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Honeybees - The Difference Between Drones, Workers and Queens.



A honeybee colony has three types of bee that we call drones, workers and queens. Typically a hive will contain a single queen and an average of around 50,000 workers, although worker numbers could be as low as 20,000 or even as many as 80,000! Drones usually only number in the hundreds, but can increase to a few thousand during the summer. There are several differences between these bees, not only in their physical appearance but also in their roles within the hive and the wider bee society. During the summer months the whole colony works together to ensure that there will be enough food for winter and the continued survival of the hive but the bees all have a specific role and are perfectly adapted for that task.

Size and shape.

The most visually obvious difference between the 3 types of bee is their adult size. Worker bees are the smallest and are usually under 1cm long, their overall shape is slim with more of a pointed shaped abdomen. Workers also have a large barbed stinger. These are usually the bees you will see buzzing around out and about working. If you are stung by a bee then it's almost certainly one of the workers! The workers shape and size is perfect for moving around the hive and working outside in an efficient manner.

Drones are usually a little longer, typically just over 1cm. Drones are a little plumper looking and more of a barrel shape overall. Drones also lack the stinger of the workers. Another feature that separates the drones are their eyes. All bees have five eyes, the two obvious large ones but also three smaller ones. The two larger eyes (called compound eyes) are much larger on the drones and can looked quite striking if you happen to see one. However unless you see drones during mating season, you won't usually see them flying around like the worker bees. Their stockier shape gives them strength and aids them in mating.

Queen bees are a fair bit larger than both the workers and drones. They can be as much as double the size of any other bee up to around 2 - 2.5cm long. Because of the size difference they are usually fairly easy to spot in a hive. Most of this size difference is because of the much larger abdomen of the queen. The queen bee does have a stinger but it's a different shape to the workers and does not have a barb. It's quite rare to see queen honeybees out flying around and they will only leave the hive in some very specific circumstances.

Honeybee roles.

The queen bee is the female mother bee of the hive and every other bee in the colony is her son or daughter. She has a very big family! Her larger abdomen houses the reproductive organs needed to lay the hundreds of thousands of eggs she will in her lifetime. This is the queen's primary role, to lay bee eggs and keep the colony large and healthy by reproduction. A queen can lay around 1500 eggs a day! A bee colony will only have one queen at a time, if a second queen is allowed to be born the workers will either drive her out of the hive or the queens will fight until one of them is killed.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that the thousands of worker bees in a colony are always female too. If you are the daughter of the queen, you are a worker bee. That means protecting the queen in your youth and going out to collect honey and nectar when you get a little older. The worker bees are also responsible for creating all the wax combs and larvae protections inside a hive.  Foraging is the most dangerous task a worker will do in its lifetime, leaving the protection of the hive and other bees in the colony to face the outside world can be life ending, whether succumbing to a predator, becoming ill from pesticides or just getting caught in some bad weather, the world can be a dangerous place for the workers.

As you might have guessed by now the drones are the only male bees in a colony. They are only around for a few months of the year too, when they will leave the hive each day to look for virgin queens from other colonies to mate with. Their large eyes will help them spot potential mating partners and they will mate while in flight. By doing this they will spread the genes of their colony to new hives. Once that is achieved they will have served their purpose and will die soon afterwards. Male drones do not engage in worker tasks such as defending the hive or going out to forage for the colony and that is why they do not require a stinger. Typically drone bees will only live for a few weeks, a male honeybee has a very short life!

Final thoughts.

It might be 2024 but in the world of honeybees there are no equal opportunities or choice in the job you take. The physical differences between male and female bees are critical to the roles they fulfil and ensure the survival of the colony and the ongoing success of honeybees on the planet. If you would like to learn and understand more about the fascinating lives of bees then please do read our other bee blogs on Swarms, Amazing facts about bees and The Life of a Queen Bee.



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  • Thank you for all the information about the life’s of bees,absolutely fascinating read and of course the best honey I’ve had, thank you

    alan smith

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