Unlike most insects, honey bees are social creatures. They live in well-maintained and organized colonies, relying on the hard work of themselves and their brethren to keep the hive safe and healthy. The complexity of the hive—from the communication to the division of labor to behaviors like environmental regulation and defense—makes these highly evolved creatures downright fascinating. So, what is the social structure of honey bees? Our guide gives a complete overview.
Everyone’s heard of the queen bee. Colonies can have tens of thousands of bees, but there’s only one queen. She also lives far longer than the others—four years to a worker bee’s six or so weeks. Obviously, she’s the most important member of the hive. The queen’s main responsibility is reproduction. She lays all the eggs in the colony, and she’s the only one who can produce fertilized eggs. This is because, shortly after a new queen emerges from her cell, she goes on her mating flight. By herself, she leaves the hive and flies a distance away to mate with drones from other colonies. A couple of days after the mating flight, the queen begins to lay eggs. She will continue reproducing fertilized and unfertilized eggs (creating worker bees and drones, respectively) for the next couple of years. That is until she dies or becomes too old to lay.
The queen’s other major duty is to produce pheromones. These chemical substances earn certain reactions from the other bees. The queen uses them to unite the colony and keep the hive productive. For example, one of the main pheromones she produces is queen substance. This lets the rest of the colony know that she is alive, healthy, and productive. When the bees can no longer sense the queen substance, that’s their signal to start making new queens. Other pheromones the queen produces can attract drones in her mating flight or dissuade the worker bees from trying to lay their own eggs.
If you see a honey bee flying around, chances are it’s a worker bee. These bees make up the vast majority of the colony. Worker bees are all females. However, unlike the queen, they are not as sexually developed. Instead of reproducing, they do all the work in the hive. Worker bees are responsible for forming the hive cells, making honey and beeswax, taking care of the queen, and defending the hive. A subset of the worker bees is nurse bees, who feed and take care of the brood. Other workers are field bees. They’re the ones who forage for nectar, pollen, and other resources for the hive. The worker bees share these jobs throughout their life. They start by working in the hive before eventually becoming field bees.
If a colony loses its queen and can’t replace her right away, some of the worker bees will begin to lay eggs. However, because these workers never went on a mating flight, they’ll only be able to lay unfertilized eggs. This results in new drones, but no new workers, throwing off the balance of the colony. With no new populations to take care of the brood, make honey, and forage for resources, the hive quickly fails.
The final type of adult bee is the drone. These are the male bees in the hive. They’re larger than their female counterparts—though not as big as the queen—and they don’t have a stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Their main responsibility is to fertilize another colony’s queen on her mating flight, and they die after mating. While they don’t make any contributions to their own hive, they play an important role in spreading genetics throughout bee populations. The more drones a queen mates with, the greater the genetic diversity of her colony is, and the more successful the hive will be. However, because they can drain resources, the worker bees will often push out any drones in the hive in preparation for winter.
The social structure of honey bees often revolves around the reproduction and care of new bees or the brood. The brood consists of young bees in three stages of development: eggs, larvae, and pupae. Nurse worker bees take care of the brood while they mature, feeding them and capping their cells during the larval stage. Brood patterns are a good way to measure a colony’s health. When a queen is healthy and productive, she will lay eggs in a pattern, with few brood cells left empty. The capping on pupae cells should also be a uniform tan or brown color, not uneven or sunken into the cell. If a queen isn’t following this pattern while laying, she might be nearing the end of her productive years, or the colony might be facing disease or other issues.
When the queen lays her eggs, she places one in each brood cell. She attaches the egg to the bottom of the cell. At first, the egg is standing upright, but it slowly begins to bend throughout the first few days of development. After three days, the egg hatches as a grub, starting the larval stage.
Healthy honey bee larvae are white, plump grubs. Nurse worker bees feed them throughout the larval stage, but what they eat and how long this stage lasts depends on what kind of bee they will become. Future queen bees eat a special honey mixture called royal jelly that helps them grow larger and develop in a way that allows them to reproduce. Worker bees and drones eat a little bit of royal jelly, but their diet mostly consists of a honey and pollen mixture called bee bread. During this stage, the larvae also stretch out in their cells and spin their cocoon.
At the end of the larval stage, worker bees cap the brood cell with beeswax and the larvae begin to transform into adult bees. Healthy pupae are still white, plump, and grub (like at the beginning of this stage), but their color gradually changes as their bodies begin to take on their adult forms. This process takes about one to two weeks, depending on what kind of bee it is. At the end of this stage, the new bees emerge from their cells as fully matured workers, drones, or queens.
Due to the various stages of life and the efficient division of labor, a hive is a complex yet incredibly successful system. This is why many beekeepers choose to start a new hive with a bee nuc instead of a regular bee package. A nuc, otherwise known as a nucleus colony, is basically a smaller but fully-functioning hive. When placed into a full-sized hive, the nuc is more likely to grow into a strong and healthy colony, making the process of establishing a new colony easier and more successful.