Apiculture Factsheet #104
The Honeybee Colony
Honeybees can not survive on their own for long, but require the
social setting of the colony. It is the colony that matters; where
tasks are accomplished through division of labour. Every member
works, not for itself, but for the benefit of the colony. For
example, during the summer season, large quantities of food are
gathered and stored by the workers, even though the individuals do
not live long enough to feed on these reserves during winter.
Defensive behaviour of individual bees is not for themselves but for
the benefit of the colony. Since stinging mostly results in death,
the use of the stinger is of no value to the individual bee.
The Worker Bee
Worker bees have given up the functions of reproduction and egg
laying, and passed on these tasks to the single queen of the colony.
The worker bee has sex organs that are not fully developed. Her
six-week life span in summer is devoted to carrying out the many
tasks necessary for colony development and survival. Many duties
carried out by the worker bee are the result of physiological
changes that take place during the worker’s life. The most important
of these are the production and glandular secretion of royal jelly
(brood food) and beeswax.
In addition to numerous in-house duties, worker bees forage for
nectar, pollen, water and propolis. They also serve as scout bees in
finding these materials and in locating a future home site for a
Three distinct phases may be observed in the life of the worker
- The "nurse bee" phase lasts about a week. At first
she helps in incubating the brood and preparing brood cells.
Next comes the feeding of older larvae that are provided a
mixture of honey and pollen. About three days later the special
brood food glands in the head of the worker bee become active.
The concentrated milky secretion from the glands called
"royal jelly" is fed to the queen larva in its pure
form while a mixture of pollen, honey and jelly is fed to the
worker and drone larvae.
- The "domestic" phase. For about one week, the young
worker bee takes on various hive duties such as storing of
honey, building and repairing comb, and cleaning the hive.
During this period, the young worker bee makes its first
orientation flights and may carry out guard duties at the hive
- The "field" bee or forager. The bee is now about
fourteen days old. Foraging may last two, three, or four weeks
according to the amount of energy expended. At this final stage
in life, at the age of 6 - 8 weeks, most worker bees will die in
the field. In winter, bees live from fall to the next spring.
Honeybees forage for four products: (1) nectar, which is
converted into honey; (2) pollen, which is the protein and fat
portion of the bees' diet; (3) water; and (4) propolis, or bee glue.
Propolis is a resinous material from the buds of trees. Bees use
propolis to close small openings in the hive.
When nectar is collected from flowers, it will be kept in the
"crop" or honey sack where initial enzymatic conversions
take place, while pollen and propolis are carried in the
"pollen baskets" located on the hind legs.
The honeybee queen is unique in being the only individual
responsible for the reproduction of the colony population.
Surrounded by a retinue of attendants, she goes about her single
task of egg laying. During peak periods in spring and fall she may
lay as many as 1,500 to 2,000 a day. She is capable of egg
production only and does not nurse her brood. Laying usually begins
in February and the rate increases until about mid-summer. By
August, egg laying declines until mid-October when it stops
It is essential for the queen to maintain a high rate of egg
laying if the colony is to replace all the workers that die during
the normal development of the colony. The egg-laying ability of the
queen is key to success of the colony and ultimately to the
beekeeper since a large population of worker bees is needed to
optimize honey yields and pollinate crops.
Unlike worker bees, a queen may live for 5 or 6 years. At any
time, and especially later in life, the queen may falter in her
egg-laying, which reduces brood development. The worker bees will
construct queen cells in preparation to replace her. To reduce the
risk of a slowdown in brood rearing or queen failure in the middle
of production season, it is recommended to replace the queen every
year or two.
The drone is the male bee of the colony. It developed from an
unfertilized egg and hence, the drone is a haploid with only half
the number of chromosomes. All his genetic characteristics originate
from his mother, the colony queen. Drones cannot sting and do not
perform any duties within the hive or gather nectar from flowers.
The rearing and feeding of drones requires considerable resources
from the colony. In the summer, a colony may raise 200-300 drones
but in the fall when the colony prepares for winter it will drive
out the few remaining drones. The sole purpose of the colony to rear
drones is to have one or more mate with a virgin queen from another
colony and have the genes of the colony passed on.
The Brood Cycle
During its development, the honeybee undergoes four distinct
stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult, a process called complete
metamorphosis. The queen is capable of laying fertilized eggs that
produce worker bees or queens, and non-fertilized eggs that result
in drones. During the first three days, the embryo inside the egg
will develop rapidly. Then, just prior to hatching, the egg is
provided a minute drop of bee milk. This applies to all brood
regardless of caste.
In worker brood, the larva is liberally fed glandular food or
"royal jelly" for two or three days, followed by a honey
and pollen diet. This change of food determines the worker caste.
When the diet is not changed and remains royal jelly throughout the
larval period, she will become a queen.
During the larval stage, five molts take place. After eight days,
the larva is fully grown and fed, and at this point workers seal the
cell with a porous capping. This is called the "capped
brood" stage. The larva will spin a cocoon and undergo the
process of pupation. The duration of the pupal stage depends on the
Workers and drones are reared in hexagonal shaped cells which
comprise the comb, but the queen is reared in an acorn shaped cell,
normally protruding vertically from the comb surface, with the
opening at the bottom.