This busy buzzer is the only insect to produce food that we eat; its helpful habit of producing more honey than it needs is the reason we’re able to enjoy honey. Honey bees don’t hibernate but ‘overwinter’, living on the food they’ve collected over the summer months. A colony at the height of the foraging season can be as big as 60,000 but reduces down to 25,000 in preparation for winter.
So…who’s who within a honey bee colony?
There’s generally just one queen in a colony of honey bees, often marked by beekeepers so she can be easily spotted among her subjects. As the only sexually-active female it’s her job is to lay the eggs creating every generation within the hive. In fact she can lay 1,500 to 2,000 eggs each day, peaking when early spring flowers bring an abundance of nectar and pollen. Once a colony is ready to reproduce, it raises a new queen from a freshly-laid egg. Next the existing queen leaves with the colonies flying bees, creating a swarm and looking for a new home. Back in the original colony the new Queen emerges, mates and sets to work laying more eggs.
This less than glamorous name is used to describe the colony’s males, which can be spotted between early spring and autumn. They’re raised every year in slightly larger cells than the female worker bees, their big eyes helping them spot virgin queens in the sky with whom they’ll try to mate. If they’re still around in autumn, when no more queens are emerging, they’ll be unceremoniously kicked out of the colony by the female workers.
A colony can contain around 40,000 worker bees, all female, who’ll do the hives major jobs: foraging for food, feeding larvae, keeping the nest clean and guarding the entrance. Throughout the high season of spring and summer they live for about six weeks. Those that emerge in the autumn will be ‘overwintering bees’; they’ll live on honey stored by their sisters until the early spring, when they can go out to forage for pollen to feed to the baby bees and the colony can build up again in numbers and stores.