Module 2:
Basic Honey Bee Biology

Mr. Richard Matthias, Master Beekeeper Cornell University and President, Iyanola Apiculture Collective.

Table of Contents

Castes of Honey Bees

There are three castes of bees:

  • The Queen
  • The Drone
  • The Worker

Taken from: Walton, H. 2018. Basic Honeybee Biology Presentation on SlideShare. 

There is only one Queen in a colony and she is the largest bee, with short wings and a long body. Her job is to lay eggs for the colony. The Queen (fully fertile female) specializes in producing eggs.  

The Drone is the second largest bee with a short, fatter body, no stinger. The Drone (male bee) may number up to 500 in a colony in Spring and Summer. 

The Worker (female bee) are the smallest inhabitants of the beehive and they are the majority of bees in a hive. A colony may have up to 60,000 workers. 

Christopher M. Jernigan. (2017, June 13). Bee Colony Life. ASU – Ask A Biologist. Retrieved March 5, 2021 from

Anatomy of a Bee

(Picture citation in footer)

Like all insects, a honey bee’s body is divided into 3 segments:

  •  Head, 
  • Thorax, 
  • Abdomen


The head has large compound eyes, sensitive antennae and a complicated set of mouthparts. The bee’s head contains the brain and a number of important glands. Worker bees possess a hypopharyngeal gland (pink mass in photo) that produces royal jelly, or bee milk.

This rich blend of proteins and vitamins is fed to all bee larvae for the first three days of their lives, after which workers and drones are fed a mixture of pollen and honey.

When a female larva is fed continuously on royal jelly, she will rapidly develop into a queen bee. 


Connected to the stinger is a venom sac, which holds a mixture of protein chemicals (the venom) and alarm chemicals. These proteins can quickly cause a painful localized reaction in vertebrates, which can be severe to life-threatening in highly sensitive individuals.

When a bee stings, the barbed shaft of the stinger is left behind, along with the venom sac. An attached muscle continues to pump venom through the stinger, even after it has been disconnected from the bee.

For this reason, a bee stinger should be removed immediately by scraping it with a credit card or pocket knife blade, and not by pinching it, which can forcibly inject the venom into the skin.

Worker Bees

During its 14 days as a pupa, sealed in a capped cell, it grows into a worker (female) bee, emerging on the 20th day. Workers do everything but lay eggs and mate. Worker Bees complete  the following tasks:

  • Build the comb from wax extruded from glands under their abdomen.
  • Clean, defend, and repair the hive. 
  • Feed the larva, the queen, and the drones. 
  • Gather nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.
  • Ventilate, cool & heat the hive. 

They are incapable of laying fertilized eggs and will live for 4 weeks during active season and 8 to 10 weeks during less active season. They can fly as far as 1 – 3 km in distance. 

Age Related Duties / Functions of Worker Bee - (Temporal polyethism)

Temporal polyethism is a method of division of labor exhibited by many eusocial insect colonies, where the type of task an individual attempts is correlated with its age.

1 – 3 DaysCleaning / polishing of cells
3 – 7 DaysFeeding of young larvae and queen
7 -14 DaysSecretion of royal jelly, produce  wax in abdominal glands allowing them to build comb, seal and cap cells.
14 – 21 DaysGuards and protects hive.
21 days +Forages – Searches for pollen and nectar. (Honey production)


Reproductive Systems of Female Bees

The Reproductive System of the Queen.

The Reproductive System of the Worker.

The Queen

Before an old queen dies, or departs to start another hive, she lays an egg in a large queen cell. The nurse bees feed the larva a diet of only royal jelly made from a gland on their heads. In only 16 days a new queen emerges. She seeks out and destroys any rival queens, because there can be only one queen per colony. 

What Makes a Queen a Queen?

Feeding a Female Larva Royal Jelly for the Entire Larval Stage

When 10 days old, a new queen takes a high maiden flight, pursued by drones from nearby hives. She mates with 7 or more of them, storing their sperm for the rest of her life of 2-3 years.  

She produces chemical scents which regulate hive activity. She will lay one egg per minute, day and night, for a total of 1500 in a 24-hour period and 200,000 in a year. This is necessary since worker bees only live 6 weeks in the summertime; and a colony needs to have 40 to 50 thousand bees at its peak.

She is cared for by the worker bees. A queen honey bee typically eats a predigested blend of nectar or honey fed to her by her loyal court of attendants. This queen has been marked with a green dot for easy identification. But there is also something special about this picture.

The Drone

Male bees are called drones. They emerge in 24 days,  and are larger than the female workers. They have large eyes and wings and no stinger. Their sole purpose is to mate with a queen from any hive, thereby transferring the genetic traits of their mother. They die upon mating, or are expelled from the hive as resources become low. The normal life-span of a drone is 57 days.

Why Do Bees Make Honey

  • Bees make and store honey because they Eat it!  It is a very compact, easily stored, high energy, low residue food.. 
  • Bees collect Nectar and Pollen and store it in cells in the Hive
  • Water is evaporated out of the Nectar.  When the ratio is sugar to water is 17% – 18% we call it Honey, and the bees cap it over with wax.  At this sugar density it will not ferment and will store indefinitely.
  • Honey is 80% sugar, 16% water, 4% other stuff
  • Pollen contains protein.  The percentage of protein varies WIDELY! To be beneficial to bees protein content should be a minimum of 20%
In order to propely manage bees it is important to follow a Bee Calendar.