Honey Bee Colonies

The Honey Bee is a flying insect that, with human assistance, now occupies every continent except Antarctica. The Western Honey Bee was one of the first domesticated insects, and it is the main species maintained by beekeepers to this day for both its honey production and pollination activities.

Because Honey Bees produce and store honey, their hives are a prized foraging target of many animals, including honey badgers, bears and human hunter-gatherers.


The honey bee is eusocial, which means it has a complex social structure. Honey Bees create colonies inside nests made from wax, with a single fertile female (or "queen"), thousands of non-reproductive females or "workers", and a small proportion of fertile males or "drones".

Individual colonies can house tens of thousands of bees. Colony activities are organized by complex communication between individuals, through both pheromones and the dance language.

The diagram below shows the different sizes and characteristics of the different types (or Clades) within the Honey Bee nest:-

The Honey Bee LIFE CYCLE

The life cycle of a Honey bee is similar for all three Clades within the colony, the only difference is how long the stages take. Like other Insects, the Honey Bee experiences the following four stages in their life cycle:-

Stage 1 : Egg

Stage 2 : Larva

Stage 3 : Pupa

Stage 4 : Adult

The different clades of Honey Bee move through their life cycle at different rates. Knowing the time taken at each stage is a vital part of Beekeeping. The table below shows the timelines for the three different clades:-

The video below shows a time-lapse of the Bee's journey from egg to adult:-

The role of the Queen

Even through there are thousands of bees within the colony, there is only 1 Queen Bee. The Queen Bee is critical to the survival of the colony as she is the only bee that can lay fertilised eggs. A fertilised egg can become either a queen or a worker bee.

Workers and queen larva are both fed royal jelly, which is high in protein, during the first three days. After that, workers are switched to a diet of mixed pollen and nectar (often called "bee bread"), while queens continue to receive royal jelly. It is this high protein diet that allows the reproductive organs of the Queen Bee to fully develop.

The Queen is larger than the drones or workers are therefore needs a bigger cell to grow in. These Queen cells hang down from the comb and so can be easily distinguished from worker or drone cells.

In the image below, a large Queen cell can be seen in the middle, with worker cells to the left:-

When a new Queen hatches, the old Queen is killed or leaves the colony with a swarm of workers to start a new colony. A Queen can live for up to 5 years before being replaced by the colony. In order to lay both male and female eggs, the virgin Queen must mate with drones on a mating flight. This mating flight is the only time the Queen leaves the colony.

On the mating flight, the virgin queen can mate with up to 17 drones, storing sperm within her reproductive system that will be used for the rest of her life. Once she returns to the colony the queen will be guarded and cared for by the colony where she will lay up to 2,500 eggs per day in summer.

The role of the drone

The drones are male bees that have only one function - to mate with a virgin Queen during her mating flight. Because of this, the Drones are adapted with large front facing compound eyes in order to see the virgin queen during flight. The diagram shows the difference between worker and drone bees heads:-

Worker Bee

Drone Bee

The act of mating with the Queen is fatal to the Drone, as the release of sperm is so forceful that the Drone's abdomen is ruptured. At the end of the summer season, when they are of no further use, any remaining unmated Drones are forcibly removed from the colony.

The video below shows Drones being evicted from a hive by worker bees:-

The Role of the Worker

As stated earlier, the most common clade within the colony is the worker Honey Bee. There are many roles that are required within the colony, but a worker can not do them all at once.

The age of the worker decides on which job within the hive that the Bee can accomplish. The worker's adult life is split into two sections; the first half within the hive and the second half out foraging. The change over occurs at day 22, by which point the Bee's stinger and venom glands are fully developed.

The tables below show how those tasks change over time:-

Hive Bee

Foraging Bee

Honey Bee communication

Honey bees have one of the most complex pheromonal communication systems found in nature, possessing 15 known glands that produce an array of compounds. These pheromones control nearly all behaviors of the Bees, including mating, alarm, defense, colony recognition, food production and other colony activities.

Every Hive has its own distinct mix of pheromones which the Bees use to identify "home" and for guard Bees to recognise invading Bees.

The table below shows some of the main pheromones that Bees produce:-

the language of dance

Bees do not communicate through sound, but instead through "dancing". The dances performed by Bees allows them to communicate complex ideas effectively. The most common dance performed by the Bees that is understood by Beekeepers is the "Waggle Dance". The Waggle dance consists of a figure of eight movement with a "waggle" through the middle:-

The Waggle dance

How this looks

The Waggle Dance is used by Bees to communicate the location of a good source of nectar. To do this, the Bee must communicate two pieces of information; direction and distance.

To show distance, the Bee changes the length of the waggle in the middle, then longer the waggle, the further the nectar source is:-

In the diagram above, the Bee on the left is communicating a larger distance than the Bee on the right.

Bees navigate by the Sun. When inside the Hive, the Bees use the vertically upwards direction to show the Sun's position (remember it cannot be seen from inside the hive).

To show direction, the Bee waggles in the direction to the Nectar source:-

  1. If the Nectar source is in the direction of the Sun, the Bee will perform the Waggle Dance with the waggle running vertically upwards.

  2. If the Nectar source is is directly away from the Sun, the Bee will perform the Waggle Dance with the waggle running vertically downwards.

  3. If the Nectar source is at angle angle to the Sun, the Bee will perform the Waggle Dance with the waggle running at the same angle.

This can be seen in the following diagram:-