The Life Of Honey Bees – Part 1

Albert Einstein once remarked, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” With their important roles in sustaining our ecosystem, it is a pity that their sophisticated lives are unknown to most people. Unlike many animals, honey bees are one of the few animals that work together for their communal survival. They have a social hierarchy which helps them to specialize in their roles, which are genetically predetermined before they emerge from their eggs. There are broadly 3 classes of bees, but there are also specialized roles in each class as well. The three classes of bees are known as – Queen Bees, Worker Bees and Drone Bees. In this first part of the three article series, we will learn about the interesting lives of the Queen & Drone Bees.

A bee pollinating a plant while collecting nectar using her tongue, known as the proboscis

Queen Bees, as its name suggests, are of the highest importance in the colony. They are involved in reproduction and laying new eggs to sustain the bee population. There is only one Queen Bee in the colony, and she releases unique chemical signals called pheromones that induce the Worker Bees to be obedient and take care of her selflessly. Queen Bees have a long lifespan of about 3-4 years, which is a lot longer than the Worker Bee which only lives for about 1-2 months. Since there are tens of thousands of worker bees in a colony, the Queen Bee is constantly laying eggs in the hive to replace the high amount of deceased bees daily. Due to this full time job, she is very busy and unable to forage for nectar herself, hence the worker bees constantly feed and protect her while she carries out her role. Queen Bees also mate with male Drone Bees once in their lives, storing millions of sperms in her body. This can be used to produce a large number of fertilized eggs sufficient for her entire life, so that she does not ever need to leave the hive for mating again.

A Queen Bee being tended to by her worker bees

Mating in progress between a Queen and Drone Bee.

Drone Bees are the only male bees in the colony, and there are about a hundred of them in a colony. Interestingly, the sole purpose of the Drone Bee is to mate with the Queen Bee. Besides mating, Drone Bees do not have any role in the colony, and they spend their time “idling” about in the hive, or practising their flight outside the hive and congregating with other drone bees from various nearby beehives. They do not forage for nectar or produce honey like worker bees, but they consume 3 times more food than a normal worker bee. For mating to occur, the young Queen Bee of a week old will fly out of the hive and seek out a congregation of drone bees outside the hive to mate with. The Queen Bee can mate with a dozen or more Drone Bees in the session, and this will be the only mating session she needs. After mating, the sexual organ of the drone bee is stuck inside the Queen Bee. Unfortunately, this ruptures the abdomen of the Drone Bee, immobilizing it and therefore killing itself.

A Drone Bee – notice the large eyes which help her to locate the Queen Bee better

It is very important for the Queen Bee to have this mating session early in her life, to ensure that she has a steady store of sperms in her body to produce fertilized eggs for the colony. Fertilized eggs will produce female worker bees that can forage for food and take care of the colony, while unfertilized eggs will produce male drones that can only mate but not seek for food. This system of gender and hierarchy characterization is referred in biology as being haploidiploidy. Hence, a Queen Bee without sperms stored in her body will produce only drones and lead to the eventual downfall of the colony since there would be a reduction of the worker bees that can harvest food for the colony.

This sums up the lives and roles of the Queen and Drone Bee! In the second part, we will explore deeper into the enthralling lives of worker bees, the backbone of the bee colony, while in the final part, we will reveal more fascinating behaviours of bees that few would expect, so keep a lookout for these articles that are coming soon!