The community of bees that live in a hive is called a colony. If you have ever seen a beehive, you must have realized that there is a large number of these small creatures in there. They all function like a single organism, but do we know the exact number of bees in a single hive? This is not a question that has a single straightforward answer, but we’ll do our best to answer it today.
So, how many honey bees are there in a colony? A honey bee colony typically consists of anywhere from ten thousand to eighty thousand bees, or sometimes even more. The majority of the bees in a hive are female worker bees which are all the offspring of the same queen. Besides the workers and the queen, a few hundred drones (male bees) are usually also a part of a colony.
The exact number of bees in a colony is hard to determine because it depends on various factors, the most important of which are seasonal variations. Read on if you want to learn more about the types of bees that live in a hive as well as the factors that influence the number of individuals within a colony at any given moment.
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How Many Honey Bees are there in a Colony?
Honey bee colonies are really complex societies with individuals fulfilling a variety of different roles. While a honey bee colony can contain up to eighty thousand bees, bumble bee colonies are comprised of only two to four hundred individuals, for example. For this reason, it is not easy to determine the exact number of bees living in a hive, and this number varies greatly too.
Wild Bee Colony
The large majority of bees in a hive are worker bees. Those are the bees we usually see around us gathering nectar. They are all female and they are all daughters of a single queen. However, every hive also houses male bees or drones, a queen, as well as the young bees in the form of eggs, larvae, or pupae.
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The Roles of Honey Bees in a Colony
As we have already mentioned, the vast majority of bees in a hive are females, also known as worker bees. Worker bees are female individuals whose reproductive organs are not fully developed (in most cases, that is). As such, they don’t lay eggs – this is a duty reserved for the queen. With that being said, we are talking about a complex superorganism of living beings, and it’s hard to say anything with absolute certainty.
In fact, scientists have recently discovered European honey bee colonies where approximately 1 percent of worker bees had fully functioning ovaries. However, it’s safe to say that worker bees, in general, don’t have fully developed reproductive organs. This is a phenomenon commonly called reproductive self-restraint. It happens because worker bees are aware at all times that they have a healthy queen. Namely, the queen releases a specific pheromone that signals its presence the worker bees can sense which suppresses their ovarian functions. In this way, the workers remain completely focused on their tasks without worrying about producing (their own, individual) offspring. But what exactly are their tasks?
As their name says, worker bees do all the important tasks in the hive with the exception of laying eggs, which is the queen’s job. They not only gather pollen, but they also perform a range of important duties within the hive. They take care of the larvae, they make the wax, they clean the hive, build the honeycombs, and they also defend the hive if such action is necessary. There is actually a very specific division of labor within a honey bee colony, and the specific role of a worker bee is determined by its age. They start by performing duties within the hive and only in the last weeks of their life do they emerge to the outside world.
The main topic of this article is the number of bees within a hive. When we are talking about queens, this question is easy to answer – there can ever only be one queen bee within the hive. The role of the queen is highly important, since she is the only one who lays eggs in the colony, and the health of the colony as a whole depends on the presence of a healthy queen. The queen releases pheromones that send signals to the worker bees. If the queen dies, a colony will need a new queen. A new queen is born when worker bees start feeding a larva with royal jelly. As a result, the queen bee grows quite large and her ovaries develop fully, so it is capable of laying eggs.
No, we are not talking about the buzzing flying electronic devices we see everywhere lately (although there are some similarities). The drones we are talking about are actually male bees. The name is quite adequate though, since the only role of a drone is to fertilize the queen. Otherwise, they are quite useless in daily life in the hive. However, they are still quite important, since the queen wouldn’t be able to bear offspring if her eggs were not fertilized by a male bee.
All of the bees in the hive have to go through metamorphosis before they become adult bees. Every bee starts out as an egg. Then it goes through larval and pupal stages, until finally it transforms into an adult individual. For this reason, the eggs, the larvae, and the pupae can be counted towards the total number of individuals in the hive. The larvae grow in their cells in the hive, while the worker bees feed them. Fertilized eggs become worker bees, while unfertilized eggs become drones. For this reason, drones don’t technically have a father, but they have a grandfather. On the other hand, when the colony needs a new queen, the larva is fed exclusively with royal jelly.
The number of honey bees in a colony is not set in stone. In fact, there are significant variations in the numbers of bees in a hive that happen at different times of the year. The number of bees in the hive is the highest during the spring and summer, when nectar is available in abundance. The activity of bees highly depends on outside temperature, as bees don’t go out of their hive when temperatures get below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, the queen gradually stops laying eggs in the fall.
During the winter, the bees live on the food they have stored during the warmer months. The queen lays eggs while there is food in abundance, but it stops laying eggs during the winter so there is no young to feed and the colony can survive on the resources gathered. As there is no brood-rearing in the winter, the number of bees in the hive is slightly lower during this time.
Swarming is the natural response of bees to the situation when the hive becomes overcrowded. This is how they form new colonies. When worker bees sense that the hive is overcrowded, they set out to raise a new queen. They do this by creating several large cells around the eggs that the queen has laid. When the eggs reach the larval stage, the worker bees feed them with royal jelly which makes the larvae grow into queen bees. When the larva is ready to enter the next stage (to become a pupa which will develop into an adult queen), the worker bees seal the cell with wax. At this point, the old queen will leave the hive. The reason for this is the fact that there can never be two queen bees in a hive – the new queen would kill the old one if it is present. A part of the colony goes away together with the old queen. The old queen can be accompanied by as many as twenty thousand bees – this is called a swarm. These bees go on to build a new hive and start a new colony.
Are there different types of honey bees within one hive?
Yes, honey bees are social beings that live in colonies. Each hive houses one colony that is comprised of worker bees, drones, and a queen. During the warm season, the hive also houses eggs, larvae, and pupae of the honey bee.
Is there a division of labor within a hive?
Yes. The worker bees (all the female bees except the queen, that is), perform a wide range of tasks during their lifetime. They are responsible not only for gathering pollen, but also for raising the young and building and cleaning the hive. The tasks that each worker bee performs change with its age. They start out by caring for the larvae in the hive and gradually move on to perform other tasks both inside and outside the hive.
What is the role of male honey bees?
Male honey bees, also called drones, have only one task in their lifetime – to fertilize the queen. They cannot defend the hive as they don’t have stings, and they depend on the food the worker bees provide for them.
Evans, Elizabeth, and Carol A. Butler. Why Do Bees Buzz?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees. Rutgers University Press, 2010.