Did you know that there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world? Not all of them produce honey. In fact, depending on which scientists you talk with, there have only been about 7-11 species of honeybees in existence. Today there are about 7 or 8 surviving species (two of those species are sometimes considered the same species). All species except Apis mellifera come from Asia.
The 8 Honeybee Species
- Apis andreniformis (the black dwarf honey bee)
- Apis cerana (the eastern honey bee)
- Apis dorsata (the giant honey bee)
- Apis florea (the red dwarf honey bee)
- Apis koschevnikovi (Koschevnikov’s honey bee)
- Apis laboriosa (the Himalayan giant honey bee)
- Apis nigrocincta (the Philippine honey bee)
- Apis mellifera (the Western honey bee)
The bees you will have in your hive are Apis meliffera. Apis, meaning bee, and meliffera meaning honey-bearing. You will hear them referred to as Western Honeybees or European Honeybees. Even Africanized bees are Apis meliffera.
Breeds of Bees
Western Honeybees have been kept for thousands of years because they are so useful to mankind. Of course honey obviously is at the top of the list. But without beeswax, many of the statues and sculptures created over the millenia would never have been made. Look up the history of Lost-Wax Casting HERE and HERE. to fascinate yourself for hours. Then there is propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen that offer nutrition and healing to our bodies. Oh! and don’t forget pollination—kind of important to our whole planet.
You can see how valuable honeybees have been throughout our history. It is no wonder that humans brought these prized workers with them wherever they staked their claims, whether that be the cold northern civilization in Russia or the hot and humid jungles of South America.
Honeybees had to adapt to different climates, different plants, and different seasons. Beekeepers began to selectively breed bees who did the best in the new surroundings. These bees are called types or breeds of honeybees. They are all still Apis mellifera and can interbreed, but they have characteristics that do better in different situations. Here are some of those breeds that we see today: Italian, Cordovan, Carniolan, Buckfast, Russian, German, and African (Africans are bees that adapted to their own harsh conditions without outside help). You can learn about which of these breeds do best here in Arizona by talking with local beekeepers. Most beekeepers here keep Italian, Cordovan, and Carniolan bees.
As you get more experienced in beekeeping you’ll decide on what characteristics are most important for you. For me, I want VERY nice bees, so I opt for Cordovans when I can.
The one thing that all these breeds of bees have in common is their caste sytem. There are three castes in a honeybee hive: Queen, Worker, and Drone. They each have a vital role to play in the life of their colony.
Each hive has only one queen. She is the only reproductive female, and thus, the mother of all the bees in the colony. A queen bee begins as a female egg exactly like all workers. The process of becoming a queen bee happens once the egg hatches. This larva will form in a different kind of cell than worker bees. It will also be fed different food. Another distinct difference in the formation of a queen bee is time. Surprisingly a queen only takes 16 days to emerge as an adult, while workers take 21 days. A queen’s life is vastly more important, yet much simpler than a worker bee. She has only one job to do: lay eggs.
A few days after a queen bee emerges she will take one or more mating flights to attract and mate with 10 or more drones. Once her sperm sac (spermatheca) is full she will return to her colony and never leave again unless the colony swarms or absconds with her. Her life will be spent laying eggs and being cared for by attendants.
Don’t think that the queen is only one dimensional. While her “job” is laying eggs, her importance goes far beyond that. Queen bees produce pheromones that are essential to the colony’s function.
These are Mandibular Pheromone, Queen Retinue Pheromone, Queen Tergite Pheromone, and Feces Pheromone. These important glandular secretions are passed from the queen to the workers through touch and food transfer from bee to bee. They perform the following functions:
- Attract drones for mating
- Inhibit rearing of other queens
- Inhibit reproductive organs in workers
- Colony stabilization
- Stimulation of foraging and brood-rearing
The other female caste of honeybees is the most numerous. Worker bees are the life blood and workforce of a colony. Each hive is made up of worker bees who all have the same mother, but may or may not have the same father. This gives the hive genetic diversity, which is good for the hive and the entire world of bees in general. The complexity of their short lives is awe-inspiring, and probably why they take longer to develop than queens. In one 6-week lifespan these little workers – or flying factories, as I call them – will perform all the tasks necessary to keep the colony alive. From building the entire structure of their home with wax made in their own bodies, to filling that home with food and raising young, no wonder they wear out so quickly.
A honeybee worker’s career is multifaceted. From the moment they emerge as cute little adult bees they spend all their time… well… working. These bees will spend the first three weeks of their lives inside the hive doing all sorts of duties. They are called house bees. Sometimes they are given names like nurse bees, housekeeping bees, undertaker bees, builder bees, etc. In reality there is not one kind of house bee. They each move through the tasks as they grow. In fact, they do move from interior jobs that are in complete darkness to jobs that take them closer and closer to the entrance where they collect food from foragers or guard the entrance. They will then begin taking orientation flights (these are swirling flights in front of the hive entrance done usually at a specific time in the afternoon). Finally they become foragers themselves until they die about three weeks later.
Worker Bee Jobs
- Nurse Bees: Feed and clean larvae and their cells
- Queen Attendants: Tend the queen (feed, groom, spreading queen pheromone)
- Housekeeping Bees: Keep the entire hive clean
- Undertaker Bees: Take out dead bees…”Bring out your dead…” (Monty Python)
- Builder Bees: Secrete wax, build new comb, and cap cells containing honey, bee bread, and brood.
- Guard Bees: Guard the entrance and patrol the hive
- Fanning Bees: Help to heat or cool the hive
- Pollen Packers: Pack Pollen in cells, making bee bread
- Honey Maker Bees: Accept nectar from foragers, store and cure it.
- Forager Bees: Collecting pollen, nectar, propolis, water, and honeydew
These jobs are broken down by age as well. Notice that the bees jobs take them closer and closer to the outside world as they age:
- 1-2 days old: Cell Cleaning, Keeping brood warm
- 3-5 days old: Feeding older larvae
- 6-11 days old: Feeding younger lavae
- 12-17 days old: Producing wax, building comb, packing and curing food, removing dead bees
- 18-21 days old: Protecting the hive entrance and patroling
- 22-45 days old: Foraging
Workers have Pheromones too
All honeybees communicate via by smell among other things, so it should come as no surprise that the queen isn’t the only one to produce pheromones. Here are the four of the worker bee pheromones and what they do:
- Alarm Pheromones are secreted by worker bees from their mandibles as well as from their stingers. This marks an enemy and alerts other bees of an intruder.
- Nasonov Pheromones, secreted from the Nasonov gland, marks food, water, and tells other bees where the colony or queen is located. The worker bees release this pheromone and fan their wings to disperse the scent. It contains the same terpenoids as lemon-scented plants like lemongrass (no wonder lemongrass oil attracts bees!)
- Trail Pheromone is distributed by the feet of bees as they walk, and helps to further communicate location to other bees.
- Brood and Comb Pheromones communicate pollen and nectar collection needs as well as other tasks.
One last fact about worker bees is that, in the absence of a queen, they may begin to lay eggs. They are called laying workers, and it is very challenging if this happens in your hive. You will know you have laying workers if you have no queen and find cells filled with not one, but many eggs. Worker bees do not know how to lay properly, nor are they mated. Therefore if the eggs do hatch they will become drones. The colony will not survive in this case, but the genetics of the colony will be passed on through the drones that hatch and are able to mate.
The third caste of honeybees is the Drone. These are male bees who are formed from unfertilized eggs. Yes, I said it, UNFERTILIZED! When the worker bees decide that it is time to produce drones -typically in the spring- they will build drone cells, which are noticeably larger than worker cells. As the queen walks along the comb she is able to inspect each cell and measure it using her legs. If the cell is drone-size, she will lay an unfertilized egg. I don’t know how she does this, but it’s cool. The drone that emerges will have all of its genetics come from that queen. This is called haploid, which means it only has one set of chromosomes. Workers and queens are diploid. Since queens only mate while in flight, there is little danger that she will mate with her offspring, which is good because the product of that mating would be unsuccessful.
A colony of thousands of bees will only ever have a few hundred drones at any one time. In the winter there may actually be no drones because they will have been kicked out in the fall to reserve food stores. I know this seems super mean, especially when you see them being dragged out of their nice cozy home by their sisters. However, drones do not benefit the colony in any other way than to pass on their genetics through mating with a queen from another hive.
Drones don’t do housework, care for the young, forage, or even defend the colony (they don’t have stingers). They pretty much eat, meander from hive to hive, and if they are lucky, find a queen on her mating flight and die after mating. If the drones don’t end up mating, then they can live to the ripe old age of 6 months. There are probably more to drones than this, but for now, that’s what we know. They are definitely cute, so I guess that is one more quality not listed.
One more item of interest with drones is that they take 23 days to grow from egg to adulthood, and this makes them a lot more attractive to varroa mites. For this reason, it is possible to help lower the mite population in your hive by using drone frames and then freezing the frame once the cells are capped. This kills the drone pupae, but also the varroa in those cells. It’s a non-chemical player in the fight against varroa mites.
The Honeybee Hive is a Superorganism
Every single bee serves a purpose in the colony. Together they function as one organism, or superorganism. Not one member of a hive can survive without the whole. The queen populates the hive, the workers make it all run, and the drones ensure genetic survival through reproduction. When colonies are weakened through disease, infestation, or poisoning, the colony starts to fall apart. There is a chink in the armor and it’s only a matter of time before it’s collapse.
As beekeepers, our job is to help bees maintain their colony strength. If there are enough bees to do all the jobs necessary, then they can take care of themselves. We can help them fight varroa, keep them in the shade, offer food and water when there isn’t any near, and protect them from any other dangers. Regular hive inspections are how we monitor the health of a hive in order to make good decisions to impact its future. Keeping bees is not a spectator sport. Enjoy it and know you make a difference.
As beekeepers, job is to help bees maintain their colony strength. If there are enough bees to do all the jobs necessary, then they can take care of themselves