It will be easier to understand as I go along if you know something about the kingdom of the matriarch and her subjects. The hive is ruled by the queen, no king, just a queen. That’s all that is necessary, right, ladies?? 🙂 Then there are the drones, the only males, and the workers, all female. The queen is the only egg layer in the hive. Even though the workers are female, they do not mate with the drones. Let me say here that the only job of the drone is to mate with the queen. And to eat honey, of course, that the workers make. To make drones, the queen or workers lay unfertilized eggs. All fertilized eggs make workers or queens. To make a queen, the workers feed a regular egg special food and royal jelly. A queen will live several years so all young queens that are hatched will either have to fight and kill the mother queen or they will take a bunch of workers and leave…this is a swarm, which is what they usually do.
The health of the hive depends on the weather. If good weather has allowed plenty of bloom, then they will make more bees (workers, drones, queens). They don’t leave the hive to hunt unless the temperature is over 40 degrees F. They will also not leave if it is windy or raining. These are also conditions that impact the health of the hive. Apparently this spring was a good year because we have had plenty of swarms. But we need to put supers on those hives so the workers will have something to do besides produce more bees!
A super is a box that is the same diameter as what we call the brood box, the main part of the hive, but is not as tall. Both the brood box and the supers will have frames in them for the bees to make honey on. We usually put starter combs in them for the bees to work to. If we don’t use that then the bees will just start anywhere and everywhere making the honeycomb and when we take the top off to rob them, there is a mess! Honeycomb will be attached to the walls of the super, the top of the hive, as well as the frames. A mess! So we put the starter comb in and the bees will use it to start (as the name implies) their honeycomb and when we rob them, the comb will all be attached to the frames in a nice orderly fashion. We will put a special screen wire between the brood box and the super so the queen can’t get from the brood box into the super. If she gets in the super, she will lay eggs there too. We don’t want that! She is too big to go through the screen but the workers aren’t so they go make honey and she stays in the brood box and rules her hive. We never take honey from the brood box. A lot of beekeepers do but we don’t. That is their food whether we get any or not. That is what they eat through the winter to stay alive so we don’t touch that. We only take what they put in the supers.
Back to the drones. There are only a few drones grown in a season. A few being 200-300 or so. The other 30-50,000 bees are the workers. The drones buzz around the hive and visit between the hives and eat honey. Except for the few who mate with the queen. She stores sperm in a special sack in her abdomen that will last the entire season. They mate outside the hive while flying. Just like the worker bees stinger has a barb to keep it from coming back out, so does the mating parts of the drone. So after the mating, the abdomen of the drone is ripped out and the drone dies. Although I have never heard it, beekeepers say that the explosion of the drone can be heard if you are nearby when it happens. “Popping the drone” is what the ole timers call it. Pretty high price for being otherwise useless, huh?? By the way, the drone doesn’t have a stinger either. When winter sets in and the remaining drones have outlived their usefulness, the workers will either kill them outright or shove them out of the hive where they will die. There is enough to do to keep the necessary workers alive and healthy to put up with the lazy drone eating up the honey!
The worker bee is first a housekeeper, then a nurse/housekeeper, then a hunter/forager. The young bees newly hatched will first keep the hive clean. The next older bees tend to the eggs and larvae, guard the hive against intruders and help wherever necessary. The oldest workers leave the hive to find the pollen and bring it back. The life span of the worker bee is about a month with the shortest time as a hunter. There are many dangers outside the hive; animals, humans, weather to name a few. I read an article the other day from an Arizona agricultural department that bees have a limited number of miles on their wings! After flying for a certain number of miles, their wings wear out and they can’t fly any longer. Then, since they are no longer a productive member of the hive, they die.
The different types of honey bees look different also. The queen is bigger than the workers and has a long pointed tail that looks more like a wasp in shape, as you can see in the photos below. In the photo on the left, the queen is the bright gold bee in the center of the photo. In the second photo, you can only see the queen’s hind quarters. This is not unusual because the other bees protect her heavily. She is very hard to see because they keep her covered as much as they can until she gets into the hive.
The drone in the next photo is bigger than the workers also. This photo is a good example of the drone and shows how much bigger than can get than the workers. Young drones, though, are hard to tell apart unless you look for the stinger. Personally, I don’t care to get close enough to examine the tail for a stinger!
In both the above photos you can see the worker bees and their average sizes. The young workers, like the younger drones, are smaller than the older ones. Otherwise, they are the same.
This is the “cliff notes” version of the hive. There is so much more to it and hopefully my fingers don’t have a limited number of words to type before they wear out! 🙂
Have a wonderful day!