Roles of Different Morphologies Within a Honeybee Colony

Very simply a colony can be segregated into three different “types” of honeybees all belonging to the same species and hive. Although they are all genetic equivalents, they display different shapes and sizes.

Queen Bee Circled in red.

The Queen - The Queen bee is the “life central” of the entire colony. The overall health or quality of the colony is ultimately a reflection of the overall health and vigor of the queen. The queen is the sole reproductively functional female of the entire hive. She is the only female with fully developed ovaries. The queen is much larger than all other bees in the colony. Her body is long and typically darker or with less striping contrast than the other members of the colony. She is an egg laying machine. The queen bee can produce well over 1000 eggs a day at an interval of 30-40 seconds.

Although the queen is a master egg-layer, she also plays a key role in hive or colony regulation. She produces chemicals called pheromones which control behavior and development of colony members.

The queen bee can live for over two years. However, as a queen bee ages her egg production decreases. In turn, the size of each brood and the colony will also decrease. The decrease in colony size will also result in decreased honey production. In addition, pheromone production may decrease. As a result, colony communication begins to breakdown. This may lead to a colony becoming unruly or disorganized. Under such circumstances, a beekeeper may decide to replace the queen.

The queen bee is considered very passive and even gentle. She does possess a stinger but this weapon is reserved for emerging queens who may threaten her position within the colony. She never leaves the hive while the hive is active and is followed by a host of attendants who tend her every need.

The Drone Bee - A honeybee colony is primarily female. Male bees, or drones make up a small percentage of a colony. Typically drones numbers range from 300-3000 depending on the maturity of the colony. A strong colony can exceed 80,000 individuals in the summer.

Procreation is the primary function of the drone. The drones are tended and fed by female worker bees while they await the virgin queens nuptial flight. The queens flight can take the drone 200-300 feet in the air and often nearly a mile away from the colony. The eyes of the drone are keen and larger than the worker bees. They are designed for tracking the queen during flight.

During the queens nuptial flight she will mate with 3 or 4 drones. The drones sex organ is barbed and is ripped off as it attempts to withdraw following mating. This withdrawal often  results in the near complete evisceration of the drone. The drone then rather unceremoniously tumbles from the sky.

As the end of the honey production season nears, patience for the hungry drones evaporates. The drones are expelled from the hive by the worker bees with the onset of winter.

Worker bees

The Worker Bee - All worker bees are female. However, worker bees are unable to reproduce (eusocial). Worker bees play a critical role in nearly all colony activities. Worker bees visit flowers collecting pollen and nectar. Pollen is collected on the back legs of workerbees. These pollen baskets or corbicula are transported back to the colony. Back at the hive, the pollen is converted into densely nutritious food which supports the developing brood. The nectar is collected by a “straw-like” structure called a proboscis. Once in the stomach of the bee, the nectar is mixed with enzymes. When the worker bee returns to the hive, the nectar-enzyme mixture is regurgitated into wax cells and will eventually become honey.

During the process of pollen and nectar collection, worker bees perform the critical task of pollination. The processes of pollination and cross-pollination are necessary in nearly every terrestrial ecosystem. Many plant species rely on various pollinators for reproduction and expansion. Honey bees are considered both a keystone species and a mutualist. Other pollinators include, bats, humming birds, and a variety of insects.

The colonies brood population requires very specific temperatures to insure proper development. The brood area of the hive must be kept at 34.4°C (93.92°F) to incubate eggs. Collective worker bee fanning and watering can cool the brood area and huddling to generate body heat can warm the brood area.

Worker bees are responsible for protecting the colony. They must drive out any invaders. Often they sacrifice their very lives for the colony. The stinger of the worker bee is barbed.   The stinger is ripped from her body following the act of stinging, resulting in her death.

Worker bees also care for and tend to the queens every need. In addition, albeit reluctantly, worker bees must care for the drones. As the honey producing season comes to a close and temperatures fall, the worker bees expel all drones from the hive.


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