What is the difference between worker bees and drone bees? - Wise Beekeeping (2023)


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What is the difference between worker bees and drone bees? - Wise Beekeeping (1)

by David Taylor (1860)

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Are the least in size, and in point of numbers ina family are variously calculated at twelve to thirty thousand, according to the bulk of the swarm; though under certain circumstances they are sometimes much more numerous. As regards sex, we have seen in the preceding section that there is no reason to doubt they are females, only that the reproductive organs and ovaries are not as fully developed as they are in the case of a perfect Queen; and this has led to the erroneous use of the termneuters, as sometimes applied to the common bees.

If any doubt should remain as to their sex, it is removed by the knowledge that, in some rare instances, they have been able to produce eggs. Like the Queen, each has the power of stinging. The use of the sting, however, usually involves a loss of life, for, being barbed like an arrow, the bee has rarely the power of withdrawing it.

The eggs for workers are deposited in the common cells in the centre of the hive, being the part first selected for that purpose, the Queen usually laying them equally on each side of a comb, and nearly back to back. In four or five days’ time, they are hatched, when a small worm is presented, remaining in the larva or grub state four to six days more, during which period it is assiduously fed by the nurse-bees. The larvæ then assume the nymph or pupa form, and spin themselves a film or cocoon, the nurses immediately after sealing them up with a substancewhich Hubercalls wax.

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It is, however, a mixture of wax and pollen, being thicker, more highly coloured, more porous, and less tenacious, probably to afford air, and facilitate the escape of the imprisoned tenant. This takes place about the twenty-first day from the laying of the egg, unless the process has been somewhat retarded by cold weather. The attentive observer may at this time, in a suitable hive, witness the struggles and scrambling into the world, generally by its own exertions, of the now perfectimago, the little grey new-born shaking, brushing, and smoothing itself, preparatory to entering upon the duties of life, and in a day or two, or sooner, it is busily occupied in the fields.

As soon as the young bee comes forth, the others partially clear the cell, and it again receives an egg; this being often repeated four or five times in the season. Afterwards the cells become the receptacles for honey or farina; but they are found in time to become contracted or thickened by this rapid succession of tenants, and the consequent deposits of exuviæ, excrement, &c. It has been asserted by Huber and other naturalists, that young bees, bred in old contracted cells, are proportionately smaller in size. Such combs should be removed from the hive.

Though we have, as I conceive, no actual proof that the occupation of individual bees is at all times unchangeably directed to one point (as some naturalists have imagined), observationshows that the division of labour is one of their leading characteristics. Some are engaged in secreting and elaborating wax for the construction of combs in the hive; others in warming the eggs; in feeding the larvæ, as also their queen; in ventilating and cleansing the hive; in guarding and giving notice of attacks or annoyance from without; and the rest in searching the fields and woods for the purpose of collecting honey and farina, for present and future store.

The longevity of the working bees has often furnished matter for dispute, and erroneous ideas have been engendered where a family has been seen for a series of years to continue in a populous and thriving condition. But during this period the Queen (or more than one in succession) has been incessantly occupied in laying eggs innumerable, to supply by new births the place of the countless thousands of bees that periodically disappear.

Their dwelling has remained, but successive generations of tenants have kept its works in repair, giving way in time to fresh occupants. It is shown clearly by Dr. Bevan and other good authorities, both by argument and actual experiment, that six to eight months is the limit of their duration; for, notwithstanding the immense annual increase, the numbers in a hive dwindle down gradually, owing to the chills of autumn and towards the end of the year, to a comparatively few.

There is no doubt, therefore, thatevery bee existing after Christmas was bred during the latter part of the summer or autumn; and this is a sufficient answer to those who sometimes inquire what is to become of the accumulated masses of bees, in hives managed on the depriving system, where neither swarming nor destruction takes place.

We might here allude to a prevalent error as to any inherent difference, local or otherwise, in the characteristics of the domestic Honey bee. When we hear it said, that some are “better workers” than others, all that ought to be understood is, that the family has the advantage of being under favorable circumstances as to locality or season; with a fertile Queen, and an abundant population, for without these essentials, every operation goes on sluggishly, and prosperity becomes hopeless.


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Are computed in the early part of the summer at one to two thousand, and upwards, in a stock hive; but the numbers are irregular, for a weak stock will often have an undue proportion. They possess no sting; are larger, darker, and more hairy than the common bees; easily distinguishable by their heavy motion on the wing, and by their louder humming ordroning.

After her great spring laying of common eggshas far advanced, and as an invariable preliminary to the construction of royal cells, the Queen proceeds to deposit eggs intended for the production of drones or males, though often without discontinuing those for workers. The drone eggs are laid in cells larger in diameter, and stronger than the others, and usually placed towards the outer extremities of the hive.

A longer period is necessary for the development of a male than a female, and the drones pass through their various stages in about twenty-four to twenty-six days, being seldom seen till about the beginning of May (though occasionally earlier), and then only in warm weather, in the middle of the day. These are the produce of the first-laid eggs; for a second smaller laying of drone eggs commonly takes place about two months later, though the males are rarely found after August, unless under certain contingencies.

A curious question for the naturalist arises as to the instinct which directs a Queen bee invariably to deposit the proper eggs in the proper cells. The most accurate microscopic observation cannot detect any difference between the egg of a worker, that of a drone, or of a Queen, all proceeding indiscriminately from the same ovaries and oviduct. Ingenious theories have been advanced as to the possibility of what some call impregnated and unimpregnated eggs being laid at the option of the Mother bee. Huber’s opinion, “that nature does not allow the Queen the choice of the eggs she is to lay,” only adds to the difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory conclusion.

The drones take no part in the collection ofstores, nor in any operation or process of the hive, for which they have proverbially suffered much ignorant and absurd reproach, since Nature has denied them the necessary means, and in their creation has allotted them a distinct office. Indeed, their flights from the hive are only occasional short ones, and they rarely alight during such excursions. They are of the male sex, their presence in a hive being only required at that particular period when the young queens are arriving at maturity; for of all the theories that have been entertained as to the functions of the drones, that of Huber is undoubtedly the true one,—impregnation.

“Naturalists,” says Huber, “have been extremely embarrassed to account for the number of males in most hives, and which seem only a burden on the community, since they appear to fulfill no function. But we now begin to discern the object of nature in multiplying them to such an extent. As fecundation cannot be accomplished within the hive, and as the queen is obliged to traverse the expanse of the atmosphere, it is requisite that the males should be numerous, that she may have the chance of meeting some one of them.

Were only two or three in each hive, there would be little probability of their departure at the same instant with the Queen, or that they would meet in their excursions; and most of the females might thus remain sterile.”

Were any doubt to remain on the subject, perhaps the annual destruction of the drones by the workers throws the most satisfactory light on the design of their creation. This process varies in point of time, according to circumstances. Deprive a hive forcibly of its Queen, and, according to Bonner and Huber, no expulsion of drones takes place. “In such cases,” says the latter, “they are tolerated and fed, and many are seen even in the middle of January.” They are retained under the inspiration of hope, for a contingency might arise to require their presence.

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Where a necessity for swarming has been in any way superseded, there are either no royal cells constructed, or the young queens meet with premature destruction. Then frequently commences an early expulsion of the drones, thus rendered purposeless: they become mere consumers, an incumbrance in the hive, and as such the common bees instinctively wage fierce war upon them, ending in total annihilation: nor are even the male larvæ allowed to remain in their cells. This expulsive process often commences, under such circumstances, in the middle, or at any rate towards the end of May, as I have repeatedly witnessed, and not unfrequently is again resorted to later on in the season. On the other hand, in the case of swarming hives it does not take place till July, or even later, according to season and locality, when all the royal brood is disposed of.

The circumstances differ in the two cases; and the bees in this, as in other parts of their practice, are sufficiently utilitarians to modify their proceedings accordantly. In the one instance, the office of the males is rendered void, and in the other it is indispensable to the young queens. Such of these as go forth with swarms become fertilized in two or three days after (though sometimes it is later than this), followed by the laying of eggs in about a similar distance of time.

Thenceforth they remain fruitful, if not ever after (as is the case with some other insects), at all events for a year, for young bees are produced, without the subsequent presence of a single male in the family, till the following spring. The destruction of the drones, therefore, be it sooner or later, may be considered an indication that the hive contains no queen brood, and, consequently, that no swarming is to be expected.

Conflicting opinions have been formed as to the desirableness of assisting the working bees in the task of expelling the drones—often a protracted process—for although the latter are not armed, like their more numerous opponents, yet their superior size and strength dispose them often to make a stout resistance. If it can be done at once, without undue annoyance to the family, much fighting and valuable time may doubtless be saved by interfering; but no advice can be worse than that of attempting to accomplishthe work piecemeal. When attacked, the drones, to stave off the impending storm, will congregate together in a remote part of the hive. Observation led me to think they would at such a time be glad to retreat for still greater safety into a separate box, so placed as to be accessible to them.

Accordingly, on the 14th of June, in one of my collateral stock-hives, where the drones for a day or two had been hard pushed by the others, I opened a communication on the ground floor into an empty side box. My theory was completely realised, for the poor drones gladly made their way into this, where they remained clustered at the top like a swarm, not a single common bee accompanying them, and would probably have been starved. The following morning I took away the box of drones and destroyed them, counting rather more than 2200, besides some few that had escaped; altogether a greater number than the usual estimate gives to a family. I did not find among them a solitary working bee; nor could I discover in the parent stock-hive one remaining drone.

What is the difference between worker bees and drone bees? - Wise Beekeeping (2)

The bees peaceably at once recommenced work, and did well; as if glad in this wholesale way to be rid of their late unprofitable inmates. What was the cost of their daily maintenance? And what proportion to the entire population of the hive did the drones bear? After this apparently large abstraction, no sensible difference was observablein the crowding. In this hive the usual second laying of drone eggs took place, and a good many more drones were expelled at the end of July. I have not been enabled to repeat this experiment, but have no doubt it would always succeed under similar circumstances.

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