The Social Lives of Bees
honey bees sharing food. Photo by Z-Y. Huang.
Bee social behavior
While not all bees are social, honey bees and bumble bees live in
complex societies and are referred to as eusocial
Eusociality is an extreme form of social behavior found in just a few
types of animals and is characterized by:
The presence of several generations in a single nest at the same time
Cooperation by some members of the society in caring for offspring that are not their own
- Division of labor
that reproduce a lot and workers that reproduce very little if at
Bee architecture: bees cooperate to make elaborate nests
Honey bees nest in large cavities such as hollowed-out trees.
They take well to other enclosed spaces, whether these occur in nature
or are made by humans. Humans have taken advantage of this habit
by creating bee hives-- boxes that have an appropriate entrance
and are the right size and shape to house a colony of honey
bees. From wax
secreted by glands in their abdomens, honey bees build vertical sheets
of hexagonal honey comb, in which they store honey and pollen. An
individual honey comb hexagon (called a cell
) can instead
serve as home for a single developing bee larva, which is fed
secretions from the heads of adult bees, and eventually undergoes
metamorphosis to become an adult bee.
A feral honey bee colony, showing the
vertical arrangement of honeycombs. This colony was extremely unusual
because it was out in the open. Photo by S.A. Cameron.
Bumble bees usually nest on the ground in the abandoned remnants of
rodent nests or in patches of dried grass. The nests are usually
lined with mammal fur or soft plant material. Bumble bees use wax
secreted by their abdomens mixed with pollen to make oval cells in which nectar is stored or pollen is
packed. In other cells, the queen lays eggs and then the growing
larvae are fed honey and pollen by adult bees. There are usually several eggs per cell. Although both
honey bees and bumble bees have nests consisting of various cells, the
size and shape of bumble bee cells are much less regular than honey bee
An end of season colony of the American bumble bee Bombus pensylvanicus.
The egg-like structures are cells that contain developing bees.
This photo highlights the oval and irregularly sized cells
typical of bumble bees. Photo by S.A. Cameron.
The different types of bees within a colony
Like caterpillars that turn into butterflies, bees also go through metamorphosis
before they take their adult form. The basic life stages of a bee are:
- larva: the maggot-like stage where the bee eats a lot and grows rapidly
- pupa: the cocoon-like stage where the larva undergoes metamorphosis to become an adult bee
Among adults, there are several different types of bees that may look very different from each other. At certain times of
the year, there will be some male bees present in bee colonies; males are
in honey bees. The rest of the bees
in the colony are females, which includes the two main castes
: the queen
and the workers
All of the important colony social
activities are carried out by females. Males, on the other hand,
mostly hang out and eat and eventually leave the colony to mate, after
which they die. Male bees cannot sting. The table below
gives information about the three main types of adult bees found in
honey bee and bumble bee colonies.
Honey bee photos by Z-Y. Huang. Bumble bee photos by C. Rasmussen.
What honey bee workers do all day long
The life of a worker bee is short, but complicated. Worker bees
have their own division of labor
, where each bee
specializes on a specific type of work that helps the hive. In
honey bees, age has a lot to do with the job that each bee does for the
colony. In general, young bees (0-3 weeks of age) are homebodies
that work in the nest and older bees (3-7 weeks of age) spend much of
their time outside of the hive. The diagram below shows the jobs
that an individual honey bee worker might do over the course of her lifetime.
Photos by Z-Y. Huang.
Bumble bee societies
Like honey bees, most species of bumble bees are eusocial.
However, there are several big differences in how bumble bee and honey
bee colonies are organized. First, unlike honey bee colonies that
can live for many years, bumble bee colonies are annual
meaning they begin new colonies from scratch every year. Also,
their colonies are generally much smaller than those of honey
bees; the number of bees per colony ranges widely among species (from
fewer than 100 to over 400 females). Although bumble bees also
have a division of labor with some worker bees specializing on foraging
or nest work, a bumble bee's age is not nearly as good a predictor of
what her job is in the colony. Rather, there is size variation
among workers and larger
workers tend to spend more time foraging and smaller workers work more
in the nest.
Unlike honey bees, queen and worker bumble bees usually look the same,
although queens are normally quite a bit larger than workers. In
some species, worker bumble bees will fight with each other and the
queen and try to lay eggs. The queen is able to maintain her
status as the prime egg-layer of the colony using a combination of
aggressive attacks, eating worker eggs, and signaling via chemicals
). At the end of the colony cycle, the
queen, males, and most of the workers of the colony will die, leaving a few
large females to survive the winter. The following spring, these
females will set off on their own to start new colonies.
A scene from colony life of the American bumble bee Bombus pensylvanicus. The queen is shown in the center of the photo, surrounded by workers and males. Photo by S.A. Cameron.
Alford, D.V. 1975. Bumblebees. London: The Trinity Press.
Heinrich, B. 2001. Bumblebee economics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Michener, C.D. 1974. The Social Behavior of the Bees: A Comparative
Study. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Wilson, E.O. 1971. The Insect Societies. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Winston, M.L. 1987. The Biology of the Honey Bee. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.