those insects look exactly alike, the population actually includes two different female castes (the queen and the workers) and the male bees (drones). Each type has its own characteristics, roles, and responsibilities. Upon closer examination, the three look a little different. If you're a beekeeper, it's important to know one from the other.

worker, drone, and queen bees Courtesy of Howland Blackiston

These are the three types of bees in the hive: worker, drone, and queen.

Her majesty, the queen

Let there be no mistake about it — the queen bee is the heart and soul of the colony. There is only one queen bee in a colony. She is the reason for nearly everything the rest of the colony does. The queen is the only bee without which the rest of the colony cannot survive. Without her, your hive is sunk. A good-quality queen means a strong and productive hive. And for some real fun, try raising your own queens from your best performing hives.

As a beekeeper, on every visit to the hive you need to determine two things: “Do I have a queen?” and “Is she healthy?”

The queen is the largest bee in the colony, with a long and graceful body. She is the only female with fully developed ovaries. The queen’s two primary purposes are to produce chemical scents that help regulate the unity of the colony and to lay eggs — and lots of them. She is, in fact, an egg-laying machine, capable of producing more than 1,500 eggs a day at 30-second intervals. That many eggs are more than her body weight!

The other bees pay close attention to the queen, tending to her every need. Like a regal celebrity, she’s always surrounded by a flock of attendants as she moves about the hive (see the image below). Yet, she isn’t spoiled. These attendants are vital because the queen is incapable of tending to her own basic needs. She can neither feed nor groom herself. She can’t even leave the hive to relieve herself. And, so, her doting attendants take care of her basic needs while she tirelessly goes from cell to cell doing what she does best: lay eggs.

A queen bee and her accommodating attendants. Courtesy of USDA-ARS

A queen and her attentive attendants
The gentle queen bee has a stinger, but it is rare for a beekeeper to be stung by a queen bee. I have handled many queen bees and have never been stung by any of them. In general, queen bees use their stingers only to kill rival queens that may emerge or be introduced into the hive.

The queen can live for two or more years, but replacing your queen after a season or two ensures maximum productivity and colony health. Many seasoned beekeepers routinely replace their queens every year after the nectar flow. This practice ensures that the colony has a new, energetic, and fertile young queen each season.

You may wonder why you should replace the queen if she’s still alive. That’s an easy one: As a queen ages, her egg-laying capability slows down, which results in less and less brood each season. Less brood means a smaller colony. And a smaller colony means a lackluster honey harvest for you.

As a beekeeper, your job is to anticipate problems before they happen. An aging queen — more than a year old — is something that you can deal with by replacing her after checking her egg-laying, before you have a problem resulting from a poorly performing queen.

The industrious little worker bee

The majority of the hive’s population consists of worker bees. Like the queen, worker bees are all female. Worker bees that are younger than 3 weeks old have working ovaries and can lay eggs, but they are not fertile, as the workers never mate and, therefore, lack sperm to fertilize eggs.

Workers also look different than the queen. They are smaller, their abdomens are shorter, and on their hind legs they possess pollen baskets, which are used to tote pollen back from the field.

Like the queen, the worker bee has a stinger. But her stinger is not a smooth syringe like the queen’s. The stinger is three-shafted, with each shaft having barbs (resembling a fish hook). The barbs cause the stinger, venom sack, and a large part of the bee’s gut to remain in a human victim — a Kamikaze effort to protect the colony. Only in mammals (such as humans) does the bee’s stinger get stuck. The worker bee can sting other insects again and again while defending its home.

The life span of a worker bee is a modest six weeks during the colony’s active season. However, worker bees live longer (four to eight months) during the less-active winter months. These winter workers are loaded with protein and are sometimes referred to as “Fat Bees.”

The term “busy as a bee” is well earned. Worker bees do a considerable amount of work, day in and day out. They work as a team. Life in the hive is one of compulsory cooperation. What one worker could never do on her own can be accomplished as a colony. During the busy season, the worker bees literally work themselves to death. The specific jobs and duties they perform during their short lives vary as they age. Understanding their roles will deepen your fascination and appreciation for these remarkable creatures.

From the moment a worker bee emerges from her cell, she has many and varied tasks clearly cut out for her. As she ages, she performs more and more complex and demanding tasks. Although these various duties usually follow a set pattern and timeline, they sometimes overlap. A worker bee may change occupations, sometimes within minutes, if there is an urgent need within the colony for a particular task. They represent teamwork and empowerment at their best!

Initially, a worker’s responsibilities include various tasks within the hive. At this stage of development, worker bees are referred to as house bees. As they get older, their duties involve work outside of the hive, as field bees.

House bees

The jobs house bees do (described in the following sections) are dependent on their age.

Housekeeping (days 1 to 3)

A worker bee is born with the munchies. Immediately after she emerges from the cell and grooms herself, she engorges herself with pollen and honey. Following this binge, one of her first tasks is cleaning out the cell from which she just emerged. This cell and other empty cells are cleaned and polished and left immaculate to receive new eggs or to store nectar and pollen.

Undertaking (days 3 to 16)

The honey bee hive is one of the cleanest and most sterile environments found in nature. Preventing disease is an important early task for the worker bee. During the first couple weeks of her life, the worker bee removes any bees that have died and disposes of the corpses as far from the hive as possible. Similarly, diseased or dead brood are quickly removed before becoming a health threat to the colony.

Should a larger invader (such as a mouse) be stung to death within the hive, the workers utilize propolis to deal with that situation. Obviously, a dead mouse is too big for the bees to carry off. So, the workers completely encase the corpse with propolis (a brown, sticky resin collected from trees and sometimes referred to as bee glue). Propolis has significant antibacterial qualities. In the hot, dry air of the hive, the hermetically sealed corpse becomes mummified and is no longer a source of infection. The bees also use propolis to seal cracks and varnish the inside walls of the hive.

Working in the nursery (days 4 to 12)

The young worker bees tend to their baby sisters by feeding and caring for the developing larvae. On average, nurse bees check a single larva 1,300 times a day. They feed the larvae a mixture of pollen and honey, and royal jelly — rich in protein and vitamins — produced from the hypopharyngeal gland in the worker bee’s head. The number of days spent tending brood depends on the amount of brood in the hive and the urgency of other competing tasks.

Attending royalty (days 7 to 12)

Because her royal highness, the queen bee, is unable to tend to her most basic needs herself, some of the workers do these tasks for her. They groom and feed the queen and even remove her excrement from the hive. These royal attendants also coax the queen to continue to lay eggs as she moves about the hive.

Stocking the pantry (days 12 to 18)

During this stage of their life, young worker bees take nectar from foraging field bees that are returning to the hive. These house bees deposit this nectar into cells earmarked for this purpose. They add an enzyme to the nectar and set about fanning the cells to evaporate the water content and turn the nectar into ripened honey. The workers similarly take pollen from returning field bees and pack the pollen into other cells. Both the ripened honey and the pollen, which is often referred to as bee bread, are food for the colony.

Fanning (days 12 to 18)

Worker bees also take a turn at controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive. During warm weather and during the honey flow season, you’ll see groups of bees lined up at one side of the beehive entrance, facing the hive. They fan furiously to draw air into the hive. Additional fanners are in position within the hives. This relay of fresh air helps maintain a constant temperature (93 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit [34 to 35 degrees Celsius]) for developing brood. The fanning also hastens the evaporation of excess moisture from the curing honey.

The workers also perform another kind of fanning, but it isn’t related to climate control. It has more to do with communication. The bees have a scent gland located at the end of their abdomen called the Nasonov gland. You’ll see worker bees at the beehive entrance with their abdomens arched and the moist pink membrane of this gland exposed (see the following figure). They fan their wings to release this pleasant, sweet odor into the air. You can actually smell it sometimes as you approach the hive. The pheromone is highly attractive and stimulating to other bees and serves as an orientation message to returning foragers, saying: “Come hither, this is your hive and where you belong.”

worker bee Courtesy of Bee Culture Magazine

This worker bee fans her wings while exposing her Nasonov gland to release a sweet orientation scent. This helps direct other members of the colony back to the hive.

Beekeepers can purchase synthetic queen-bee pheromone and use this chemical to lure swarms of bees into a trap. The captured swarm then can be used to populate a new hive.

Becoming architects and master builders (days 12 to 35)

Worker bees that are about 12 days old are mature enough to begin producing beeswax. These white flakes of wax are secreted from wax glands on the underside of the worker bee’s abdomen. They help with the building of new wax comb and in the capping of ripened honey and brood cells containing developing pupae.

Some new beekeepers are alarmed when they first see these wax flakes on the bee. They wrongly think these white chips are an indication of a disease or mite problem. While the bees are working, the wax flakes will fall to the bottom. Nothing to be alarmed about.

Guarding the home (days 18 to 21)

The last task of a house bee before she ventures out is that of guarding the hive. At this stage of maturity, her sting glands have developed to contain an authoritative amount of venom. You can easily spot the guard bees at the hive’s entrance. They are poised and alert, checking each bee that returns to the hive for a familiar scent. Only family members are allowed to pass. Strange bees, wasps, hornets, and other creatures intent on robbing the hive’s vast stores of honey are bravely driven off.

Bees from other hives are occasionally allowed in when they bribe the guards with nectar. These bees simply steal a little honey or pollen and then leave.

Field bees

When the worker bee is a few weeks old, she ventures outside the hive to perform her last and perhaps most important job — to collect the pollen and nectar that will sustain the colony. With her life half over, she joins the ranks of field bees until she reaches the end of her life.

It’s not unusual to see field bees taking their first orientation flights. The bees face the hive and dart up, down, and all around the entrance. They’re imprinting the look and location of their home before beginning to circle the hive and progressively widening those circles, learning landmarks that ultimately will guide them back home. At this point, worker bees are foraging for pollen (see the figure), nectar, water, and propolis (resin collected from trees).

bee collecting pollen Courtesy of USDA-ARS, Stephen Ausmus

This bee’s pollen baskets are filled. She can visit ten flowers every minute and may visit more than 600 flowers before returning to the hive.

Foraging bees visit 5 million flowers to produce a single pint of honey. They forage a 2- to 3-mile radius from the hive in search of food (even more, if necessary, for water), and propolis. That’s the equivalent of several thousand acres! So, don’t think for a moment that you need to provide everything they need on your property. They’re ready and willing to travel.

Foraging is the toughest time for the worker bee. It’s difficult and dangerous work, and it takes its toll. They can get chilled as dusk approaches and die before they can return to the hive. Sometimes they become a tasty meal for a bird or other insect. You can spot the old girls returning to the hive. They’ve grown darker in color, and their wings are torn and tattered. This is how the worker bee’s life draws to a close, working diligently right until the end.

The woeful drone

This brings us to the drone, the male bee in the colony. Drones make up a relatively small percentage of the hive’s total population. At the peak of the season, their numbers may be only in the hundreds. You rarely find more than a thousand.

New beekeepers often mistake a drone for the queen, because he is larger and stouter than a worker bee. But his shape is in fact more like a barrel (the queen’s shape is thinner, more delicate, and tapered). The drone’s eyes are huge and seem to cover his entire head. He doesn’t forage for food from flowers — he has no pollen baskets. He doesn’t help with the building of comb — he has no wax-producing glands. Nor can he help defend the hive — he has no stinger. He is not the queen or a worker — merely the drone.

The drone gets a bad rap in many bee books. Described as lazy, glutinous, and incapable of caring for himself, you might even begin wondering what he’s good for.

He mates! Procreation is the drone’s primary purpose in life. Despite their high maintenance (they must be fed and cared for by the worker bees), drones are tolerated and allowed to remain in the hive because they are needed to mate with a new virgin queen from another colony (when the old queen from that other colony dies or needs to be superseded).

Mating occurs outside of the hive in mid-flight, 200 to 300 feet in the air. This location is known as the drone congregation area, and it can be a mile or more away from the hive. The drone’s big eyes come in handy for spotting virgin queens who are taking their nuptial flights.

The few drones that do get a chance to mate are in for a sobering surprise. They die after mating. That’s because their sex organ fits something like a key into a lock so they can effectively discharge their sperm into the queen. The queen will mate with several drones during her nuptial flight. After mating with the queen, the drone’s most personal apparatus and a significant part of its internal anatomy is torn away, and it falls to its death, a fact that prompts empathetic groans from the men in my lectures and some unsympathetic cheers from a few women.

Once the weather gets cooler and the mating season comes to a close, the workers do not tolerate having drones around. After all, those fellows have big appetites and would consume a tremendous amount of food during the perilous winter months. So, in cooler climates, at the end of the nectar-producing season the worker bees systematically expel the drones from the hive. Drones are literally tossed out the door. For those beekeepers who live in areas that experience cold winters, this is your signal that the beekeeping season is over for the year.

Depending on where you live, the calendar of events for you and your bees varies depending on temperature ranges and the time of year.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Howland Blackiston has been keeping bees for almost 40 years. He has appeared as an expert on CNBC, CNN, NPR, The Discovery Channel, Sirius Satellite Radio, and other broadcast outlets, and has written numerous articles on beekeeping. Howland has been a keynote speaker at conferences in more than 40 countries.

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