Learn about Honey bees

Overview

Despite being called the European honey bee Apis mellifera is also native to Africa and Asia. The name of the European honey bee is a result of European colonisation. Settlers brought honey bees with them for their pollination services and ability to produce honey. Today, the European honey bee is found on all continents except Antarctica.

Honey bees are social insects that live in colonies. Each colony can consist of up to 80,000 individuals that belong to three different castes: the queen, workers and drones. The queen and the workers are female, while the drones are male. Each colony has a single queen who is responsible for producing all of the honey bees in a hive and determines the sex of the bee through fertilisation. If she wants to create a female, she fertilises the egg. If the queen needs to produce a male drone, she does not fertilise the egg.

Like workers, queens develop from fertilised eggs, but they are fed royal jelly provided by the workers. This jelly regulates genes that control queen development. Royalty is not defined by bloodline but access to royal food. If the queen become old, infertile or dies, the workers rear new queens by providing young larvae with royal jelly. After emerging from their brood cells, the new queens fight each other to the death. The lone surviving queen then leaves the colony for her mating flight and afterwards takes over the colony from her mother. This process allows a colony to exist eternally, as all individuals can be replaced.

The Queen

    • Scientific Name
    • Apis mellifera
    • Population / Hive
    • 1
    • Lifespan
    • up to 7 years
    • sex
    • Female
    • Length
    • 2cm (0.79 in)

The queen is the mother of the hive, producing all the bees within the colony. In a single day, she will lay up to 3,000 eggs a day—which is more than her own body weight—just to maintain a fully-grown hive. The other workers in the hive look after the queen while she lays eggs and can sense her wellbeing based on her pheromones.

The queen only mates once in her life and must store several million sperm in a small organ known as the spermatheca. Throughout her life, she must use them economically to fertilise eggs. As queens can survive up to seven years, they are capable to lay more than 1.5 million eggs.

To initiate a new colony, the resident queen leaves the colony with nearly half of the workers and searches for a new place to create a colony. Before this happens, workers will feed royal jelly to some larvae in the original hive to breed new daughter queens. They stay behind and one daughter queen will eventually take over the colony of her mother. This process of colony multiplication is known as swarming.

The Workers

Worker Bee
    • Scientific Name
    • Apis mellifera
    • Population / Hive
    • 20,000-60,000
    • Lifespan
    • 2-9 months
    • sex
    • Female
    • Length
    • 1.2cm (0.47 in)

As the name indicates, the workers do most of the work inside a colony. Honey bees are known to have a sophisticated division of labor, where different animals specialise in different tasks such as foraging, cleaning, defending the nest, cooling or heating or caring for the brood and the young. Whereas humans typically choose a profession and stick to that for the rest of their lives, honey bee workers change their job as they become older.

Young bees perform various different tasks within the hive and old bees eventually become foragers, performing the risky job of flying around to search for pollen and nectar. To do this, bees can fly up to 10 kilometres away from the nest. If a worker finds a good food source, she flies home and performs a dance, known as the waggle dance, to inform her sisters. The dance encodes key information about the food source, such as the distance and direction from the hive as well as its quality. The dance stimulates other bees to fly to the same source.

Although honey bees are insects, their colonies are temperature controlled and kept at around 32 degrees Celsius. Workers are responsible for maintaining the proper temperature within the hive throughout changing environmental conditions.

The Drone

Drone
    • Scientific Name
    • Apis Mellifera
    • Population / Hive
    • 300-600
    • Lifespan
    • 25-90 days
    • sex
    • Male
    • Length
    • 1.5cm (0.59 in)

Male honey bees are referred to as drones. They do not work for the colony and their only task is to find a virgin queen and mate with her. Consequently, drones are only produced during the reproductive season and killed by the workers afterwards. Drones are somewhat larger than their worker sisters and they are therefore reared in larger brood cells, known as drone comb.

To mate, drones leave the colony after mid-day and assemble in drone congregation areas. They release substances to attract virgin queens, but there can be thousands to tens of thousands of drones present that all want to mate with one or very few virgin queens. If a queen arrives, males form a queue behind her, known as a comet and copulate with her, one after another. To increase their chances of mating, males have very large eyes and strong flight muscles.

Drones are suicidal maters; they die during their first and only copulation. Although queens can mate with up to 90 different drones, they store less than 5% of the received sperm from around 20 males. During the process of storing sperm, known as sperm competition, the different ejaculate of males compete against each other for access to the sperm storage organ. The males' kill sperm of rival males with chemicals inside their ejaculate. Also because males originate from unfertilised eggs, they have no father and sire no sons.

What you can do to help