While many of us enjoy honey as a delectable treat —whether spread on a peanut butter sandwich or stirred in our tea—our knowledge of bee colonies may be somewhat limited. For instance, when some folks think of a bee colony, an uncontrolled swarm might be the first thing that pops into mind, ready to attack anything that comes nearby. However, that’s not the case at all—a bee colony is actually an impressive, hierarchical organization that is focused on efficiency and growth, not randomly harassing nearby creatures. Therefore, understanding the way a bee colony forms and how it really works is essential to living in harmony with these amazing and beautiful creatures, who are also an intrinsic part of our planet’s ecosystem.
Matriarchal Society: Understanding Bee Colonies
Every bee colony is centered around a queen bee. Essentially the matriarch of the colony, she is a bee that is larger than the others, and coincidentally the only bee capable of providing fertilized eggs for the colony to raise. She is so important to the colony that if she is lost or injured, the colony will basically dissolve until a new queen is found—literally, a queen bee is the center of her own ‘universe’, if you will. In fact, a bee colony is so devoted to their queen, they will follow her as a swarm. This makes a handy trick for beekeepers moving a hive or swarm on purpose, but it can also cause trouble. In 2016, a bee swarm followed a car for over a day because the queen became trapped inside. Talk about the world revolving around you!
Fit For a Queen: Bee Family Hierarchy
What makes a queen fit to rule her bee colony? It comes down to natural behaviors, determination, and great management skills—and a healthy application of pheromones.
From the moment a queen hatches, she’s built to lead: this is the only time in her life she will use her sting, and she will do so to eradicate her rivals—there can be only one queen, after all. Once she emerges the victor, she will take a special flight alongside her drone bees, called the nuptial flight, where she will receive all the genetic material she needs from them to fertilize her forthcoming eggs.
With up to 50,000 bees living in one colony, it’s no surprise that the queen can produce up to 200,000 eggs—an impressive amount for a single season to account for death, loss, and injury within her colony. Her support network of drones and worker bees only have weeks-long lifespans, which makes this abundance of eggs a necessity to maintain colony growth.
Worker Bees: Faithful Supporters of the Colony
It’s no surprise that the term “worker bee” is synonymous with an individual that works exceptionally hard. Worker bees are actually infertile female bees; they can’t challenge or threaten the queen’s position because they are unable to lay the eggs the colony needs to survive. While worker bees have a six-week lifespan, queens can live up to an impressive five years. Worker bees keep the inside of the hive clean, process the pollen and nectar carried back to the hive by foraging partners, feed the colony’s young bee grubs, add onto the hive by building new wax cells, stand guard to prevent intruders in the hive, and even regulate the temperature inside. (They do this by moving their back muscles rapidly, relying on friction in tight areas to heat up the inside of the hive when the weather turns cold.)
Drone Bees: All In The Family
While the female worker bees are keeping the hive running smoothly, male drones fly outside the hive and wait to mate with the queen—basically, their role is to continue to proliferate their bee ‘family’ lineage. While seemingly less exhausting than the chores carried out by their female counterparts, this is an important part of the bees’ survival. Without the fertilization component of fertilized eggs, those worker bees and drones would quickly die off with no young bees to replace them.
Without the right amount of bees to keep the hive tidy, temperature controlled, and the grubs fed, no new bees—or queens—could thrive. Much like a healthy plant, when a hive grows large, a queen will leave some fertilized eggs in specially-created queen cells along with some drones and workers in a protective swarm, allowing her daughters to establish their own hives as she continues to live with her original hive.
Helping Bees Thrive (And Survive) With Thoughtful Planting
Bee colonies are essential to farming and fertilization. In many plants, flowers, vegetables, and trees, foraging bees are the crucial transfer method for pollen, and one that the plant has evolved to rely on. Essentially, without a bee colony, a male plant couldn’t transfer its genetic material to a female plant, which in turn means no fruits or vegetables for humans, if the situation grows extreme.
The best way to help a bee colony thrive is to plant flowers nearby that are native to your area, avoid spraying bug sprays or pesticides anywhere near the bees, and avoid disturbing a colony. If your colony must be moved or removed, be sure to work with a trained or licensed expert that will relocate the bees, not kill them. Most bee colonies can thrive anywhere where abundant food sources are available, so with a little careful planning and handling, you can keep bees healthy and happy without destroying their colony.
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- “The bee community.” Bee Careful.com, (no publish date), http://www.bee-careful.com/bee-life/bee-community/. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- “Meet the 3 Kinds of Honey Bees in a Hive.” Grow Organic.com, April 18, 2013, http://www.groworganic.com/organic-gardening/articles/meet-the-three-kinds-of-honey-bees-in-a-bee-hive. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- “Better Knowledge for Bee Health.” Arnia.co.uk, (no publish date), https://www.arnia.co.uk/temperature-and-thermoregulation-in-the-beehive/. Accessed April 29, 2019.