Castes of bees

You should know that there are three castes of bees in the hive. Two females; the (usually) non-egg laying female worker and the fertile queen, plus the male drone.


Queens mate with around 15 drones and can hold 5 – 7 million sperms in their spermatheca. Queens can use around 2 million per year and a queen with less than 3 million can be expected to be superceded within 12 months. How do the bees know this?

A queen bee survives, typically for 2 – 4 years once mated well and some beekeepers mark them with a colour coded dot over a 5 year cycle according to the following sequence:-

Year                   Colour

2021 & 2026       White

2022 & 2027       Yellow

2023 & 2028       Red

2024 & 2029       Green

2025 & 2030       Blue

Queens are produced from heavily-fed female worker eggs soon after the eggs hatch. The heavy feeding by the workers (White brood-food from the mandibular glands and clear food from the hypopharangeal glands) results in a shorter time before emerging from the queencell compared to a worker. The queen has large ovaries, a different sting and a number of other differences to workers.

Egg                         3 days

Open Larva           5 days

Sealed                    8 days

Total                     16 days

(Note: 8 days open and 8 days sealed)

If the weather and the hive is warm, queens can emerge after 15.5 days - so don't be caught out!


Drones are mature from 12 days and live for up to 55 days (90 days later in the season) although their effectiveness in reproduction reduces after 28 days. A healthy drone can produce between 5 and 10 million sperm. However the mating process results in the queen having a mixed gene-pool of male sperm to maintain genetic diversity of the colony as she mates with several. Drones will be evicted in periods of dearth and towards the end of the season. They will be evicted sooner with a young queen in the hive than an old one. If you see drones in a hive towards the end of the season and other colonies have removed their drones, this is an indication that the queen may have a problem and  the bees are keeping the drones handy in case they are needed - say a later supercedure.

Drones take longest in the cell.

Egg                        3 days

Open Larva          8-9 days

Sealed                   12 days

Total                      24 days

(Note 12 days open and 12 days sealed)


Worker bees live for a few weeks in summer - around 3 weeks in the hive and then 3 weeks foraging. Duties change from nursing to brood-food production to guarding before foraging. (As an indication of the physiological changes that go on, the mandibular glands change from producing brood-food to an alarm pheromone,  2-heptanone, as the bee gets older and is ready for guarding duties). 

Winter bees can live for 6 – 8 months. How do they do that? As winter approaches, there is less brood-rearing and workers eat more protein to build up their ‘fat bodies’. Both of these combine to extend the life of the bee to survive a long period of little activity. And of course the wings don’t wear out as the bees are not flying.

Egg to bee in a worker:-

Egg                         3 days

Open Larva          6 days

Sealed                   12 days

Total                      21 days

(Note the 3:6:12 pattern)