Honeybees are social insects. They live in a colony like ants and termites. Many scientists who study these insects consider the colony as an organism with a life of its own. In the case of honeybees, the individual bees live a fairly short time, but the colony continues from year-to-year.
The queen has the longest life span in the colony. She can live up to five years. During that time, she produces almost a quarter of a million eggs. She produces them one-by-one. During the summer the queen can produce more than 1,000 eggs every day. Some scientists think that the queen’s ability to produce eggs begins to diminish after a year or two. Many beekeepers “re-queen” their colonies after two years.
Male honeybees are called drones. They develop in many colonies during the late spring. Their role is to fly around near the nests of other colonies. If a new queen is ready for mating, the drones will inseminate her. After mating, the drone dies. If they have not mated, the drones die before winter comes.
During the summer, the workers live for six or seven weeks. At first the workers stay in the nest. During this period, the workers have several duties. They make wax and build the comb, make honey, feed the queen, feed the larvae, and seal the larval cells so they can change into adults. The workers also maintain the temperature inside the nest and defend the nest against intruders.
After a few weeks as a “nest worker”, the worker becomes a “field worker”. In this role, the worker goes out to find nectar and pollen. The worker’s body is specially adapted to carry pollen and nectar. There is a small area on the back legs where the worker can carry balls of pollen. Honeybee workers are such effective plant pollinators that they add millions of dollars in value to the crops in the United States every year.
The honeybee worker also has a separate part of the digestive system for carrying nectar. In one flight to the nest, the worker can carry almost her own body weight of nectar. The workers also must bring water, and propolis when the colony needs them. It is small wonder that scientists find honeybee workers with frayed wings!
Workers that develop late in the summer spend the winter in the nest. They eat honey that was stored in the comb. When spring comes, the workers begin bringing pollen into the nest. This signals the queen that it is time to resume laying eggs.