Plan Bee: Honey bee caste
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Plan Bee: Honey bee caste

Apr 29, 2023

Forager bees leave their hives to collect pollen and nectar.

As a beekeeper, these past couple weeks have been busy. A fellow beekeeper and I collected a nice swarm on a low hanging branch in his backyard. Later that week, another beekeeper and I did a cut out in a dead tree to save a feral colony. The honey bees were very docile as we slowly worked to guide the workers and queen into a transport brood box. Though I have worked with many swarms, it is still remarkable to watch the worker bees as they march lock step like soldiers into the transport brood box that now contains the queen.

The little honey bee still continues to amaze me as they unselfishly depend upon one another for their colony to survive and prosper. Honey bees are social insects and their colonies are considered a super organism; all working together to ensure the survival of the colony. Each member of the colony has a specific task to perform, but it takes the combined effort of the entire colony to prosper and reproduce. A productive colony has a population of 40,000 to 60,000 female worker bees, several hundred drones and an excellent queen laying to her capacity.

In a colony of honey bees there are three castes: drones, workers, and queens. Drones are the male bees and the workers and queens are female bees. There are four developmental stages of the honey bee; egg, larvae, pupa and adult regardless of the caste. The development stages will be discussed in a future Plan Bee.

There is normally only one queen in a colony and she is the only sexually developed female in the colony. The queen has two purposes: to produce pheromones that keep the colony unified and to lay/fertilize eggs. When a new queen first emerges from a queen cell, she is not fertile. She will take several short orientation flights prior to taking her mating flight to the Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) where she will mate with 10 to 15 drones from other colonies; ensuring genetic diversity in her offspring. In fact, it's key to her colony surviving. She is not monogamous!

When the new queen returns to the colony from her mating flight, she has enough sperm in her spermatheca to fertilize eggs for her lifetime. A quality queen can lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs daily. The queen's life span is typically five to seven years. Each year her egg productivity decreases where she may be replaced by the colony or the beekeeper. When the queen lays an egg, if it is fertilized, the egg becomes a female worker bee. If the egg is not fertilized, it becomes a male drone bee.

The queen bees produce pheromones to keep colonies unified and lay/fertilize eggs.

The queen has a court of several worker bees called a retinue who attends to her needs; feeding her, grooming her and removing her waste. Honey bees communicate with pheromones. The queen produces a pheromone called Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) that her court will distribute throughout the colony after licking her, grooming her, brushing up against her with their bodies or antennae to let the hive know they have a queen, including her quality of laying eggs. The level of QMP may determine if the colony believes she needs to be replaced or not. Pheromones will be discussed in a future Plan Bee.

The drone bee is the largest bee in the colony with a very large head and two large compound eyes. Unlike the worker bees, drones have no stingers. Drones do not forage for nectar or pollen. They are only found in a colony during early spring and summer. The drones will fly to the Drone Congregation Areas in the late morning to early afternoon to join drones from other colonies and wait for virgin queens to arrive and fingers crossed, to mate with a newly emerged virgin queen. After a successful in-flight mating ritual, the drone attempts to fly away. The drone's reproductive organs are ripped from his body and he plummets to his death. A drone lives with only one purpose in mind; mating with a virgin queen. Some drones will either die happily in a successful mating ritual or sadly in the early fall when the worker bees refuse to feed them and push them out of the colony to preserve the valuable winter honey and pollen resources.

The female worker bees are the laborers of the colony. They are smaller than the drones and queen and comprise 90 – 95% of the colony's population. Once a worker bee emerges from the brood cell, she is assigned duties in the hive that vary upon her age and development of certain glands and flight muscles. These duties include cleaning out brood cells, removing debris and dead bees, producing and feeding royal jelly to the larva, making wax to build comb, capping brood and honey cells, guarding the entrance of the hive to prevent robbing and foreign insects from endangering the colony, pollen packing, receiving the nectar from the foragers as they regurgitate the nectar from the honey crop, nectar ripening, foraging for pollen, nectar, propolis and water to sustain the colony. Older worker bees can revert back and forth to adapt to a job if for some reason there is a need in the colony to survive. As worker bees progress to become foragers, certain glands will no longer produce royal jelly and start producing alarm pheromone. The life span of a worker bee during the spring and summer is four to six weeks, however worker bees that emerge in the fall, called winter bees, may have a life span as long as five to six months.

The three castes, queen, workers and drones, each have a purpose and they must all work together to ensure the survival of the colony in order to reproduce the next generation of workers. These amazing little honey bees have survived for thousands of years as a super organism.

I hope you enjoyed reading Plan Bee and better understand the importance of the little honey bee. Thank you for all the positive responses from the many readers who have enjoyed reading Plan Bee. If you want to keep up on local beekeeping activity, please visit my Facebook: John Schellenberger, where all my Facebook posts are strictly about beekeeping.

"Remember, it's not how many hives you keep, but how well you keep your hives. Think about that."

Stay safe and Bee happy.

John Schellenberger is a Floyd County Commissioner and beekeeper. He's a member of the Spring Valley Beekeepers.

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