Part of being a good beekeeper is understanding the role different bees play within the colony. As in most animal species, there is a differentiation between the genders and the role each gender has in the animal society. Female bees have the starring role in bee colonies, and it is their hard work and dedication that keeps the colony alive. We will examine the crucial function female bees have in the colony.
There are two main types of female bees in a bee colony; queen bee and worker bees. The queen is the only bee that mates and lays eggs. Worker bees do not mate, and the queen emits a pheromone to prevent workers from laying eggs. Certain workers are tasked with different jobs in the colony.
A bee colony is a female-dominated culture, structure, and hierarchy. Female bees are greater in number in the beehive than males and have a greater diversity of functions and tasks within the colony. Most people are aware of the queen bee and the worker bee in the colony being female, but the role of the female bee is much wider than this in a beehive.
The Role Of Female Bees In A Honey Bee Colony
Once we understand the diverse role of female honey bees in the function and survival of a bee colony, we may consider the division of labor totally unfair!
However, we cannot view the division of labor in a bee colony from our human perspective of equality of the genders! The bees have found a system that works for them and has proven to be a successful survival method for thousands of years.
As we discover the important role of the female bee in your beehives, you will have greater respect for the work that these hardworking ladies have put in when you harvest your honey!
The two main different types of female bees are the queen and the worker. We will examine each female bee type, the differences between the two, and the division of labor among the worker bees.
What Is The Role Of The Queen In The Bee Colony?
The queen bee plays a pivotal role in the survival of a bee colony, and as such, she receives special treatment and protection from the other members of the hive.
The queen bee has a different and unique role to play in the colony, and she is also physically different from the other bees in the hive, including other female bees!
How To Identify A Queen Bee
The queen bee is larger than a normal worker bee in the hive, being about one and a half times the size of a worker bee. The queen is generally between 0.78-inches and 0.98-inches or 20mm and 25mm long.
She has a long, slender abdomen, and her wings seem a little short for her body, extending only to about halfway down her abdomen.
The anterior part of her abdomen tapers to more of a point than a normal worker bee. It is sometimes difficult to find the queen in a hive since her coloration is very similar to that of a worker.
The queen’s difference in size and shape sets her apart visually from the other workers and enables the beekeeper to spot her in the hive.
The queen looks different from a drone or male bee in that the drone is much chunkier, has a definitive rounded abdomen, and is usually darker than the queen.
The queen bee does not have any body parts for collecting pollen or nectar, and she doe not have any wax-producing glands to build egg cells or comb. The queen’s tongue is also shorter than the worker bee since she does not need to collect nectar from the depths of a flower.
The queen’s mandibles or jaws also look different from the worker bee’s. She has notches on her mandibles which gives the impression of teeth. These mandibles are used to grip a rival queen during combat.
Many beekeepers will mark their queen, making it easier to find her in the mass of bees in a hive and to keep track of when the queen was born. The queens are marked by daubing a colored marking pen on the thorax, making them stand out from the other bees.
The colors follow an international standard and can be used to track the queen’s age.
|Queen Bee Marking Color Standards|
|Last Digit Of The Year||Color|
|1 or 6||White|
|2 or 7||Yellow|
|3 or 8||Red|
|4 or 9||Green|
|5 or 0||Blue|
Beekeepers sometimes engage in queen rearing as a business to produce new queens that beekeepers can introduce to a colony that has lost its queen and thus save the colony from dying out.
Reared queens will come with a marking on their thorax in the color indicating the year in which they were raised.
Can A Queen Honey Bee Sting?
Many beekeepers are unaware that the queen bee is quite capable of delivering a sting! The stinger of a queen is structured differently from that of a worker bee.
The sting of a worker bee is barbed, which is why the stinger becomes stuck in human and animal skin and rips the stinger from the worker. The stinger of a queen is not barbed but smooth, enabling her to sting without dying as a result.
Fortunately, the queen is reluctant to sting in self-defense; she has workers who will sacrifice themselves to defend her. The queen reserves the use of her stinger for combat against a rival queen, whom she will fight to the death.
How Long Does A Queen Bee Live?
The queen in a honey bee colony is the longest living type of bee. The queen will out-live workers and drones.
In the wild, most queen bees can live between 1 and 3 years, but in cultivated hives managed by beekeepers, queens have lived more than 8 years.
This is one reason why beekeeping is beneficial to pollinator populations. Extending the life of a queen in ideal conditions will keep her colony strong and healthy and will keep her reproducing for longer.
Producing more bees results in a stronger colony that can forage further afield and pollenate more food crops as well as wild plants reliant on the bees to reproduce. The increased pollination produces greater genetic diversity in the plants, making the plants more resistant to disease and able to produce a greater crop yield.
Why Is There Only One Queen Bee?
The restriction of only one queen in a bee colony may sound counter-intuitive. Surely with more queens, more eggs would be laid, more workers produced, resulting in a stronger colony!
The answer comes down to genetics and the strongest queens being able to produce the strongest and most productive workers.
If there was no competition between queens, inferior queens would be allowed to proliferate in the colony. This would result in bees being more susceptible to disease and not strong enough to be productive workers in the colony.
Consequently, queens will fight for dominance, and the stronger queen will eliminate her rival and become the only bee to pass on her stronger, superior genes to the other bees in the colony.
How Does a Queen Bee Mate?
Every bee colony has male bees called drones, but these male bees will all be offspring of the colony’s queen. Consequently, a queen bee will not mate with drones from her own colony. This strategy would contaminate the genes in the colony and weaken the offspring.
The queen will undertake a mating flight in the first 2 to 3 days after she emerges from the cell as an adult virgin queen. She will leave the colony and take flight, searching for drones from other colonies with whom she will mate.
The queen will mate with 12 to 15 and, in some cases, up to 20 different drones. If a queen is not fully mated on her first mating flight, she may undertake several mating flights during her early days to ensure she can lay eggs for a long time.
More frequent mating flights put the virgin queen at risk, making a single mating flight preferable. During mating flights, a queen may be eaten by a predator or be killed by inclement weather, such as rain or strong winds, which may prevent her from returning to the hive.
The queen will generally not mate again once she is fully mated. She stores up to 6 million sperm from the drones she has mated with, and she has control over using the sperm or not when laying eggs.
The queen bee will mate with the drones in flight rather than settling somewhere at ground level. A queen must be mated within the early days of her life. If she is not able to fly during this period due to bad weather, she may become an unmated queen and only able to lay unfertilized drone eggs.
If a queen is unmated, it generally will result in the colony’s death since she will be unable to lay fertilized eggs to produce workers or another queen. All the eggs an unmated queen will lay will be unfertilized and will produce drones.
How Many Eggs Does A Queen Lay?
The queen bee has a busy time keeping the colony strong with sufficient workers to build up the hive structure and forage for food to feed the growing colony.
In the off-season, a bee colony consists of about 10 000 bees. Due to their lower level of activity in the off-season, the worker bees live longer, reducing the number of fertilized eggs the queen must produce.
As the pollination and nectar flow seasons approach, the queen will increase her egg-laying frequency to boost the colony for the coming season.
During the productive season, the queen bee has the capacity to lay between 2000 to 3000 eggs each day. The queen will regulate her egg-laying based on available resources in the area and resources in the hive.
The queen’s egg-laying can boost the colony to between 60 000 and 80 000 bees at the peak of the honey-producing season!
What Happens To The Colony When A Queen Bee Dies?
While queen bees have a longer lifespan than workers or drones, they still have a limited productive life. There are also occasions where the queen may die from other circumstances.
The mating flight is one of the most dangerous times in the life of a queen bee, where she can fall prey to birds and other insect-eating predators or succumb to bad weather or even the use of insecticides in agricultural areas.
If the queen does not return from a mating flight and there are fertilized eggs in the beehive, the worker bees can raise a new queen from one of the fertilized eggs less than 3 days old. We will cover how this is done when we talk about the role of female worker bees in the colony.
If a queen dies from a disease or in a beekeeping accident, the workers can raise a new queen if they have fertilized eggs available that the queen laid less than 3 days before her demise.
As the queen gets older, she will lay fewer numbers of eggs, and she will produce fewer pheromones. This change in the queen’s “scent” and behavior will prompt the raising of a new queen who will then depose and kill the old queen and take over the colony.
The Role Of The Female Worker Bee In A Honey Bee Colony
The other type of female bee in a bee colony is the worker bee. They are by far the most numerous bees in the hive, the hardest working, and the biological machine that keeps the colony functioning.
All worker bees in a colony will be daughters of the queen bee except when a new queen emerges. When a new queen emerges, the current worker bees will be sisters to the queen. However, as the workers die out, they will be replaced by the daughters of the new queen.
How To Identify Female Worker Bees
Most people are familiar with identifying a female worker bee. This is the bee we see buzzing around flowers, collecting pollen and nectar, and the bee that will sting you when it feels threatened.
A worker bee is about 0.47-inches long or 12mm long, and the wings extend to the end or beyond the end of the abdomen.
Worker bees have a long tongue that they extend into flowers to reach the nectar. The nectar is stored in a “honey stomach” for transport back to the hive.
The worker bee legs have pollen rakes which are used to remove pollen from the hairs on their bodies which are then stored in pollen baskets on their legs. You can see pollen on the legs of bees returning to the hive, the color of which will be determined by which flowers the pollen was collected from.
Pollen is used as a protein source for the bees in the hive and the developing pupae. The pollen is processed into a paste, called bee bread, and stored in cells in the comb.
Worker bees have wax glands used to secret the wax used to build their combs in the hive. There are different honey bee species, and they differ slightly in color from country to country, but most are a shade of yellow or gold with black horizontal stripes. The coloration is similar to that of the queen.
The abdomen is more rounded than the queen bee, and the sting of the worker bee is barbed, in contrast to that of the queen.
How Long Does The Worker Bee Live?
Worker bees have the shortest lifespan of all bees in the colony. This short life is usually due to the heavy workload for these female bees and the risks they take when they are out foraging.
A foraging bee does not have the protection of the numbers of the colony and can fall victim to predation.
Climate can also affect the duration of a female worker bee’s life. Hot or cold regions are hard on worker bees and can reduce their lifespan to a few days. In temperate climates, their lifespan can increase to almost a year.
The average lifespan of the female worker bee is generally between 2 weeks and 6 weeks in the peak honey-producing season and about 20 weeks in the dearth season.
Why Does A Female Worker Bee Die After Stinging?
Those of us unfortunate enough to experience a bee sting have seen the sting and the venom sac left stuck in our skin while the bee flies away.
Stinging a mammal is a death sentence for worker bees. The barbs on the stinger become stuck in the soft skin of mammals, and when the bee pulls the stinger out, it breaks off and pulls the entrails from the bee. The bee may fly off, but it will die in a minute or two from the trauma.
Worker bees can sting other insects and other animals without the stinger becoming stuck in the skin. The female worker bee can repeatedly sting the offending creature when fighting off the threat. The bee will also not die after stinging these animals.
Can A Female Worker Bee Mate?
Worker bees have genitals, but they are not fully developed due to the diet the worker bees were fed during development as a pupa.
Worker bee babies are initially fed with some royal jelly but then on a combination of bee bread and honey. Queen babies are fed on a diet exclusively of royal jelly, which promotes the development of the sexual organs and other physiological changes in the queen.
As a result, a worker bee has female sex organs, but they are under-developed, and she is not able to mate with any of the drones.
Why Don’t Worker Bees Lay Eggs?
A worker bee, being a female bee, can lay eggs, but they would be unfertilized eggs and thus result in producing drones only.
The queen bee in the hive emits a pheromone, preventing the worker bees from laying any eggs. If the worker bees laid eggs, the colony would produce too many drones, which are a needless drain on the hive’s resources.
A warning sign for beekeepers is seeing too many drones in a hive when inspections are done. The excessive number of drones could indicate the colony is queenless and the workers have started laying eggs.
It could also indicate that the existing queen is becoming old and weak and is not producing the necessary pheromones to prevent the worker bees from laying eggs.
What Jobs Do Worker Bees Do?
Worker bees implement division of labor in the hive, and worker bees perform different roles in the colony. Some jobs in the hive are dependent on the worker’s age, while others may remain in a particular role for the duration of their existence.
The roles that worker bees play in the hive include the following.
- Hive security. Guard bees will guard the entrance of the hive and will investigate disturbances around the hive. If a guard bee discovers a threat, it will sting the threat. The pheromones released in the sting will attract other guard bees and other colony members in attack mode to defend the hive against the threat.
- Queen attendants. The queen has worker bees dedicated to caring for her and feeding her. Her entourage hover and walk around her guiding her to the empty cells for egg-laying and bringing her food, so she does not need to stop her work to find food. Her attending bees will also clean and groom her.
- Nurse bees. Nurse bees take care of baby bees in the larvae stage. They feed the babies, clean them and protect them and will cap the cell for the final stage of their development. Nurse bees can raise new queens by feeding larvae from a fertilized egg a diet exclusively of royal jelly, which is secreted from a gland on the nurse bees.
- Cleaner bees. These bees are responsible for the cleanliness of the hive. They remove debris from the hive, dead bees, help forager bees offload their pollen, pack food into cells and convert nectar to honey.
- Scout bees. Scout bees will travel far afield in search of locations rich with food and water or new, larger, safer locations for the colony. The scouts will communicate their findings to other bees in the colonies by a series of carefully orchestrated movements and buzzings called dances.
- Forager bees. These female worker bees fly out to the flowers to gather pollen and nectar. They also collect water and take it back to the hive for climate control.
Young bees will often be designated the duties in and around the hive, while the older, stronger worker bees are tasked with scouting and foraging.
A final word regarding nurse bees raising queens is that these bees will become aware when a new queen is needed. All young bee larvae are fed royal jelly in the first 3 days. After this point, those destined to become workers will be fed other food, but those destined to become queens will continue to receive royal jelly.
This is why it is important to have larvae less than 3 days old to replace a queen that has died or is becoming too old to be productive.
A bee colony is a complex society that we cannot yet fully understand, even as beekeepers. The female bees are the most productive in the colony. The queen is responsible for reproduction, and the female workers are responsible for building the hive, tending the young, and gathering food.
Female bees are some of the hardest working creatures in the animal kingdom, so next time you enjoy some delicious honey, spare a thought for the hardworking ladies who made it possible!