Some Ultra-Condensed Basic Bee Biology!

A strong beehive can have over fifty thousand bees. Normally only one of these bees is a sexually mature female. This is the queen, who can lay almost two thousand eggs a day at her peak although there have been instances of a queen laying up to 4,000 in a day after swarming into a new “home”. The huge majority of bees in the hive are workers, non-reproducing females who do all the work in the hive. The third kind of bee in a hive is the male, or “drone” bee. Metaphorically, drones eat and drink all day (Except, when they’re out flying around trying to mate with a virgin queen). Unlike queens and worker bees, drones don’t even show particular loyalty to a specific hive — they drift around considerably from one hive to another over the course of their lives. When a hive has plenty of food and is growing, like in late spring/early summer, it tends to produce more drones.

The drone is considerably larger than the workers, with eyes about twice the size of a worker’s. 

Note also the blunt rear of a drone– he has no stinger and is completely defenseless.

Workers and queens are both females, but only a queen can mate and subsequently lay diploid eggs capable of hatching into another worker or a queen. And believe it or not, this difference between worker and queen is solely a matter of nutrition. From the time she is an egg, a queen is fed a substance called “royal jelly.” by attendant bees. Worker larvae get royal jelly only during the first few days of their existence, switching to honey and pollen soon thereafter. This early difference in diet results in a completely different adult body.

Note how fuzzy the workers’ bodies are. This is part of why they’re such good pollinators.

If a queen goes missing or starts to fail reproductively, some workers can spontaneously begin to lay eggs. Eggs laid by workers are not fertilized (workers are incapable of mating) and thus the eggs are haploid (containing just half the genetic material of the “laying worker” mother). Strange as it seems to us mammals, these haploid eggs develop and hatch into normal drones. A queen can lay a drone when she chooses to, by deliberately depositing an unfertilized egg into a cell. The average human beekeeper has no great love for drones, since they’re just another mouth to feed and don’t produce anything marketable. In the fall workers see no use for drones either, and they are all summarily evicted and allowed to freeze or starve to death.

The Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera)

It is often assumed that the queen bee manages the hive like a monarch, ordering worker bees about. While she does have some influence over the behaviors of the worker bees, the beehive is actually much closer to a democratic system. Much of the hive’s daily tasks are controlled by pheromones and other chemical signals that appear to happen instinctively. When a decision is made, like a swarm’s choice of nesting site, the worker bees decide by voting!

The Queen Honey Bee

The biology of honey bee queens is a well researched field and many interesting facets of the honey bee life cycle are determined by the queen and the pheromones she produces. In the life cycle of honey bees, a worker and a queen are identical when in the egg and young larva stages. The difference between the two comes about through the feeding of the larva. Food is provisioned in to the cells of developing larvae by adult worker bees that secrete brood jelly from their mandibular glands after ingesting pollen, nectar, and bee bread. Queens are raised entirely on royal jelly, while workers are fed various combinations of larval jelly, pollen, and nectar. This diet influences the level of juvenile hormone produced by larvae and by the third day of larval development, the resulting caste of the adult is established based on the hormone level. The especially rich diet of larval queens allow them to develop very quickly, from egg to adult in about 16 days, while workers develop in about 21 days. The queen also develops into a larger adult form and the cell she pupates in must accommodate this size. Therefore an enlarged (conical shaped) queen cell is formed for the egg to be laid in, or developed around an existing egg in a worker cell.

A queen will commonly lay 1,500 eggs in a single day, while the actual number will vary based on seasonality, number of adult workers, availability of open cells, disease or pest prevalence, and abundance of pollen or nectar. The queen rarely, if ever, feeds herself. The amount the queen is fed by adult workers in her court. As the colony grows, the egg laying rate increases, and the queen is fed more often and for a longer duration (Chauvin 1956, Allen 1960)

There is a great deal of interest in queen rearing among beekeepers. 

The possibility of selecting and breeding queens that are resistant to Varroa mites, foulbrood and chalkbrood is very exciting. Queen rearing is not difficult but requires attention to detail and the number of steps that must be done on a specific schedule. Queens can live  for 3 to 5 years. There is usually one queen per hive. 

The queen mates with 6-20 male (drone) bees. She lays up to 2000 eggs per day. Fertilized eggs (diploid) become female (worker or queen bees) and unfertilized eggs (haploid) become male (drone) bees.

When the queen dies or becomes unproductive, the other bees will make a new queen by selecting a young larva and feeding it a diet of royal jelly.  For queen bees, it is 16 days from when the queen lays the egg until a new queen emerges. 

It then takes another two weeks for the queen to begin laying eggs

The Worker Honey Bee

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are highly social insects and the colony organization is divided into separate castes that allow for division of labor and specialization in particular tasks. The honey bee queen is the sole reproductive female in the colony and she specializes in egg laying, while the remaining female “workers” perform all other colony duties. The worker bee is just that, a bee that works. Depending on her age, she has many different roles in the hive.Worker bees begin as a fertilized egg, laid by the queen. She will remain in her cell as an egg for about 3 days, then start the transition to a larva. Nurse bees – also workers – will feed the larva royal jelly for about 3 days, then feed honey and pollen (also referred to as bee bread) for the remainder of their time as a larva.

When she is young, she will be a nurse bee. These bees nurture and feed bee larvae. They take on the job of processing incoming nectar, feeding the queen, as well as making and capping the honey. Older worker bees will leave the hive to collect the necessary resources from which the colony survives. They have a dangerous and tiring job, but work from the time the sun is up until sunset.

The worker bee has several of different tasks after she emerges from her cell.

Mortuary Bees (days 3-16)

The job of these worker bees is to take any bees that have died within the hive or larvae that did not grow and remove them from the hive. They will take them far away from the hive, to reduce the likelihood of disease in the hive.

Drone Feeding (days 4-12)

When drones are babies they are not capable of feeding themselves. It is then that they need a worker bee to feed them so they can thrive. However, as the drones get older they can feed themselves and they head straight to the honey supply to stay fed.

Queen Attendants (days 7-12)

The queen attendants have a very important job. They take care of the queen by feeding and grooming her. Yet, even more important is their incidental role in spreading Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) throughout the hive. This is a pheromone given off by queen.

After encountering the queen, the attendants spread QMP throughout the hive, which is a signal to the rest of the bees that the hive still has a viable queen.

Pollen Packing (days 12-18)

When foraging bees bring pollen back to the hive it needs to be stored in a cell. The bee will take the pollen and place it inside the honeycomb. The pollen will then be mixed with a little honey to avoid it spoiling. The pollen is eventually used to feed the brood.

Honey Sealing (days 12-35)

These bees have the task of taking honey, drying it to the appropriate water content and then capping it. The workers have wax glands in their abdomen that produce sheets of wax which are used to cap the honey.

Honeycomb Building (days 12-35)

Honey bees can produce their own wax. The builders of the honeycomb will receive wax from another bee and use it to start building more honeycomb.

Fanning (days 12-18)

These workers fan the hive with their wings, using evaporated water to help cool it. Basically, they are the air conditioning for the hive.

Water Carriers

The water carriers go hand-in-hand with the fanning bees. Their job is to carry water to the fanning bees, in order to cool the hive. They will gather water from a nearby water source and spread it along the backs of the fanning bees. This allows them to fan and cool the hive.

Guard Bees (days 18-21)

Guard bees hover at the entrance of the hive to protect it from unwanted visitors. The number of guard bees will vary depending upon the season and how much traffic the hive is having at the time.

Foraging Bees (days 22-42)

Foraging bees gather food for the hive. They will travel within a 5-mile radius to collect pollen, nectar and propolis for the hive.

Interaction with Queen and Drones

Worker bees tend to the queen between days 7 and 12 of their life. During those days she interacts heavily with the queen. Between days 4 and 12 of her life she is a nurse bee, at which time she will also interact heavily with the drones and other baby bees.

A summer time worker bee will live to the ripe old age of 6 weeks. This bee works day and night, so their lifespan is shorter. However, a winter bees are often called ‘fat bees’ as they are much larger in size. They are sturdier bees needed to keep the queen warm in their cluster and their life expectancy ranges anywhere from 6-8 months.

The Drone

 A drone is a male bee. Unlike the female worker bee, drones do not have stingers and do not gather nectar and pollen. A drone’s primary role is to mate with a fertile queen.A drone is characterized by eyes that are twice the size of those of worker bees and queens, and a body size greater than that of worker bees, though usually smaller than the queen bee. His abdomen is stouter than the abdomen of workers or queen. Although heavy bodied, the drone must be able to fly fast enough to accompany the queen in flight. Drones die off or are ejected from the hive by the worker bees in late autumn, and do not reappear in the beehive until late spring.

The drones’ main function is to be ready to fertilize a receptive queen. Drones in a hive do not usually mate with a virgin queen of the same hive because they drift from hive to hive. Mating generally takes place in or near drone congregation areas. How these areas are selected is poorly understood, but they do exist. When a drone mates with a queen, the resultant queen will have a spotty brood pattern (numerous empty cells on a brood frame) due to the removal of diploid drone larvae by nurse bees (i.e., a fertilized egg with two identical sex genes will develop into a drone instead of a worker).

Mating occurs in flight, which accounts for drones’s need for better vision, which is provided by their large eyes. Should a drone succeed in mating, he soon dies because the penis and associated abdominal tissues are ripped from the drone’s body after sexual intercourse. Honey bee queen breeders may breed drones to be used for artificial insemination or open mating. A queen mating yard must have many drones to be successful.

In areas with severe winters, all drones are driven out of the hive in the Fall. A colony begins to rear drones in spring and drone population reaches its peak coinciding with the swarm season in late spring and early summer. The life expectancy of a drone is about 90 days. Although the drone is highly specialized to perform one function, mating and continuing the propagation of the hive, it is not completely without side benefit to it. All bees, when they sense the hive’s temperature deviating from proper limits, either generate heat by shivering, or exhaust heat by moving air with their wings—behaviours which drones share with worker bees.

Interesting Facts

In the fall when the colony is reducing their numbers, the nurse bees don’t use up their “fat bodies” because they don’t have larva to feed. Fat bodies are formed right after bees emerge by engorging on pollen. Foragers have diminished fat bodies. So in the fall the nurse bees retain their “fat bodies”.
Within the fat bodies is a molecule called Vitellogenin. Vitellogenin is 91% protein, 7% fat and 2% sugar. When Vitellogenin is exhausted in a bee she becomes a forager. Winter bees don’t use up this compound and it allows them to survive only on honey throughout the winter. They have just enough “fat bodies” to raise up the first generation of new bees in late winter.
Winter bees have lower levels of hormones, a greater makeup of fat bodies, enlarged food glands and their blood has a higher level sugars and fats. Summer bees are just about the opposite, with higher levels of hormones and lower levels of fat and sugar in their blood. Summer bees live four to six weeks and winter bees live four to six months or longer. The bees that will see the colony through the winter are larger than the normal field bee.
It’s important to keep in mind that bees infested with mites as pupae do not fully develop the physiological features typical of long lives winter bees and may not be able to survive until spring. Consequently, mite treatments made late in the season may kill the mites but the bees colony dies anyway. Winter bees must be healthy and therefore mite treatment must occur prior to the time winter bees are raised.

Microscopy of a Honey Bee

What Is Bee Stock?

Honey bees, like all other living things, vary among themselves in traits such as temperament, disease resistance, and productivity. The environment has a large effect on differences among bee colonies (for example, plants in different areas yield different honey crops), but the genetic makeup of a colony can also impact the characteristics that define a particular group. Beekeepers have long known that different genetic stocks have distinctive characteristics, so they have utilized different strains to suit their particular purpose, whether it be pollination, a honey crop, or bee production.

What is a bee stock?
The term “stock” is defined as a loose combination of traits that characterize a particular group of bees. Such groups can be divided by species, race, region, population, or breeding line in a commercial operation. Many of the current “stocks” in the United States can be grouped at one or more of these levels, so the term will be used interchangeably, depending on the particular strain of bees in question.

Wide variation exists within stocks as well as among them. Any generalities about a particular stock should be treated with caution, since there are always exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless, the long and vast experience of beekeepers allows some oversimplifications to be made in order to better understand the different types of bees available. The following is a brief overview of some of the more common commercially available honey bee stocks in the U.S.

The Italian bee
Italian honey bees, of the subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica, were brought to the U.S. in 1859. They quickly became the favored bee stock in this country and remain so to this day. Known for their extended periods of brood rearing, Italian bees can build colony populations in the spring and maintain them for the entire summer. They are less defensive and less prone to disease than their German counterparts, and they are excellent honey producers. They also are very lightly colored, ranging from a light leather hue to an almost lemon yellow, a trait that is highly coveted by many beekeepers for its aesthetic appeal.

Despite their popularity, Italian bees have some drawbacks. First, because of their prolonged brood rearing, they may consume surplus honey in the hive if supers (removable upper sections where honey is stored) are not removed immediately after the honey flow stops. Second, they are notorious kleptoparasites and frequently rob the honey stores of weaker or dead neighboring colonies. This behavior may pose problems for Italian beekeepers who work their colonies during times of nectar dearth, and it may cause the rapid spread of transmittable diseases among hives.

The German bee
Honey bees are not native to the New World, although North America has about 4,000 native species of bees. Honey bees were brought to America in the 17th century by the early European settlers. These bees were most likely of the subspecies A. m. mellifera, otherwise known as the German or “black” bee. This stock is very dark in color and tends to be very defensive, making bee management more difficult. One of the German bees’ more favorable characteristics is that they are a hardy strain, able to survive long, cold winters in northern climates. However, because of their defensive nature and their susceptibility to many brood diseases (such as American and European foulbrood), this stock lost favor with beekeepers well over a century ago. Although the feral bee population in the U.S. was once dominated by this strain, newly introduced diseases have nearly wiped out most wild honey bee colonies, making the German bee a rare stock at this time.

The Carniolan bee
The subspecies A. m. carnica, from middle Europe, also has been a favored bee stock in the U.S. for several reasons. First, their explosive spring buildup enables this race to grow rapidly in population and take advantage of blooms that occur much earlier in the spring, compared to other stocks. Second, they are extremely docile and can be worked with little smoke and protective clothing. Third, they are much less prone to robbing other colonies of honey, lowering disease transmission among colonies. Finally, they are very good builders of wax combs, which can be used for products ranging from candles, to soaps, to cosmetics.

Because of their rapid buildup, however, carniolan bees tend to have a high propensity to swarm (their effort to relieve overcrowding) and, therefore, may leave the beekeeper with a very poor honey crop. This stock requires continued vigilance to prevent the loss of swarms.

The Caucasian bee
A. m. caucasica is a race of honey bees native to the foothills of the Ural mountains near the Caspian Sea in eastern Europe. This stock was once popular in the U.S., but it has declined in regard over the last few decades. Its most notable characteristic is its very long tongue, which enables the bees to forage for nectar from flowers that other bee stocks may not have access to. They tend to be a moderately colored bee and, like the Carniolans, are extremely docile. However, their slow spring buildup keeps them from generating very large honey crops, and they tend to use an excessive amount of propolis-the sticky resin substance sometimes called “bee glue” that is used to seal cracks and joints of bee structures-making their hives difficult to manipulate.

The Buckfast bee
In the 1920s, honey bee colonies in the British Isles were devastated by acarine disease, which now is suspected to have been the endoparasitic tracheal mite Acarapis woodi. Brother Adams, a monk at Buckfast Abby in Devon, England, was charged with creating a bee stock that could withstand this deadly disease. He traveled the world interviewing beekeepers and learning about different bee strains, and he created a stock of bees, largely from the Italian race, that could thrive in the cold wet conditions of the British Isles, yet produce good honey crops and exhibit good housecleaning and grooming behavior to reduce the prevalence of disease. Bees of this stock are moderately defensive. However, if left unmanaged for one or two generations, they can be among the most fiercely defensive bees of any stock. They also are moderate in spring population buildup, preventing them from taking full advantage of early nectar flows.

The Russian bee
One of the newer bee stocks in the U.S. was imported from far-eastern Russia by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The researchers’ logic was that these bees from the Primorski region on the Sea of Japan, have coexisted for the last 150 years with the devastating ectoparasite Varroa destructor, a mite that is responsible for severe colony losses around the globe, and they might thrive in the U.S. The USDA tested whether this stock had evolved resistance to varroa and found that it had. Numerous studies have shown that bees of this strain have fewer than half the number of mites that are found in standard commercial stocks. The quarantine phase of this project has been complete since 2000, and bees of this strain are available commercially.

Russian bees tend to rear brood only during times of nectar and pollen flows, so brood rearing and colony populations tend to fluctuate with the environment. They also exhibit good housecleaning behavior, resulting in resistance not only to varroa but also to the tracheal mite.

Bees of this stock exhibit some unusual behaviors compared to other strains. For example, they tend to have queen cells present in their colonies almost all the time, whereas most other stocks rear queens only during times of swarming or queen replacement. Russian bees also perform better when not in the presence of other bee strains; research has shown that cross-contamination from susceptible stocks can lessen the varroa resistance of these bees.

Table 1. Comparison of bees and their traits.
Disease resistance      





Spring buildupGoodLowVery GoodLowVery LowOK
Over-wintering abilityGoodVery GoodGoodGoodOKVery Good
Excess swarmingOKOKHighLowLowOK
Honey processingVery GoodOKGoodGoodLowOK
Other traitsHeavy robbingShort tongue, nice white cappingsLow robbing, good comb buildersSupersedure queens produce defensive coloniesLong tongueBrood rearing affected by flow, queen cells always present
* AFB = American foulbrood
** EFB = European foulbrood

Other notable stocks
Many other honey bee stocks are worth noting:

  • The Minnesota Hygienic stock has been selected for its exceptional housecleaning ability, significantly reducing the negative effects of most brood diseases.
  • The SMR stock, referring to “Suppression of Mite Reproduction,” also was developed by the USDA honey bee lab in Louisiana by artificially selecting commercial stocks for mite resistance. While not an independently viable stock on its own (because of inbreeding), the SMR trait has been incorporated into other genetic stocks so that these stocks may also express this highly desired characteristic.
  • The Cordovan bee is a type of Italian bee that has a very light yellow color, which is more attractive to many beekeepers.

Numerous hybrid stocks are also available commercially:

  • The Midnight bee was developed by crossing the Caucasian and Carniolan stocks, hoping to maintain the extreme gentleness of both strains while removing the excessive propolis of the Caucasians and minimizing the swarming propensity of the Carniolans.
  • The Starline was developed from numerous strains of the Italian stock by Gladstone Cale of the Dadant Bee Company. It was once favored by commercial beekeepers because of its tremendous honey yields, particularly in clover, but the popularity of this stock has declined in recent decades.
  • The Double Hybrid is a cross of the Midnight and the Starline.
  • The “Smart” strains are crosses between the SMR strain and other stocks, such as Italian, Russian, and Carniolan.

While a tremendous amount of variation remains within and among the different bee stocks, some generalities still can be made. Bee differences can be used to advantage by beekeepers, depending on what traits interest them, so using different stocks can be a powerful tool at the beekeeper’s disposal. There is no “best” strain of bee, as the traits favored by one beekeeper may differ significantly from another’s choice. Thus, it is best for each beekeeper to experience the characteristics of the different bee strains first hand and then form an opinion about which stock best fits his or her situation.


Lifecycle of the Varroa Mite

The Small Hive Beetle

The small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) is a beekeeping pest. It is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, but has spread to many other locations, including North America, Australia, and the Philippines.

The small hive beetle can be a destructive pest of honey bee colonies, causing damage to comb, stored honey and pollen. If a beetle infestation is sufficiently heavy, they may cause bees to abandon their hive. Its presence can also be a marker in the diagnosis of Colony Collapse Disorder for honey-bees. The beetles can also be a pest of stored combs, and honey (in the comb) awaiting extraction. Beetle larvae may tunnel through combs of honey, feeding and defecating, causing discoloration and fermentation of the honey.

Wax Moth

Wax moths can be a terrible problem to bee hives if allowed to get out of hand and will destroy brood comb in a very short time if unchecked. There are some simple steps to prevent the damage, but first, it might be simpler to discuss the life cycle to understand where the problem comes from.
A normal healthy hive will keep wax moth under control by ejecting the larvae, but weakened hives with small populations can be overcome by wax moth infestations destroying the brood comb, ultimately destroying the hive.

There are two varieties of moth which take delight in dining on wax the ‘Greater’ and also the ‘Lesser’ Wax Moth the greater wax moth is a mottled grey in colour approx 1 ½ inches in length while the lesser is smaller and slimmer approx a ½ inch in length and white/silver. As all moths, they prefer night time to mate and lay eggs.

Most wax moths are seen in early summer in our area, and we see them under the overhang of hive roofs, out of the daylight, when the hive is disturbed they take off quickly and disappear into the trees.

Preferring to work in the dark the moths enter the hive through top entrances left unscreened and unguarded by the bees, perhaps a sudden cold snap making the bees cluster, and lay eggs in cracks unavailable to the bees. These hatch in due course and the grey larvae begin feeding on wax and hive debris, tunnelling just under the cell caps and feeding on the discarded cocoons left by the bees, leaving behind an extremely sticky white web, similar to spiders web but almost impossible to pull apart. 


Bees have been struggling in recent years due to many unnatural stresses which include habitat disruption, monocultural & genetically engineered food provisions, and invasive pathogens & parasites. One way to help bees and our local ecosystems thrive is by installing and caring for hives, but there are other ways you can help as well.