The Caste System of the Honey Bee
Honey bees rely on an important social structure that is highly organised, self-replenishing and unique. The colony itself—taking up residence in the hive and journeying for food and water—consists of three types of honey bee: queen bees (egg producers), worker bees (infertile females), and drones (males whose purpose is to find and mate with a queen bee). These three castes form an integral system, or superorganism, where different bees take on different roles for the colony to thrive.
Let’s begin with the highest-ranking position in the honey bee society. The queen bee is the dominant adult in the colony, and is the mother of most, if not all, the bees in the group. She can be recognised by her characteristically large abdomen, and is typically the only bee of her type in the hive. Mating with many drone bees until she is fertilised, the queen then lays up to 1500 eggs each day during spring and summer, creating the colony itself. Queens have been known to colonise a hive for up to five years; however, once she cannot produce enough eggs to sustain the group, a new queen bee must take her place. Future queen bee larvae are chosen carefully by the worker bees, and then nourished with a protein-rich secretion called “royal jelly”. This superfood ensures that new queens will be sexually mature enough to start the cycle all over again. However, in a dramatic beginning to life, the newly hatched queen must not only destroy unhatched rivals, but also kill any existing queens in the colony!
While the role of the drone bee appears simplistic, life is similarly dramatic. The result of an unfertilised egg, these male bees can be characterised by bigger eyes than the others in the colony. However, they lack stingers and can therefore not defend the hive, nor do they have the body parts (corbicula or “pollen basket”) to collect pollen or nectar to feed their counterparts. These males have only one task to complete: to reproduce. Relying on their strong vision, the act of mating with a queen occurs in the air, and is called a “mating flight”. However, should the drone succeed in his mission, the drone soon dies, as his penis and connected abdominal tissue is torn from his body during intercourse.
Finally, worker bees always live up to their name. These infertile females are constantly busy with jobs such as preserving honey, collecting food and water, building honeycomb, storing pollen, feeding drones, removing dead bees from the hive, and protecting the hive from invaders. The list is endless! Workers might also make big decisions on behalf of the colony, such as to move the hive to a new location, and are responsible for the crucial task of keeping the hive at its correct temperature. Collecting and depositing water throughout the hive, workers then fan the air with their wings to ensure the “brood chambers” remain at the perfect temperature for eggs to incubate the colony to survive.
As we can see, the caste system of the honey bee is highly unique, distinguished from other groups in the Hymenoptera order by a eusocial labour force divided into reproductive and non-reproductive members. This structure, separated into three distinct castes, relies upon each type of bee to undergo complete metamorphosis for the superorganism of the honey bee colony to survive.