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Honey bee facts

Learning Intentions:

    Students will be able to:
  • learn and understand key terms and facts about the honey bee and its lifestyle.
Queen honey bee surrounded by workers within the hive.


Social insects

Honey bees are called social insects because they live together in the same colony. They can’t survive by themselves. 

Castes

There are three different kinds (castes) of bees in the colony — the queen, the workers and the drones. The queen bee and the workers are females, and the drones are males.

The queen lays eggs to produce the other bees in the colony. She does not look for food, feed the young or build comb. She is like an egg laying machine. 

Workers do different jobs at different times of their lives. They make honeycomb, guard the hive, look after the larvae (young bees or brood), clean the hive and find food (nectar and pollen). 

Drones are only produced in late summer and autumn. They mate with the queen bee, then they die.

Making workers and queens

Workers and queens start from the same type of egg, but larvae that are fed entirely on royal jelly will become queens. Royal jelly is a special food which comes from glands near the workers’ mouths. 

Larvae that become workers are fed royal jelly for only four days, and then a mixture of nectar and pollen.

Hive life cycle

During the winter there is one queen in the hive, about 20,000 workers, no drones, and none or very few brood. This is because there is not much food available, it is colder and the days are shorter. The bees live off the pollen and honey that they gathered during the summer. 

In spring the bees start to look for food again and there are more young bees produced. 

By early summer there are about 60,000 workers, several hundred drones, and the queen bee. At this time flowers start to make large amounts of nectar, and this is when beekeepers start to collect the honey from the hives.

Summer is also the time of the year that bees will swarm. When bees swarm, the old queen bee leaves the old hive with some workers to find a new home, and start a new colony. A new queen will hatch in the old colony. She will go on a nuptial flight with the drones, where she will mate with one drone and then return to the hive to start laying eggs. After the nuptial flight, all the drones will die. The queen bee only mates once and then lays eggs for the rest of her life. The queen can choose to fertilise eggs. If she does, the egg becomes a female (queen or worker). If she doesn’t, it grows into a male (drone).

How is honey made?

As she forages, a honey bee sucks up nectar from many flowers. It passes into her honey stomach, which she uses to carry the nectar to the hive. It is then passed from one worker to another, losing moisture in the process, then stored in the honeycomb. The final honey is made up of sugars (mainly fructoseglucose), other carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and water. It is the fructose and glucose that give it a sweet flavour.

The bees use honey as food for the hive, and they collect and store it to keep them alive through the winter. By autumn some beehives will have stored more than 150 kg of honey. 

Did you know?

  • Honey bees were first brought to New Zealand in about 1839.
  • When honey bees were first taken to America, the American Indians called them the white man’s flies.
  • Honey is 77% sugar, but this is not the same as table sugar (see above).
  • A bee would have to make up to 80,000 nectar collecting trips to make 500 grams of honey.
  • Humans have kept honey bees for more than four thousand years.

Related resources

Moving pollen flower to flower

Pollinators in New Zealand

Bumble bee foraging 

Photo credits: Thumbnail of queen honey bee and main photo of workers surrounding queen (Peter E. Smith, NSIL).