2. Queen and Drones

There are 3 specialised castes in the honeybee colony

QUEEN  Female   3/8 inch long
DRONES   Males   5/8 inch long
WORKERS  Females 3/8 to 5/8 long

Size differences – Queen and Worker (left), Drone and Worker (right)


The queen is the most important bee in the colony but contrary to popular belief she does not rule the hive; her sole function is to lay eggs to reproduce. She is a fertile female and could live up to 7 years but average lifespan is 2-3 years. Due to a super nutritious diet she grows larger than worker bees. She is usually the mother of all the bees in the colony and normally there is only one adult, mated queen in the hive. She will have mated with up to 15 drones (males) so batches of female offspring will have different fathers. The queen has an un-barbed sting used for killing off rival queens.

Young workers always surround the queen, feeding, cleaning and disposing of her waste. She produces pheromones which pervade the hive and workers lick it off her body. This queen substance is shared with all the female workers and it inhibits them from laying their own eggs.

Pheromones play an important part in how a colony adjusts its distribution of labour most beneficially. These are complex chemicals that are released by individual bees into the hive or the environment. They elicit responses that cause changes in the physiology and behavior of the other bees.
Four examples:
When a queen’s pheromones are decreasing workers begin swarm preparations or supersedure (replacing a failing queen).
Younger bees play a role inside the hive while older bees play a role outside mostly as foragers. Forager bees gather and carry a pheromone chemical (ethyl oleate) in their stomach and feed this to house bees to prevent them from maturing too early to become forager bees. As foragers die off less of the chemical is available and the house bees mature more quickly to become foragers.
When a bee finds a new source of food it marks it with one of these chemicals
When a bee stings, alarm pheromones alert other bees to sting in the same place.


The brood chamber is where the queen lays her eggs.

Brood frame

A good queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day in the spring build up of the colony. This amount may weigh more than her own body weight. Under the right conditions she could lay 250,000 eggs per year and more than a million during her lifetime.

The size of an egg is 1/16 inch and it looks like a grain of rice.

Before laying an egg she will check a cell to make sure it is clean and to ensure she hasn’t already laid an egg in it. She also measures the cell size using her front legs to determine whether she should lay a worker, drone or a new queen egg. The queen releases several sperm each time she lays an egg destined to produce a worker bee but when she places an egg in the drone cell, she does not release any sperm to fertilize it. Occasionally she places fertilized eggs in queen cups or a worker may move it there from another cell. Wax bees determine how many cells to build to be destined for workers, drones or a new queen.

Queen holding an egg   Queen holding egg  2013

Placing egg in cell         

Beekeepers often mark the queen with a white spot so she is easy to find. Whilst putting the hive back together after an inspection, it would be very easy to squash her.

Marked Queen    

Looking for the Queen 


Drones hatch from unfertilized eggs and live for about 90 days.
They are bigger than worker bees, smaller than queens and stingless.
They make up a very small percentage of the colony.

Drones don’t do any work in the hive – they just wander around bringing calm and warmth to the colony. They do not feed themselves; they are fed on demand by workers. Their sole function is to be ready to fertilize a receptive virgin queen.

Drones fly in abundance in the early afternoon to congregation areas, a good distance from the hive, in search of virgin queens. They can fly up to 30metres above ground or much higher if warm rising thermal air carries them so. Drones have large eyes in order to easily spot a virgin queen and have very powerful bodies so they can fly fast enough to catch a virgin queen in flight. If they succeed in mating, their reproductive organs and abdominal tissues are ripped out during intercourse and they will die.