Let’s talk sex – the sex of honey bees.
Honeybees are social insects that live in colonies of up to 80,000 members. It is a species upon which humans are entirely dependent. They enable plant reproduction through pollination. We’ve taken this fact for granted, until the decrease in the number of bee colonies and increasing cases of colony collapse were observed.
The majority of the population of a hive are female, with a smaller proportion of male bees. Bees have specialised, occupational roles and there is a clear sexual division of labour.
By definition, queen bees are female. They are, in essence, breeding machines, laying upto 2000 eggs a day. When the machine fails (after about 2-3 years), the colony will replace her. Queen bees mate soon after emerging from their cell. The queen is the only female in the colony capable of laying fertilised eggs. She is larger than other females, and has a distinctive elongated shape. She is often difficult to find within a colony, especially if unmarked. This may cause concern in novice beekeepers who will unduly worry about the future of the hive. However, there are other indications of her presence that might ease such fears. Queens are often surrounded by dutiful attendants. They form a cluster around her, the queen in the middle. The most obvious way to know there is still a healthy queen in the hive is to observe the egg laying pattern. Some hexagonal cells within the hive may have an egg, shaped like a small white rice grain. There will also be larvae in many cells and also fully capped pupae cells. Larvae are white and look like grubs. Eggs, larvae and capped brood cells form a central cluster which can extend vertically as well as horizontally, although, the centre can be off-centre. It is often surrounded by pollen and honey filled cells.
Queen bees begin life as do other female brood. Whilst all female brood receive royal jelly from young worker bees for the first two days of their life, queens are fed with royal jelly for their entire life. Royal jelly is a substance created from pollen and the biochemistry of female, worker bees. The queen appears to affect the behaviour and ‘personality’ of the hive. I swear we had a right ol’ bitch of a queen in our first year as beekeepers! I do believe though, that one reason why you may receive different answers from different beekeepers to the same question, is that each colony has its own personality and it is through observing and learning that you know what is right for yours.
Drones are male bees. Like the female, they have one sole function. That is, of course, sex! Drones, when mature, hang out with other drones for the day in a social area; I equate it to the local pub. When queen pheromones are present, they all take to the air, and follow that smell. Mating takes place in flight and the drones take turns. The queen mates with several males and holds enough sperm to become the breeding machine that she is. Drones die shortly after mating. Those who remain with the hive may be excommunicated during autumn/winter when stores become less easy to replenish. Males are fat compared to females, and very easy to spot in the hive.
They are also easy to spot as brood. The hexagonal cells that bees create come in three sizes. Queen size, which looks like a peanut still in its shell and protrudes from the comb very similarly. Neat tidy, flat-capped cells which contain female brood or honey and then clusters of drone brood, which are larger hexagonal cells, more bulbous when capped and often hang from the bottom of a frame.
It may seem counter-intuitive to cull any aspect of a bee population, but if your hive has large numbers of drone brood you could be in trouble for one of two reasons:
1) The varroa mite (a honey bee pest as it carries a number of viruses) is attracted to drone larvae as it can raise more mites in a drone cell than a worker cell. The reason is that drone brood take 15 days to reach maturation, compared to 12 days of worker bee brood. Culling drone cells can minimise the number of varroa mite, and hence risk of disease spreading through the hive.
2) The queen is dead, hasn’t been superseded by a new queen and the colony has no potential substitute. Worker bees will start laying unfertilised eggs, that is drone brood. I’ve experienced this – it is gutting – the colony depends more on the reproduction of its female members than it does on drones. As female workers have a life expectancy of about 6 weeks (depending on the time of year), the colony has no means to sustain itself.
If you see a honey bee collecting pollen, it is a female, worker bee. All females in the hive, with the exception of the queen, spend their life working. Their roles change as they mature, but include attending the queen, protecting the queen, nursing the brood, sentry duty, scouting, foraging, pollen collection, honey and royal jelly production, housekeeping and decision-making.
I will talk more about the relationship between worker bee maturation and working roles in a future post.