The Roles of Queens, Drones and Worker Honey Bees

The division of labor inside a honey bee colony

Workers attending to the queen honey bee.
Workers attending to the queen honey bee. Getty Images/Collection:PhotolibraryMax /C. Allan Morgan

Honey bees are social creatures that enlist a caste system to accomplish the tasks that ensure the survival of the colony. Thousands of worker bees, all sterile females, assume responsibility for feeding, cleaning, nursing and defending the group. Male drones live to mate with the queen, who is the only fertile female in the colony. 

The Queen

The queen bee is the dominant, adult female bee that is the mother of most, if not all the bees in the hive.

A future queen bee's larva is selected by worker bees to be nourished with a protein-rich secretion, known as royal jelly so that it can sexually mature. 

A newly hatched queen begins her life in a duel to the death with any other queens present in the colony and must destroy potential rivals that have not yet hatched. Once she accomplishes this, she takes her virgin mating flight. Throughout her life, she lays eggs and secretes a pheromone that keeps all other females in the colony sterile.

Drones

A drone is a male bee that is the product of an unfertilized egg. Drones have bigger eyes and lack stingers. They cannot help defend the hive and they do not have the body parts to collect pollen or nectar, so they cannot contribute to feeding the community.

The drone's only job is to mate with the queen. Mating occurs in flight, which accounts for the need of the drones for better vision, which is provided by their large eyes.

Should a drone succeed in mating, he soon dies because the penis and associated abdominal tissues are ripped from the drone's body after sexual intercourse.

In the fall in areas with colder winters, worker bees mind the food stores and prevent drones from entering the hive since they are no longer needed, effectively starving them to death.

Workers

Worker bees are female. They accomplish every chore unrelated to reproduction, which is left up to the queen bee. In their first days, workers tend to the queen. For the remainder of their short lives, workers keep busy.

There are many roles to fill, such as preserving honey, feeding drones, building honeycomb, storing pollen, removing the dead, foraging for food and nectar, carrying in water, fanning the hive to maintain the proper temperature and guarding the hive against invaders, like wasps. Worker bees also make the decision to relocate the colony in a swarm and then rebuild the new nest.

Maintaining a proper temperature for the hive is crucial for the survival of the eggs and larvae. The brood chamber for the bees' young must remain at a steady temperature to incubate the eggs. If it is too hot, the workers collect water and deposit it around the hive, then fan the air with their wings causing cooling by evaporation. If it is too cold, the worker bees cluster to generate body heat.