Though there are over 16,000 species of bees worldwide, few are as well-known or widespread as the Western Honey Bee. This is the so-called “honey-bearing bee,” the species that most agricultural firms, farmers and hobbyists keep around the world, which has allowed this species to spread far beyond its native European and African range to nearly every continent on Earth!
For the Honey Bee, life is all about maintaining the colony and the younger generations of bees, the brood. Each bee dedicates itself to collecting pollen and nectar from nearby flowers, which it brings back to the hive to help feed the brood and the other bees in the colony. To help ensure that the hive has food for the winter in temperate climates, the bees are capable of turning the nectar that they collect into honey, which they store in honeycomb as a long-term food supply. In the wild, these hives would optimally be built within a rocky crevice or a rotted out tree high off the ground to deter honey thieves, like bears!
The main structure of the hive consists of the waxy honeycomb that the bees build themselves using beeswax. Beeswax is produced by the bees by mixing their saliva with plant oils and resins, known as propolis. They shape and craft the wax into repeating hexagonal cells that interlock and continually add more cells as the hive gets larger! The bees will use these cells as storage areas for honey and pollen, and more importantly, as nursery chambers in which a single larval bee will go through its entire life cycle!
Just like ants, Honey Bees are eusocial, meaning that their colony is made up of individual bees that have different jobs and responsibilities within the hive. There are three types of bees within the colony:
There is one queen bee that directs all the bees in the hive. She does this by releasing chemicals known as pheromones, which will guide the behavior and activity of the colony. She is physically larger than the other bees and the only individual in the hive that will lay fertilized eggs (1 per cell) that the other bees will feed and care for until they are adult bees. The queen can last for several years, and when she expires, the colony will select and raise a new queen to take her place.
The majority of Bees that you see in a hive or visiting flowers are workers, which are all female and follow the chemical direction of the queen. They do all of the work in the hive, foraging for pollen/nectar, taking care of the young, building comb, cleaning and protecting the hive, etc. They only live for a little over a month as an adult. Younger workers spend much of their time carrying out tasks in the hive and as they get older they spend more time foraging away from the hive. A large hive can have between 40,000 and 50,000 workers at its peak!
Drones are the male bees in the colony. They have no stinger and do not carry out the functions of the workers. The drones hang out in the hive and will eventually leave and mate with virgin queens that are produced by other Honey Bee colonies, after which they die. They will pitch in and use their wings to fan the hive alongside the workers in order regulate the temperature within their parent hive, but when autumn comes around, the workers will kick any remaining freeloading drones out! During the summer, a normal hive maintains several hundred drones.