Beginner’s FAQ: What Are the Castes? (In Brief)

There are three different castes of bees in the hive. It is important to distinguish and understand the purpose of each of the castes as it will help you indicate issues in the hive whilst doing your hive inspections. In this post we will explore the different castes, their brood and life cycle and their importance in the colony. I’m going to try to be brief and avoid going into too much detail about the anatomy, we might have to do an advanced caste class later on!

The Queen

Bee-utiful and Dreamy Queen

The queen is the largest bee in the colony and her purpose is to lay eggs to increase population size and consequently productivity and strength. A queen is produced using initially the same egg as a worker bee but during the larval stage the workers start to be fed bee bread, whilst the future queen is fed royal jelly until her cell is capped over at 9 days.

Once the virgin queen hatches and establishes herself in the colony she is encouraged by the workers to swiftly get mated. A queen can fly out multiple times to mate, but she should mate with about 8-10 drones before settling in the hive and ‘plumping’ up.

When a queen starts laying eggs, the brood pattern can look a little erratic. She can also sometimes lay multiple eggs in a cell before she gets into the rhythm of her work. The queen does not feed herself and instead relies on nurse bees to feed and care for her in a process called trophallaxis – the interchange of food between the bees which in turn stimulates the spread of her pheromones (mandibular pheromones) throughout the hive.

The queen is extremely important to the colony, as she is the one who ultimately controls the population. You may have as many as 60,000 workers and perhaps 700 drones. In response to the amount of forage, stores and nurse bees within the colony she will slow down or increase her laying, though that being said modern queens bred for prolificness can sometimes ignore these natural instincts. Without the queen, the workers can change behaviourally, becoming a little more irritable (roaring) and putting honey into what would usually be a space reserved for brood.

Queens however are not seen as irreplaceable in the eyes of the workers. When the queen gets older her laying becomes slower, or she starts laying more drone (indicating that she is running out of sperm stores) then the workers will supersede her by making a queen cup for the queen to lay in. In supersedure cases the queens can live side by side for a while until the new queen becomes more established in the colony and eventually the workers will kill the old queen.

The Worker

Isn’t she lovely?

The worker bee is just that, a bee that works. And depending on her age, she has many different roles in the hive. When she first hatches out of her cell, which she does by biting around the capping, she is lighter in colour and more hairy (a ball of fuzzy cuteness) than her older sisters.  Initially workers cannot sting and her glands are not working so the only job she can do is the cleaning up and this will be her first job for the first 3 to 4 days of her life.

During this time she is fed by the other bees and her body develops fully. Her exoskeleton hardens and her hypopharyngeal glands begin secreting a substance that is important to the composition of royal jelly fed to the young larvae. Around day 5 she will take her first flights outside of the hive to orientate herself. Once the worker is mature she will then do a variety of duties within the colony; cleaning, feeding larvae, processing incoming nectar, wax building and guard duty. She can do any of these jobs at any time and simply responds to the demands of the colony.  When the worker bee carries out these indoor duties for the first 3 weeks of her life, we refer to her as a nurse bee or house bee during this period.

Beyond the first 3 weeks of her life she becomes what we call a forager or flying bee.  She will leave the hive to collect the necessary resources that the colony needs to survive. They have a dangerous and tiring job and work from the time the sun is up until sunset.  The forager will collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Most adult bees at the end of their life will die whilst out foraging rather than in the hive.

The Drone

Drones and workers

Drones are the larger and rounded bees hanging around hives. You see them from spring through to summer and they hang out at Drone Congregation Areas hoping to catch a queen on her mating flight.

A primary focus for a drone is to mate with a queen. He waits high above the ground in a drone congregating area waiting for a queen.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of male bees all hanging around ready to compete to mate with a queen. They don’t fight to compete, they don’t even have stingers, they simply see who can fly closest to successfully mate.

The mating is carried out high up the air and once complete the drone will do a rather spectacular back flip off the queen.  The drone leaves part of himself in the queen and therefore this is the end of the drones life.

Drone brood is normally laid at the bottom frames, where there is slightly more space for bigger cells and is often domed making it very different from the flat worker brood.

Drones are often referred to as lazy when it comes to work around the hive. However, if temperatures rise really high inside the hive all bees, including drones, may help with the cooling effort by flapping their wings.

At the end of the summer months any drones left in the colony will be kicked out by the workers and not allowed to return.  They do this so that the drones don’t eat their winter stores instead of the more important worker bees. You may find that the drones will sneak into weaker colonies at this time of the year. Drones also serve another purpose us beekeepers.  When we start seeing them in the early spring we know the swarm season has begun. Some also uncap the drones as a varroa check.

Brood Cycle

From left to right, worker, queen and drone
source: blogs.evergreen.edu

One of the essential reasons beekeepers know the brood cycle is because of the three day rule. This refers to the ‘egg’ stage of the brood cycle, as you can see above all three castes remain in the egg stage for three days. The implication is that if you see eggs (that are laid properly) you can guarantee that your queen was alive and laying at least three days ago. It is therefore not a necessity to actually see your queen (as long as she is not on the frame you’ve left outside the hive whilst doing your inspections). In the same vein, it can also help you determine how long your colony has been queenless for, have you only got sealed worker brood in the hive? You’ve been queenless for at least 9 days but can be a up to 20 days!

Knowing the brood cycle also allows you to have a good picture in your mind how close your worker brood is to hatching and expanding your colony by the thousands. Queens tend to lay in a regular pattern, from the middle of the hive, the middle of the frame outwards in circles. There are some incredible photos out there that help identify the age of capped larvae/pupae, namely the colouring of the eyes and the body if you’re really curious how close your brood is to hatching.

If you’re into your queen rearing some only think about the relevance of the queen’s brood cycle because of their grafting schedule, but really it is also helpful to know and observe the drone’s cycle, as you can coincide your rearing by calculating the time it takes for your drones to mature after your drone cells have been laid in. This will help to ensure the Virgin’s mating flights when there is a good proportion of mature drones in the area. This is definitely a bit more of an advanced beekeeping practice though!

In Summary

That’s only scratching the surface of the amazing differences and roles of the honeybee castes. There is an incredible amount of literature regarding the more technical and anatomical aspects of castes but I certainly don’t think they are that relevant to beginner beekeepers. This should give you a good basis of knowledge to build upon, and you should be able to confidently identify the castes when you are going through your colonies.

Most beginners and non-beekeepers mistake drones for queens quite often, this is pretty normal and once you have been beekeeping for a while you do wonder how you ever made that mistake to begin with since they look so incredibly different!!

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