Honey Bee Gathering Nectar

What Is A Group Of Bees Called?

Honey bees are fascinating creatures, always zipping around us, only seeming to stop for a sip of nectar and then on to spread pollen to the next flower. Their role in spreading pollen is responsible for so many of the foods we love.  But beyond that, most people don’t actually know much about the peaceful, productive little creatures.  So whether you’re considering keeping honey bees for honey, or are just curious about bees, let’s talk about some interesting facts about honey bees and some of the terms surrounding them.


Fun Bee Facts

The Society of Bees

Honey Bees are very social creatures, forming a highly regimented hive with very specific roles depending on the type and age of each bee.  All of the bees in a hive work together so that the colony is kept fed and appropriate warm or cool as the seasons demand, and so that it may grow through the birthing and caring for each new brood of bees. 


Queen Bees

We call them queen bees because there is only one in the hive, it is female, and the workings of the entire hive essentially pivot on this one vitally important bee.  The queen bee is responsible for all of the egg laying for the entire hive, with peak laying being as high as 3,000 eggs in a single day (more than her body weight in eggs!).  To keep up this intensive birthing process, the queen bee focuses on eating, mating, and giving birth, and little else.

Queen bees are not actually in-charge, just incredibly important for the growth and perpetuation of the hive.  However, the pheromones of queen bees do affect the behavior of other bees in the hive.  Should a queen die, the absence of these pheromones will lead to increased sexual maturity in the workers so that a new queen can be born.  In some rare cases worker bees will sexually mature and lay their own eggs, but because of the pheromone differences, workers will hunt out these larvae and remove them from the hive.

Once a hive gets too large, a second queen will be raised and then depart with about half of the bees in the hive to found a new hive.  So besides this short period of time where the hive is getting ready to split, there is only one queen at a time.  A new queen is created by being fed large amounts of ‘royal jelly,’ a much richer form of honey which is fed to all larvae, but not in such large amounts.  In these larger quantities, the queen to be will grow fully developed ovaries, and will fully sexually mature.

The queen of the hive is larger than workers and drones, though among a colony of tens of thousands, beekeepers will often mark them with a bright color to be easier to see.  A queen will usually live 4-5 years, but can live longer.  Queen bees do not leave the hive, except when swarming to found a new colony.


Drone Bees

The drones are the males of the hive, with their sole duty being to mate with the queen.  However, their lives are not luxurious.  Their reproductive organs break off during copulation and they will die shortly after.  If there are drones left at the end of the mating season, the workers will actually chase them out of the hive to not be a drain on the winter food reserves, so they will not survive long.  

Because of this, it should not surprise you that drone bees do not exist in the hive year round.  For them to be around during the winter months, or any time when mating with the queen is not necessary, would be a drain on stores of food.  So we start seeing them pop up around April, their population hits their peak in late spring to early summer, with the last of them being chased out of the hive by September if any are still alive.

The overall life expectancy of a drone is 90 days.  They are slightly bigger than workers, but are smaller than the queen.  


Worker Bees

All of the females in the hive, besides the queen, are worker bees.  As the name implies, and the fact that the drones and the queen exist only to eat and mate, the workers get everything else done.  They are sexually immature, and so do not partake in the mating process, but are still essential for raising the next brood.  Worker bees outnumber drones 100:1, even during the peak of drone bee population.

Their role in the hive is dependent on age:

  • At 1-2 days old, they clean the cells of the hive, starting with the one they were born in.  They also help heat the hive as needed.
  • At 3-5 days old, they are tasked with feeding the older larvae. Referred to as nurse bees.
  • At 6-11 days of age they feed the younger larvae.  Also referred to as nurse bees.
  • At days 12-17 of age they produce wax, carry food, help build combs, and take any dead bees out of the hive.
  • At days 18-21 of age, they serve as guardians of the hive, protecting the entrance from any would-be intruders (mice being common in the winter months).
  • From 22 days old until the end of their life (typically 40-45 days) they are responsible for foraging for the hive.  This means nectar, but also food pollen, propolin (a resin like material from trees such as sap, used as building material and to repair cracks/gaps in the hive) and water.  During this phase they may be referred to as field bees.


The Brood

The brood is and refers to all of the bees which are not yet adults.  Starting as eggs, transitioning into larva, and then into pupa before becoming a fully formed adult bee.  It takes 21 days for eggs laid by the queen to grow into adult worker bees, 16 days for queens, and 24 days for drones.  The eggs are laid directly into hexagonal chambers and are then fed by nursing bees until they come of age.  Drone cells are larger, and when the queen chooses to lay into these cells, she lays an unfertilized egg, which is how drones are created when they are needed, and without any drones being around during the winter months to mate with the queen.

It takes three days after being laid for an egg to hatch into a larva.  The larva grow incredibly quickly, eating 1300 meals a day(!) and shedding their skin five times in their journey to become 1570 times as large as they started in their egg form.  They are started on a diet of royal jelly, and then are weaned onto a diet made of honey and pollen.  

Once larvae have reached their full size, nurse bees will seal them into the cell with porous wax and the larva will spin a cocoon as a pupa and works towards becoming the honey bee that we’d all recognize.  

Honey Bee Life Cycle
Image created by Waugsberg, here cropped for fit. Copyright Info here.


Bee Anatomy And Physiology 

Bees are insects, which means they have 6 legs and their bodies are segmented into three sections: the head, thorax (middle portion), and abdomen (back portion).  There is a lot more about bees and their bodies, however, that is particularly fascinating.

  • Bees do not sleep!  They are busy 24/7, even in the depth of winter when they rarely leave their hive.  This is the root of the phrase “busy as a bee.”
  • Bees have 5 eyes!  Two of these are large compound eyes more to the sides of their head, but they also have three ocelli eyes in the center of their head.  Bees can see all the colors that are visible to us, except red, but can see into the UV spectrum as well.  Their compound eyes let them perceive color, light and directional information via UV rays from the sun, while their forward facing eyes perceive the degree of light around them.  
  • Each bee has two sets of wings attaching to their thorax, with the forewings being more powerful than the hind wings.  When used for flight, the sets of wings hook together to form one big wing, and then unhook for easy folding when not flying.
  • Bees have two antennas, which help it detect flight speed but also function as a nose for taking in scent, including pheromones.
  • Female honey bees have a stinger (the male drones do not, as their roles are only inside of the hive), which are barbed and connected to a venom sack.  The stinger even has its own nerve ganglion and musculature which keeps injecting venom into whatever the bee has stung, even after the stinger has come out of the bee.  If a honey bee does use it’s stinger, it will die shortly after.  Some other bee species are able to live after stinging something, but honey bees cannot.  That said, queens can actually sting multiple times, but do not leave the hive except when forming new colonies, so only use their stinger for rare occasions of fighting a rival queen for dominance of the hive.
  • Bees go dormant below about 50-55 degrees fahrenheit (about 12 degrees celsius), and essentially fall asleep.  This is the main reason why bees rarely leave the hive on colder days or seasons, except briefly when necessary.  
  • Bees are able to decouple the muscles that flap their wings, which allows them to shiver intensely to keep warm.  They are able to flap their wings 200 times a second, so this is some serious heat generation!
  • When the temperature drops, bees won’t just shiver, but will gather into a dense grouping in the hive around the queen, in the shape of a football.  This is called a cluster, or clustering. This helps keep the entire colony warm with their shivering even on the coldest of days.  The bees rotate their position in the cluster, to make sure all bees stay warm enough.
  • Honey bees can fly up to 20 miles per hour
  • Why are bees striped?  Bees have the bright, high contrast yellow and black stripes as a warning to other creatures: I’m dangerous!  We see this throughout nature where animals have protective mechanisms such as poisons or venoms, such as bright frogs with poisonous skin.  Predators would still want to stay inconspicuous and hide, but creatures with strong protective mechanisms stay the safest by warning off would-be predators with their highly visible colors and patterns.
  • Bees have a strong sense of smell, which they use to track down flowers to forage nectar from.


Flowers, Bees and Honey

One of the things I find most fascinating about honey bees is that their entire life cycle is built around flowers.  It is their only food source, so they must spend much of the gear gathering as much nectar and pollen as possible so that they have enough food stored up to last through the winter while flowers are all but gone.  Their life outside the hive begins in early spring as flowers start to sprout and offer their sugary nectar, and ends as fall descends and the flowers disappear.  

I want to share more with you about the nectar foraging, honey creation, and impact bees have on the plant world, and our own food:

  • Over 130 agricultural crops in the US alone depend on bees for pollinating.  If you want to enjoy almonds, apples, avocados, many kinds of berries, pears, mustard, onion, and even watermelon, among so many others, bees have to do their pollinating work. 
  • The average per-capita (per person, as an average) consumption of honey in the US is 1.3 pounds, annually.
  • Bees collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to create one single pound of honey.
  • In one collection trip, a single bee might visit 50-100 flowers.
  • Each honey bee is responsible for a tiny amount of honey across their entire life span, with figures ranging from only 1/12th of a teaspoon to one tablespoon of honey.  However, healthy and active hives may manage to produce 2-5 pounds of honey per day in peak season! 
  • Honey is what honey bees are most known for, but they are also raised for pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, propolis (a kind of glue like resin, of sorts, made from beeswax, bee saliva, and plant sap [or other exudates]), and venom.
  • Honey is made by collecting nectar, (bees have internal nectar storing cavities) placing it wax cells, and then fanning it by beating their wings over it until the water in the nectar evaporates and creates honey.  
  • Honey bees are born without actually knowing how to make honey, and have to be shown by older bees.
  • Bees don’t just eat nectar/honey, but eat the pollen itself and will mix pollen and honey and leave it to ferment (like we do with yogurt) into a protein rich food that we call bee bread, which is actually a major food for both larvae and worker bees.

Honey Bees Tending Honey Comb


Other Bee Facts and Terms

  • There are only seven species of honey bees, with 44 subspecies within them, compared to the ~20,000 known species of bees in nature.
  • Honey bees are not native to North America, but originate from Europe, where they can be tracked in the fossil record as far back as 34 million years ago, but are believed to be much older.  The facts on the origin of bees and how they reached North America is still under dispute, however, as one fossilized honey bee has been found in Nevada, dating 14 millions old.  Regardless of their origin, honey bees are now found all over the globe.
  • Most honey bees are pretty non-threatening, and not dangerous to people without allergies (some people do have severe allergic reactions to bee stings, which can be lethal).  Some varieties, however, such as German or Africanized Honey Bees are highly aggressive. On the opposite side of the behavior spectrum, Italian honey bees are often very docile.
  • Bee hives are made of wax which is secreted from glands on the abdomen of the honey bees, and then formed into the structure of the hive, shaping the pieces of wax with their mandible.  Beeswax has been harvested and used since prehistoric times as the first analogue to plastics, as well as for waterproofing, polish, to make candles, and as a component in food.  
  • The average hive has about 50,000 bees, though this number ranges widely from some small hives with only 10-20,000 bees, to the occasional super hive with more than a hundred thousand bees.  
  • Bees primarily communicate through the use of chemical pheromones, but also use intricate wiggling dances to communicate where a new supply of nectar bearing flowers has been found.  Some mystery still remains around the bee dance, even though researchers have come to understand the components of it and what it means (direction and distance to the source of food, and it’s abdunence), we don’t fully understand how they are able to see and interpret the dance inside the darkness of the hive.
  • We’ve talked about how bees handle the cold of winter, but they also have good strategies for dealing with the heat.  As temperatures rise they will spread water on the inside walls of the hive to cool it down through evaporation, or when temperatures are far too hot, may be found ‘bearding’ on the outside of the hive.  This means they will leave the hive but stand on the outside of it in a big group that resembles a beard, where the temperatures will be lower than in the hive and any air flow may cool them additionally.  This also lets the hive cool down without the natural heat generation of so many living bees inside.
  • A group of bees by itself is referred to as a colony.  A group of bees and their hive is referred to as a hive of beesA swarm of bees refers to the large group of bees (usually about half the hive, including a new queen, referred to as swarming) which suddenly flies out of the hive and sets up on a nearby tree branch or other structure, until scouts find a good location for a new hive to found.  This usually takes under an hour in North American honey bees, but can sometimes day a day or more.
  • Honey bees are much smaller than many of their more predatorial cousins, such as hornets and yellow jackets.  Hornets are known for hunting honey bees, and even coming into their hives for food.  A single bee, or even several, simply can’t compete with the fighting capabilities of a hornet, so dozens or even hundreds of bees will jump onto the hornet and start their ‘shivering’ process until the hornet actually dies from overheating. 


Final Thoughts

These are some of the many things that fascinate me so much about bees.  They are such unique creatures, and throughout the eons have become irreplaceable in their importance to the plant world, as well as for our own agricultural needs through their role as pollinators.  They are usually quite peaceful, giving a lot to nature and humanity.


For a long glossary of bee terms which are of the most use to beekeepers, take a look here.

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