Bees live in colonies, in which there are a minimum of 15 000 – 25 000 bees during the winter rest and up to more than 60 000 bees during the summer. The colonies consist of one fertile queen bee, the infertile females, i.e. the worker bees, the male bees, i.e. the drones, and the larvae.
The queen bee is the only fertile female and it does not normally tolerate other queens in the hive. The queen secretes a particular aroma, a pheromone, the sufficient amount of which tells the other bees that the queen is well, and life in the hive continues as normal. If the quantity of this pheromone decreases due to the queen’s illness, ageing or death, the bees become restless and begin to grow a new queen. The queen is born from a fertilized egg that has been laid into a bigger-than-normal cell that opens up downwards. The larva that hatches from this egg is fed particularly much and it is fed well with the royal jelly that the worker bees secrete from their jelly glands. Nine days after the egg has been laid, the larva is fully-grown, the cell is covered and the larva pupates for a week. After this pupa stage, the fully-grown queen bites open the cap of her cell and crawls out. If several queens are born into the hive at the same time, the first-born queen bee bites open the still-intact caps of the remaining queen cells, and kills the other queen bees with its poisonous sting.
Since only the queen can reproduce, her existence and well-being is absolutely essential to the colony and, in fact, laying eggs is the only duty that is left to the queen. The worker bees take care of everything else. Based on the pheromones, the worker bees also know when to start growing new queens if the old queen has become weaker. Growing a queen can also begin based on what the beekeeper does and as part of swarming behaviour.
The queen only flies during her virgin mating flight and during swarming. When the queen, who has gone on her virgin mating flight, and a drone from another hive come across each other, they mate. After mating, the drone’s abdomen gets torn away by the queen and the drone, having fulfilled its only reason for existence, dies. The fertilized queen returns to the hive and does not leave the hive unless to swarm if the hive gets divided. The queen stores the sperm that she has received during mating and can use this to lay eggs for up to many years. The queen lays the fertilized eggs into worker-bee cells or queen cells, whereas the unfertilized eggs are laid in the drone cells.
The drone is a male bee that is born from an unfertilized egg that the queen has laid in a specific drone cell. The drone cell is larger than a worker cell, and the drone itself is bigger than a worker. A drone’s development period is 24 days and its lifespan is 1-4 months. Its abdomen is blunt, it does not have a sting or many of the other tools that workers have. Therefore, it enjoys full board in the hive, in other words it is served by the workers, until it goes on its fateful mating flight. In other words, the drone’s only purpose is to fertilize a young queen bee and, consequently, provide the workers with half of their genes.
Drones are grown only for the summer season when there are 200-500 of them in the hive. Towards late summer, the workers drive them out to stop them from consuming the winter food supplies.
The workers begin their lives from fertilized eggs as does the queen, but worker eggs are laid in small worker cells. During the third day of the larva stage, the worker larvae’s nourishment is changed to a mixture of honey and pollen, which is the reason why their development is different to the queen larvae’s development. The workers’ genitals have shrivelled but, as a counterbalance, they develop a longer tongue, pollen baskets and pollen brushes, jelly glands, salivary glands, wax glands and a lifelong working schedule with which they look after the hive. The development period of a worker is 21 days and their lifespan is 35-45 days. The hibernating bees, those born at the end of August, live for several months because they live in a winter cluster formation and do not exhaust themselves.
The workers spend their first three weeks inside the hive working as storage and hive bees. Their first few days are spent cleaning out the cells and taking care of the incubation temperature. Next, the workers feed the older larvae for a few days and then the young larvae for a week. After this, they produce wax by secreting it from their wax glands and they also build the wax caps to go on top of the combs. Additionally, they carry nourishment to the queen and to the drones inside the hive. For another four days, they guard the opening of the hive, i.e. the flight opening, and then they move on to become foraging bees, i.e. field bees.
The duty of the foraging bees is to visit flowers and, consequently, to perform the pollination that is important to plants, as well as to gather nectar, pollen, propolis and water. This foraging stage lasts for 1-2 weeks, during which the bee flies approximately 800 kilometres. Each foraging trip reaches no further than three kilometres from the hive at most, and the bee makes these trips until its wings become worn out and it dies.
DID YOU KNOW: The basic ingredient of propolis is the resinous mixture from tree buds, and the field bee collects this and carries it in its baskets to its hive. The hive bees mix gland secretions and wax into the propolis, and then they manipulate it with their jaws and use this mixture to seal small gaps and to line the hive. It is also used to reinforce the inside surface of the hive, since propolis contains antibiotic compounds, therefore it also improves the hygiene of the hive. The excess propolis is stored on the top of the slats or on the sides. In ancient times, people used propolis for embalming, and nowadays it is used for medicinal purposes.