Unlike a bumble bee colony or a paper wasp colony, the life of a honey bee colony is perennial. The three castes of honey bees are: queens (egg-producers), workers (nonreproducing females), and drones (males whose main duty is to find and mate with a queen). The queen lays eggs singly in cells of the comb. Larvae hatch from eggs in three to four days. They are then fed by worker bees and develop through several stages in the cells. Cells are capped by worker bees when the larva pupates. Queens and drones are larger than workers, so require larger cells to develop. A colony may typically consist of tens of thousands of individuals.
While some colonies live in hives provided by humans, so-called “wild” colonies (although all honey bees remain wild, even when cultivated and managed by humans) typically prefer a nest site that is clean, dry, protected from the weather, about 20 liters in volume with a 4- to 6-cm2 entrance about 3 m above the ground, and preferably facing south or south-east (in the Northern Hemisphere) or north or north-east (in the Southern Hemisphere).
Development from egg to emerging bee varies among queens, workers, and drones. Queens emerge from their cells in 15-16 days, workers in 21 days, and drones in 24 days. Only one queen is usually present in a hive. New virgin queens develop in enlarged cells through differential feeding of royal jelly by workers. When the existing queen ages or dies or the colony becomes very large, a new queen is raised by the worker bees. The virgin queen takes one or several nuptial flights, and once she is established, starts laying eggs in the hive.
A fertile queen is able to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs. Each unfertilized egg contains a unique combination of 50% of the queen’s genes and develops into a haploid drone. The fertilized eggs develop into either workers or virgin queens.
The average lifespan of a queen is three to four years; drones usually die upon mating or are expelled from the hive before the winter; and workers may live for a few weeks in the summer and several months in areas with an extended winter.
Males, or drones, are typically haploid, having only one set of chromosomes. They are produced by the queen if she chooses not to fertilize an egg; or by an unfertilized laying worker. Diploid drones may be produced if an egg is fertilized but is homozygous for the sex-determination allele. Drones take 24 days to develop and may be produced from summer through autumn. Drones have large eyes used to locate queens during mating flights. They do not have a sting.
Workers have two sets of chromosomes. They are produced from an egg that the queen has selectively fertilized from stored sperm. Workers typically develop in 21 days. A typical colony may contain as many as 60,000 worker bees. Workers exhibit a wider range of behaviors than either queens or drones. Their duties change upon the age of the bee in the following order (beginning with cleaning out their own cell after eating through their capped brood cell): feed brood, receive nectar, clean hive, guard duty, and foraging. Some workers engage in other specialized behaviors, such as “undertaking” (removing corpses of their nest mates from inside the hive).
Workers have morphological specializations, including the corbiculum or pollen basket, abdominal glands that produce beeswax, brood-feeding glands, and barbs on the sting. Under certain conditions (for example, if the colony becomes queenless), a worker may develop ovaries.
Queen honey bees are created at the decision of the worker bees by feeding a larva only royal jelly throughout its development, rather than switching from royal jelly to pollen once the larva grows past a certain size. Queens are produced in oversized cells and develop in only 16 days; they differ in morphology and behavior from worker bees. In addition to the greater size of the queen, she has a functional set of ovaries, and a spermatheca, which stores and maintains sperm after she has mated.
Apis queens practice polyandry, with one female mating with multiple males. The highest documented mating frequency for an Apis queen is in Apis nigrocincta, where queens mate with an extremely high number of males with observed numbers of different matings ranging from 42 to 69 drones per queen. The sting of queens is not barbed like a worker’s sting, and queens lack the glands that produce beeswax. Once mated, queens may lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. They produce a variety of pheromones that regulate behavior of workers, and helps swarms track the queen’s location during the migratory phase.