So how exactly do you tell the three different castes of bees apart, and why is it important?
A bee colony consists of three different types of honey bee. We call these types "castes" because they are part of a society made up of different social classes. The three classes make up the entire population of every hive. Each caste will be found in a healthy hive in spring and summer and early into fall with one exception but we will get to that in a minute. So let's examine the three castes in detail, including their jobs, lifespans and unique appearance.
Castes should not be confused with specific jobs. The nurse bee, for instance, is a job title performed by workers, which is a caste.
The Queen Honey Bee
In this case, there can be only one! The queen bee through the use of pheromones drives the day to day and season to season operation of the honey bee hive. She is the only bee in the hive that the hive cannot live without. Not having a queen does not have to mean the hive is dead but it could! More on this in a minute. As the name implies she is a female bee. She is actually the largest bee in the hive and easy to spot with just a bit of practice. Being that she is the longest bee, and slender and graceful. She is the only bee in the hive with developed sexual organs called ovaries. With these ovaries, a good queen can lay in excess of one thousand, five hundred eggs per day. She will be capable of laying those eggs at about 30-second intervals 24 hours per day, seven days per week during the season. This is one of her two primary jobs in a hive. The next job she has is to excrete pheromones which serve as chemical messages. These messages tell all the other bees in the hive what they should be doing from gathering pollen to keeping the entire colony tied together as a single unit.
Queens do have stingers, but unlike worker bees the stinger is not barbed. This means she can if needed sting over and over without killing herself.
If you are not used to finding the queen, the easiest method is to focus on the frames in your hive with the fewest number of capped brood. Look for uncapped cells which contain eggs and she will probably not be found far away. She is also easy to spot as proportionately her wings look tiny compared to her long slender body. The only time this is not the case is if you have a virgin queen, or she has stopped egg production to prepare for swarming. Notice in the above photo that the queen, in the center, has wings which appear to extend only about half way down her body. Notice how she is nearly twice as long as the attending nurse bees whose wings extend past the end of their abdomens.
Also keep in mind that different bees from different stock may be colored significantly different, so do not go looking in your hive and not see a bee the color of this queen and think that you do not have a queen. Just like humans they can vary wildly in color. What you are looking for is the proportion.
Typically queens can live for more than four or five years. They are usually superseded and replaced by the workers though as soon as her egg laying begins to drop off. They are also purposefully killed by beekeepers for the health of the hive if he notices spotty brood pattern. A sign of an old queen. The beekeeper will then let the worker bees raise a new queen and the hive will survive.
Drones..The poor saps....
Drones are the next caste we will look at. They are the only male bees in a honey bee hive. Depending on the time of the year they range in population from zero to around 300. Considering a healthy robust hive can have in excess of 80,000 bees, they make up a very small portion of the overall population.
Drones are much larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen. they are built like tanks, with thick barrel-shaped bodies and wings which do not typically extend past the end of the abdomen. Notice the drone in the photo next to two workers. He is considerably larger than the workers. He also has those huge eyes which cover nearly his entire head. They actually come together on top of his head and nearly touch each other. Whereas the workers have small eyes located on the sides of their heads.
A drones only job is to find and mate with queens. They do this on mating flights which can take place up to a mile from the hive and at an altitude of between 200 and 300 feet. This is one of the reasons that the drone bee has the largest eyes of any bee in the hive, covering nearly its entire head! It is their job to locate queens who are also on mating flights. Once a drone has located a queen, he will mate with her.
Drones do not have stingers, having replaced that equipment with the male sexual organ required to mate with queens. This organ is barbed, and once inserted into the queen becomes stuck. When the bees separate the barbed sexual organ remains in the queen and he falls dead to the ground having pulled a good portion of his internal structure out with it.
Drones serve no purpose in the hive itself and are tolerated by the workers only as they will be needed in an emergency to mate with a virgin queen. The workers will expel any remaining drones from the hive at the end of the last nectar flow of the season. There is no reason to have to feed huge drones all winter when they are not needed. This, of course, causes them all to die as there is no longer a hive to support them. The queen will lay new drone eggs the following spring after the hive overwinters. The cells that the drones are laid in are typically found at the edge of a frame and are raised, and have a puckered golf ball appearance.
Drone eggs are laid by the queen without being fertilized by sperm producing a male egg. Worker eggs are laid by the queen from an egg which she has fertilized with sperm from a drone, producing a female worker.
Workers, the final caste
Worker bees are all sterile females. They are the most numerous bees in the hive and perform all of the functions of maintaining the hive except laying eggs, except in rare cases. The age of a worker bee determines its job. From the age of 1 day old to 1 week they are all nurse bees. A workers job during this time is to clean up after the queen, feed her, bring her water, make honey and feed the larvae. From the age of 1 week to about 3 weeks they are all on hive duty. They draw out honeycomb, fix damaged comb, produce wax, ventilate the hive by fanning their wings near entrances and sealing up cracks in the hive with propolis. At about the age of three weeks they begin leaving the hive to bring back pollen and nectar to the hive. They will do this for about another 3 weeks until their bodies give out and they die. So the lifespan of a worker depends on the season as workers live all winter in fact for several months because there is not much to do but sit and eat. Spring and summer worker bees live about 6 weeks due to all the energy they must expend to perform all of the functions required of them.