How to identify the different types of bee in your hive

When you first start beekeeping, you’ll probably be able to ID the queen – but anything beyond that might be a struggle.

Bee society is made up of distinctly different types of bee, each with its own role in the hive. Drones, workers, nurses, larvae, and, of course, the queen, are all essential to the life of the hive. As a beekeeper, it’s important for you to be able to identify the different types, as part of understanding how your colony works.

Here’s our guide to spotting the other members of the colony.

Long live the queen

It makes sense that the queen is the most important member of the hive. A strong queen means a healthy, populous colony, while a weaker queen can lead to fewer larvae and fewer bees.

Because she’s the only bee capable of laying eggs, she’s responsible for all life in the colony. In fact, a queen can lay up to 1500 eggs every day – one every 30 seconds. To keep up her strength and egg-laying ability, workers feed her a diet rich in royal jelly, which they secrete after eating honey.

The queen also regulates activity in the hive, releasing pheromones that tell drones and workers what to do.

Because she’s unique, the queen bee is usually the easiest to identify. Here are some clues:

  • Found on or among the brood frames
  • Significantly larger than other members of the hive
  • Elongated abdomen that tapers to a point
  • Legs splayed out from her body
  • No pollen packs on her back legs
  • Long, smooth sting with no barbs

The desperate life of a drone

Drones are the only male bees in a colony. Their chief role is impregnating queen bees – although most never get the chance. It’s estimated that only one in 1000 drones gets to mate with a queen.

Contrary to popular opinion, drones do not just sit around the hive waiting to mate with the queen. In fact, the vast majority of drones who do mate, mate with queens from other hives. This improves the genetic diversity of colonies, making them stronger.

When drones emerge from their cells, they stay in the hive for several days, eating royal jelly to build their strength. After this, their diet changes to honey, and they leave the hive in search of queens to mate with.

Drones gather in predetermined congregation areas and wait for the arrival of a virgin queen. If one arrives, 5-12 drones will get the chance to inseminate her. Once a drone inseminates the queen, his mating apparatus detaches and he dies.

Unmated drones return to the colony, where they also play a role in guarding the hive. In late autumn, any remaining drones are ejected from the hive.

Identifying a drone:

  • Large eyes that take up most of their head
  • Generally larger than worker bees
  • Barrel shaped abdomen
  • No sting
  • No pollen packs

The busiest bees – workers

The vast majority of colony members are female worker bees. Workers are responsible for keeping the hive running, and are almost endlessly busy. There are a number of different roles taken on by worker bees – and these roles may change throughout their life cycle.

Nurse bees, as the name suggests, take care of other members of the colony. They eat ‘bee bread’ and secrete royal jelly to feed larval bees, young drones, and the queen herself. They’re also responsible for guarding larvae and sealing pupal bees in their cells.

Hive workers are usually young. They stay in the hive for the first few weeks of life, and work on keeping it clean and functional. This means removing dead bees and debris, building honeycomb once their wax glands are working, storing pollen for later use, and fanning honey cells to increase evaporation in newly-made honey.

After a few weeks spent working in the hive, young bees become field bees. They leave the hive daily, collecting nectar, water, and pollen then delivering it to the hive. They may also help pack this food into honeycomb cells.

Guards have a self-explanatory role in the hive. These workers buzz around hive entrances, threatening invaders and stinging if necessary. If danger approaches the hive, they produce a pheromone to alert the rest of the colony.

All worker bees look similar – you can’t tell whether a bee is a cleaner, a nurse, or a honey gatherer by their physical appearance – but you can look at their behavior for clues. Cleaners and nurses stay in the hive, gatherers leave regularly, and guards hover near the entryways.

Here’s how to identify a worker bee:

  • Smaller than a drone
  • Short, tapered abdomen
  • Pollen baskets on back legs
  • Barbed sting

Baby bees

Before they emerge as a worker, drone or queen, bees must go through a larval stage.

This starts when the queen lays an egg in a honeycomb cell. The egg hatches into a white, grub-like larva, which is fed by nurse bees. When the larval bee reaches full size, nurse bees will seal it into its cell with a wax cap, and the larva will spin a cocoon around itself. Finally, it makes its way out of the cocoon, out of the cell, and into the hive as an adult bee.

You can identify where in the life cycle your larvae are by examining your brood cells – if you can see a small, white, creature in the bottom of the cell, it’s a young larval bee. If the larva takes up most of the cell, it’s nearing the pupal stage. If the cells are sealed with wax, the larvae are likely to emerge soon.

Brood cells can also be a useful indicator of the health of your hive. If your brood looks patchy or larvae look ‘slumped’ and shriveled, it could be a sign of infestation or disease. Some pests – like the Varroa mite – breed in the actual larval cells, so it’s important to keep an eye on your brood, so you can catch problems before it’s too late.

Like everything to do with bees, finding out more about different roles in the hive is fascinating. Not only that, but the more you know, the better you’ll be able to care for your colony.

Want to find out more about how beehives work? Talk to the expert team at Ecrotek.