Queens, workers, drones: Types of bees and what they do

Published in The Ledger, Nov. 27, 2015

Joel White points out the queen bee. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

For honeybees, it’s all about the queen, and long may she reign.

Honeybee colonies have three types of bees: queens, workers and drones.

All the bees in the colony are descendants of the queen. A bit larger than the worker bee, the queen is the fertile bee who spends her time laying up to 3,000 eggs each day.

Other bees in the hive care for her, clean her and feed her. When she dies, the hive must find another queen.

The worker bees are the ones who go out and collect the pollen used to make honey. Worker bees are infertile females and are also responsible for guarding the hive, feeding the queen, drones and broods and heating and cooling the hive.

Worker bees create honey by chewing on nectar until it becomes honey. It is then stored in empty honeycomb shells to be used later as a protein source for the bees or collected by the beekeeper.

Surprisingly, worker bees like to dance. Their favorite dance move is the waggle dance, a highly symbolic activity that spurs other bees to a nectar source.

When a worker bee returns from a foraging flight, she will land on the dance floor near the entrance of the hive and move in a figure-eight pattern to communicate several key pieces of information, including how far the flower patch is from the hive; how rich the source of nectar is; and the direction of the source from the hive.

Other dances include the shake dance, performed when the nectar source is so rich that more foragers are needed to collect it; and the tremble dance, which is performed when more bees are needed to process the nectar into honey.

Worker bees also share the odor of the flowers with other bees who receive the information via the 60,000 smell receptors on their antennae.

Last but not least are the drones. Their only purpose in the colony is to mate with a virgin queen.

They live to mate, but live against the odds because only one in 1,000 drones actually get the opportunity to mate with the queen on her virgin flight. Queens are fertile and ready to mate by the time they are 5 to 6 days old. On their virgin flight, they put out pheromones to attract drones in the area.

This is what’s known as their honeymoon flight. Once he mates with a queen, he dies.

If a drone fails to mate by fall, worker bees in the hive kill him because they are seen as useless mouths to feed during winter when worker bees swarm around the queen to keep the colony warm.

When the bees on the outside of the swarm get cold, they switch positions with bees on the inside of the circle and so on until spring.

An individual bee could not survive without its colony, and it is because of this that many beekeepers consider bee colonies to be superorganisms.

Each bee plays a precise role to keep the hive alive.

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