Day in the Life of a Drone, Queen, and Worker
Have you ever noticed a fuzzy little bee meandering through your yard, visiting each clover flower? Although there are many native pollinators and solitary bees that also visit clover flowers, it is likely that you’ve seen a western honey bee (Apis mellifera), like the one pictured to the right. This little bee you observed was a foraging worker bee, out on the search for pollen and nectar to feed on and to bring back to the hive for her hive-mates! Back at the hive, there is an abundance of other worker bees, as well as a few drones, and one queen that all rely on the fruits of the forager bee’s efforts. What exactly makes this forager different from the drones and the queen in the hive? All three types of western honey bees have specific differences and duties that contribute to the well-being of the hive.
The simplest bee in the hive is the drone. Drones are a bit different from the other bees in the hive in that they are the only males! In bees, haploidy/diploidy is the sex-determining factor. A drone only has one set of chromosomes/genetic material that he receives from his mother, making him haploid. Besides this genetic difference, drones are a bit bigger than worker honey bees, do not have a stinger and spend the longest amount of time to develop from egg to adult---about 24 days. A normal day in the life of a drone is to clumsily ramble about the hive, feeding on the pollen and nectar that forager bees bring back from the outside world. One other task that drones must complete is potentially mating with a virgin queen who flies out of the hive on her mating flight. During the flight, a cluster of drones will mate with the queen, providing her with enough sperm to fertilize eggs for a lifetime of laying. After mating with the queen, all drones will die. Drones only live in the hive during the summer months. When chilly weather arrives in the fall, worker bees will kick them out of the hive, as drones deplete the hive’s nutrition stores without giving back any resources.
The next type of honey bee is the queen. The queen is different from the drone in that she is a diploid female with a set of chromosomes from the previous queen and a drone. From egg to emergence, the queen develops quickest at 16 days. The queen is a large bee that typically lives the longest out of all the bees; her lifespan can reach several years. In fact, beekeepers mark a queen with a specific color so they know which year she was born (this year, 2023, is a red marking year!). Any female bee egg can be made into a queen in dire circumstances if the baby bee is fed enough nutritious royal jelly. More information about the re-queening process can be found in our blog post “The Queen-Less Colony: What Next?” (linked at the bottom of this blog). A queen’s daily tasks consist of measuring honeycomb cells to
determine whether to lay a haploid or diploid egg, then laying that advised egg. She is the sole bee that sustains the population of the entire hive. In addition to laying eggs, the queen gives out pheromones (chemical signals) that alert the worker bees to where she’s located, direct workers to complete their tasks, and regulate population levels. When viewing a queen on a hive frame, one will often see a circle of worker bees that tend to the queen’s needs and receive her pheromones, ensuring that the lone queen is able to service the hive (photo above taken from Torbay Beekeepers). After all, the hive cannot survive over a longer period of time without her!
Worker bees, as their name suggests, carry out much of the work that it takes to keep the hive healthy and operational. Like the queen, a worker is a female bee that has two sets of chromosomes. She takes 21 days to develop from egg to emergence. Although these bees are female, they are not mated and cannot lay diploid eggs like the queen can. Workers can lay haploid drone eggs, but only in circumstances when a queen has been missing from a hive for a very long time and the workers begin to panic. Instead of laying eggs, workers have many other tasks to complete in the hive on a daily basis. As previously mentioned, the bee on the clover flower is a forager bee. Other worker bees in the hive are responsible for jobs such as wax-making and comb-building, feeding and tending to all the brood (baby bees), cleaning and polishing up the hive, taking care of the queen and producing royal jelly to feed her, and guarding the hive from outside threats. A worker will serve each of these roles in her lifetime, starting with jobs in the hive when she is younger (like creating comb or nursing) to fulfilling more demanding and dangerous tasks when she is older (like traveling out of the hive to gather resources).
Each bee in the hive, whether it be a drone, queen, or worker, serves in vital jobs day-to-day that keeps the hive running. Every type of bee relies on one another, similar to how individual cells in our body work together to power everyday biological processes. Thus, worker bees are not considered individual organisms, but they all integrate to form one superorganism. Without the fertilization of the drone, the egg-laying and pheromone production of the queen, and the various tasks of the worker bee, a hive could not function to the capacity it normally does. Next time you see a little forager bee on a clover flower, you can appreciate the effort she puts in as a worker to sustain every type of bee in her hive!