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Many species of bees are highly social and live in large colonies, each member having his or her own role within the group. Depending on the species, these colonies can grow to enormous numbers, so much so that they sometimes have to split. But how many bees are in a colony?
With honey bees, there there are typically between 20,000 and 60,000 individuals in a colony or hive as this is a highly social species. However, other types of bees are solitary and only nest with one female and her young. In these cases, there may only be a few hundred members.
I personally find it incredibly interesting how well bees work together and in this guide, I’d like to take a closer look at the bee colony and how it works.
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Honey bees gather in huge numbers and will live either in a nest that they build themselves from wax or in a manmade hive. There are around 125,000 registered beekeepers in the United States alone and between them, they produce almost 1.5 million pounds of honey each year! This is not only brilliant news for the bees, which are well cared for but is also great for the economy.
In a single honey bee hive, there are usually somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 individuals. However, it is not unheard of for these colonies to grow to enormous numbers with some reaching between 80,000 and 100,000 individual bees!
|Number of Hives||Approximate number of bees per hive||Total number of bees|
Sometimes, honey bee colonies get so large that the nest can no longer provide enough space or resources to support it. In this case, the honey bees will prepare to swarm.
This is a phenomenon that involves a significant portion of the colony grouping together and flying off to find a new nesting site. When this happens, the bees have a lot of work to do as they’ll need a new queen.
The old queen is almost always taken with the swarm so, before they leave, the bees will start raising a new queen. This is done by selecting certain larvae and feeding them on royal jelly. Queens are the only female members of the colony that have a fully functional reproductive system and feeding them on this special substance helps that to develop.
Once a new queen is raised, she will take over the role of the existing queen who will leave with several thousand of the workers and drones.
When the swarm leaves the hive, it will find a resting place. This is usually on a tree branch or fence and you may even be lucky enough to spot a swarm when you’re out and about. If this does happen, you can contact a local beekeeper who will be happy to catch the swarm and provide a new home for it.
Otherwise, the bees have to find their own new nesting spot. While most of the swarm will sit and wait, scout bees are sent out in search of a suitable location. When they find one, they’ll gather the rest of the swarm and they’ll head off to start their new colony.
Bumblebees are largely solitary and this is the same with several other species like carpenter bees and miner bees.
Instead of living in large colonies in an elevated nest, these bees raise their young in the ground. Mating takes place in the spring and summer and then the queen will find a suitable nesting spot, usually where there is bare soil.
She will dig out a nest made from tunnels and chambers and will then hibernate here over winter. The following spring, her eggs will hatch and she’ll head out in search of food for them. Once the queen has raised her young, she usually dies although in rare instances, a bumblebee queen can go on to raise another brood in a second year.
In a bumblebee nest, you won’t typically find more than 250 individuals but some smaller nests may only contain around 50 bees.
The amazing thing about honey bees is how well they work together. If there was one animal that could be used to represent teamwork, it would be the honey bee. It fascinates me how each bee within the colony has its own role to play. Let’s take a look at what these entail.
Worker bees are always female and they make up the largest portion of the hive. In most cases, a single colony may be made up of around 98% of worker bees.
These bees have different roles depending on their age. Some of the youngest worker bees are responsible for raising the young and building honeycomb. This is made from beeswax which is a substance created by processing honey. The wax is then secreted from glands on the underside of the abdomen and molded into hexagonal shapes to form the comb.
Once bees get to around 18 to 20 days old, their wax glands become much smaller so this is no longer a role they can fulfill. Instead, they’re given the responsibility of foraging and bringing back nectar and pollen to the hive. In a single day, a bee may visit up to 1500 flowers and may fly up to five miles from the hive. However, honey bees usually stay within about a mile of their home.
Drones are the males of the colony and they lead a pretty laid back lifestyle. That is until it comes to mating time. Their sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen and if they don’t successfully do so, they’ll be ostracized from the colony and left to fend for themselves. But they don’t last very long as a solitary honey bee just isn’t capable of looking after itself so these lonely males die very quickly.
But things don’t have a much better outlook for the drones that are able to mate with the queen. When she mates, the queen will copulate with as many drones as possible and it’s certain death for all of them.
You see, when a drone mate, their penis is left inside the queen and gruesomely ripped away from its body. It doesn’t take me to tell you that this leaves behind a fatal wound that the poor bee will never recover from. But at least he’s been able to pass on his DNA and continue the colony!
In every honey bee colony, there is a single queen. As I mentioned earlier, queens are raised on royal jelly but there may be several potential queens at any one time. As these larvae develop, they are placed in capped honeycomb cells until they reach adulthood.
Once fully grown, the queen will bite her way out of the cell and make clicking noises to attract her sisters. But she’s not calling them for a family reunion; she wants to kill them so that she can take her place as the head of the hive.
After she’s dealt with her sisters, the new queen will seek out the old queen and sting her to death!
As the only female member of the colony, the queen is responsible for laying all the eggs. After taking her rightful place, she will leave the hive for the only time in her life to perform her mating flight for the awaiting drones.
After mating, she returns to the hive with an abdomen heavy with fertilized eggs. Some of the worker bees have the job of tending to the queen and capping any cells in which she lays her eggs. In her life, a single queen may lay up to 1 million eggs and she usually lives for between two and three years.
When her reign is over, the process begins again and she waits for one of her daughters to seek her out and take over her role.
Honey bees are amazing creatures that work closely as a team in order to ensure the survival of the colony. But how many bees are in a colony?
Typically, you’d expect to find up to 60,000 bees in a colony although some larger hives can contain almost double this. Of course, there’s limited space so sometimes, honey bees will swarm which involves splitting the colony and moving on to a new nest.
Solitary bees do not live in colonies and instead the nests contain one female and her young. These bees nest in much smaller numbers that don’t typically reach more than a few hundred.