Drone surrounded by worker bees. © INRA, MORISON Nicolas

Scientists flying to the rescue of bees

The hive: a perfect city

Man has always had a great admiration for bees. In Antiquity, they wondered how such a small, simple being was capable of developing such a complex and well-organised society. Pliny the Elder, the great Roman naturalist, described his wonderment: "they toil at their labours, build their combs, form themselves into political communities, hold councils together in private, elect chiefs in common and, a thing that is most remarkable of all, have their own code of morals." Morals, perhaps, but Spartan morals, which condemn to exile and death any sick, ageing and supernumerary individuals. 

Although these Hymenoptera are still much admired, scientists are now able to better decipher the secrets of their social organisation, which can be broken down into three castes of individuals: the queen, workers and males.

Updated on 03/27/2017
Published on 05/01/2014

The queen

A tagged queen and her workers. © © INRA, MORISON Nicolas
A tagged queen and her workers © © INRA, MORISON Nicolas
The mother of all individuals in the hive, it is the queen who is responsible for a great deal of the dynamics and vigour of a colony. During the spring and summer, a queen can lay up to 2000 eggs each day.  This arduous task earns her certain privileges: from birth, she is cared for by her workers, who feed and clean her constantly. Only slightly larger than her fellows, she can live for up to five years under good conditions. However, there is nothing exceptional about her origins: a simple egg like all the others, which the workers have chosen to transform into a queen by feeding her with royal jelly. When she starts to age, and her laying capacity diminishes, she is killed off by her subjects.

Worker bees

Birth of a drone. © © INRA, GUILBAUD Laurent
Birth of a drone © © INRA, GUILBAUD Laurent
Forty to sixty thousand in the summer, five to ten thousand in the winter, worker bees constitute by far the largest contingent in a hive. Their life expectancy is just a few months for winter workers, and a few weeks for those born in the summer. Work is allocated between the bees by age group.  Newborns are tasked with cleaning the hive. They then become nurse bees, responsible for synthesising and regurgitating the food for developing larvae. They then occupy successive functions in the hive: storage of the harvest, ventilation of the hive, closure of the cells and defence of the colony, etc. The final stage in their career is to become foragers, responsible for the most dangerous task which is to bring back pollen and nectar to the hive.

Males

Being a drone is not an arduous task in the hive, and little value is placed upon it. All resulting from non-fertilised eggs, they are around 2500 in a colony. They do not have any apparent role until the moment when the queen initiates her nuptial flight. They must then follow and try to mate with her. Only a few achieve this task, and their doubtful reward is that they die just after mating. As for the survivors, who are supernumeraries in a busy hive, the other bees soon stop feeding them.