A Branch of the British Columbia Honey Producers Association

All About Honey Bees

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) has been kept for centuries by beekeepers. Bees produce honey from the nectar of flowers, and at one time, this honey was the only form of sugar available to humans. As well as producing honey, honey bees play an important role in agriculture as pollinators of a wide variety of crops.

Honey bees are social insects and live together in hives or nests. Honey bees are divided into three classes or castes. The honey bees commonly observed on flowers are worker bees.  Worker bees are female honey bees that forage for food (pollen, nectar, water, propolis), clean the hive and queen, build and protect the hive, and perform many other specialized functions. Worker bees have stingers, but die soon after stinging if they have to protect their hive.

The size of a honey bee varies among the several strains of the species, but generally honey bees are about 1.2 cm or 0.5 of an inch in length. They have three body parts: head, thorax and abdomen.  The head and thorax are bristly or have small hairs growing from them. Their color can vary according to the strain but resemble the photos on this website.

The life cycle of a honey bee is egg, larva, pupa and adult. Once an egg is deposited in a cell by the queen bee it will develop into larva in about three days. The larva grows and develops into a pupa and the cell containing the pupa is capped by worker bees. The pupa continues to grow in the capped cell.  In 16 days queens emerge, workers emerge in 21 days, and drones emerge in 24 days.

The queen honey bee is larger than the worker, and her function is to lay eggs; both fertilized eggs (producing female workers bees and queens) and unfertilized eggs (producing male drones).  There is usually only one queen in a hive. The queen can mate with many male drones (from a few to 50-60).  Mating with several drones creates genetic diversity within the hive.  The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day during peak spring and summer months.  The queen regulates the hive’s activities and temperament by producing chemicals (pheromones) that guide the behavior of the hive.

Drones are male bees and their only purpose is to mate with a queen. Drones are larger than worker bees and are stingless. Drones are not welcome to spend the winter in the hive, as they are not needed in the winter, and as they would eat precious food needed to keep the hive alive during the winter months.

When a hive population increases to the point that it is too crowded and is running out of room, a natural phenomenon is for some of the population to leave in a swarm.  Before swarming, the queen will lay fertilized eggs in queen cells, (may also be called swarm cells) and then will take approximately half the worker bees and find a new place to start a colony. Eggs that are to develop into queens are deposited in cells that are larger than normal; sometimes they resemble a peanut shell. Several queens may hatch, and they fight among themselves until only one remains in the hive colony.  Swarming ensures perpetuation of the honey bee species, as each swarm is an increase in honey bee colony numbers.  

In most areas of BC, honey bees can be kept and managed by beekeepers.  Even though honey bees were originally imported from Europe to North America, our favourable climate and ample food resources have allowed them to flourish and provide honey for beekeepers and pollination for agriculture and gardens.