bee colonies

Bee Colonies & Their Functions

There are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide. Bee colonies are a crucial part of our ecosystem. One of the most established facts about bees is that they live in colonies, although not all species do so. Solitary bees are—as their name suggests— do not create colonies, choosing to fend for themselves.

Bees that live in colonies are referred to as social bees. These include honeybees and bumblebees, among others. Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about bee colonies.

What Is a Social Bee?

A social bee is one that lives in a colony, along with other bees. The colony usually has a caste system, consisting of a queen, drones, and workers. Social bees live in hives or create their own nests. How many bees you’ll find in a colony depends on the species.

In a colony, the queen is typically the bee who lives the longest. In some species, she will hibernate during winters, while honeybee queens will be protected by the workers and can live for several years.

Social bees are usually hairy, the hairs are used to collect and hold pollen which they carry to their nest or hive. They also have special mouthparts, called mandibles, which allow them to sip nectar from flowers.

Honeybees

Honeybees are very social and they often live in colonies with as many as 60,000 individuals. During cold seasons, however, their numbers do decrease significantly.

beehives in winter

Honeybees are highly dependent on diversity within the colony for survival. The queen is very powerful, however, she depends on the worker bees to provide fertilization, food, and wax. A honeybee queen can’t establish her own colony without the help of drones and workers.

bee and honeycomb

The queen bee is rather smart, though. She will only lay enough eggs for the number of cells available, knowing how many bees the colony needs. The worker bees have built cells specifically made for the type of bee they will hold.

Potential queens get the largest cells, drones get a fairly large cell as well. Worker bees, on the other hand, get the smallest cells.

Honeybee Swarms

It can be quite intimidating to see a large swarm of bees flying around, but there’s a good reason behind it.

During springtime when resources are abundant and the colony is growing too big, they have to take action to manage the population increase. The queen will leave the hive with multiple worker bees.

The queen will find a place to rest while a few of the worker bees will search for a new nesting site. If you do happen to see a swarm of honeybees clustered to an object, leave it. They won’t stick around for long before they have found a new place.

swarming honeybees

New queens in the old hive will emerge and fight until only one remains. This is the honeybees’ way to reproduce and keep their colony population under control.

Bumblebees

Bumblebees are quite different from honeybees in this way. A queen bumblebee can start up her own colony. The colony, once established, usually consists of a queen, a large number of female workers, and few male bees.

Queen bumblebees mate during late summer and fall. When winter approaches and the temperature drops, she will go into hibernation.

After hibernating, the queen will look for early flowers, which typically bloom in the spring, for food to replenish her energy. As she eats pollen and nectar, her ovaries are producing eggs. She will lay the eggs in batches between four and 16, inside the pollen ball.

bumblebee on flower
CC Image courtesy of mattx27

The queen will brood her eggs, similar to birds, she will keep the wax pot close by to feed on the honey. During the brooding stage, the queen rarely leaves the eggs, and not for long when she does.

When the worker bee first emerges, her hair is silver in color and the wings are soft and crumbled. When the nest is still new, the newly hatched worker bees won’t stay in the nest for long.

bumblebee nest

They will typically leave the nest to forage after a few days. This gives the queen more time to brood the new eggs. The workers will build the cells using wax secreted from the segments in their abdomen.

Once the first workers start to forage, the queen rarely leaves the nest. Foraging is also one of the most dangerous jobs of the colony members.

Stingless Bees

The stingless bee is one of the oldest known species in the world. They are found all over the world where there’s a tropical climate, most of them found in the Americas.

Stingless bees range in size, depending on the species. They live in large colonies consisting of up to a hundred thousand bees.

Unlike honeybees, stingless bees prefer to nest in closed structures; this could be hollow tree trunks or empty mice nests.

Some stingless bee species are known to be nest parasites. This means the queen will often fly to a different nest and lay her eggs.

Stingless bee colonies can have more than one queen; however, they often kill newly developed queens. Other new queens will remain in their cells until there is a need for them. Unlike many other bee species, the stingless queen can live, and rule, for up to seven years.

In the stingless colony, the worker bees will usually lay the first eggs. The queen is then brought to the cell, eats the egg and lays her own before moving on to the next cell. Unlike the honeybee, here the cell is closed until the adult emerges.

A worker bee will sometimes lay an egg where the queen already has put one. These unfertilized eggs develop into male drones. The male develops faster than the queen, which is also unlike other bee species.

The male larva will puncture the queen’s egg, killing it, he will then eat all the food left in the cell. The drones only stay in the colony for 10 to 15 days, no one knows where they go.

Stingless Bee Soldiers

Because stingless bees don’t have a stinger, you might wonder how they can protect their nest from intruders. There is one species in Brazil, the tiny Jatai bee, which has a soldier caste.

Stingless bees feed on pollen and nectar, similar to honeybees. Due to a few of the species stealing provisions and wax from other nests, the Jatai species seem to have evolved to create soldiers, also known as majors, to guard their nests.

The majors are up to 30 percent heavier than the worker bees (minors), with larger hind legs. They have powerful mandibles which they use to fight off intruders who attempt to infiltrate the nest.

The Jatai bees divide the tasks of the worker bees in the colony, depending on age. The young bees are made to keep the nest clean and feed the larvae. As their short life goes on, they move closer to the exit of the nest until they are old enough to go foraging.

The majors are larger than the minors when they hatch, and their tasks are similar at first. However, they are stronger and work up to 40 percent harder than their siblings. Then, as they grow older, they become guards, rather than foragers.

Summary

Social bees and their colonies are fascinating. They have found a way to thrive in large numbers and know how to reproduce while keeping the colony from overcrowding. Every bee in the colony has an important role to play, whether they are a queen, worker, soldier, or drone.

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