There are three castes, or types, of bee in a hive.
Worker bees should make up 95-97% of the colony in the summer months, increasing to almost 100% over winter. They take approximately 21 days from egg to emergence. After hatching, they have a bite to eat, a quick scrub up, then set to work as juvenile bees.
A juvenile bee stays in the hive for three weeks, feeding larva, ripening nectar, grooming the queen, secreting wax, building comb and producing royal jelly. At around three weeks old, a sunny day will entice juvenile bees out for an orientation flight. During this flight they will learn their hive’s position relative to the sun and physical landmarks, enabling them to find their way home from foraging trips.
Once a bee reaches foraging age the job description changes. Mature bees must collect pollen, nectar, water and tree sap to bring back to the hive. They also should defend the hive (guard bees) and bring out the dead and fly off with them (mortuary bees). These jobs are not specific to each bee, they are cycled through by all mature bees as part of their life cycle.
These are the male bees, found in the hive from spring to autumn. Up to 5% of a healthy hive in summer consists of drone bees.
They are chunkier than the girls, with bigger compound eyes and a distinctive noise when they fly that has earned them their name.
Drone bees pupate for longer than workers (24 days) and once they hatch are fed by the girls. They do not work. After two weeks, they may take their first flight.
They do not forage. They do not defend the hive. The function of the drone with his big eyes is to hang around with other drones looking for a virgin queen to mate with.
The drone will only fly in good weather and will live for around 12 weeks. Unless he gets lucky …
There should be only one (but nothing is absolute in beekeeping!) Without her the hive cannot function for long.
She is created from the same egg as a worker bee, but a diet of royal jelly causes her to be physiologically different. Her abdomen will be larger than the workers, preventing her from passing through a queen excluder. She hatches after 16 days, and as there are often multiple queen cells in a hive, her first job is to wipe out the opposition. She goes on a killing spree, stinging any other virgin bees in the hive and tearing down developing queen cells.
She then matures for five to seven days before venturing out on an orientation flight. This is a test drive for her mating flight a day or so later, during which she may encounter a congregation of big-eyed boys.
She will mate in flight, ideally with 12-18 drones. She will then return to the hive. The drones don’t. Once back in the hive her food intake increases and she physically swells up. After around five days she will begin to lay eggs. She is fed and groomed by attending bees and can lay her own body weight in eggs every day at the height of summer.