How many bees are in a hive then?

By | March 31, 2013

People often raise their eyebrows at how many bees are in the colony over Winter. They usually curse when I tell them how many there are in the peak of Summer!

Here’s an overview of the population fluctuation through the year. It’s intended as a general overview, and from a northern hemisphere point of view (i.e. backwards to my homeland of New Zealand;

  • Spring is from March to May, 
  • Summer from June to August
  • Autumn from September to November
  • Winter from December to February


First, the general make up of the hive.

99% of bees in a colony are female

- the queen is the only fertilised female, with fully functioning ovaries when born. She leaves the hive and mates with around ten males early in life, and collects enough sperm to last her lifetime, without (generally) having to leave the hive again. She’ll live for around three to five years, and is the only one in the colony that will lay eggs. There’s generally only one queen per hive.

All other females are daughters of the queen, are diploid (or come from fertilised eggs), and known as “workers”. According to their age, workers tend to brood (larvae and pupae), make wax comb, tend to the queen, collect pollen and nectar and convert nectar into honey. Workers pretty much do *everything*.

The remaining 1% of the colony is male.

As sons of the queen they are haploid, or come from an unfertilised egg. They have only one job – to find virgin queens from other hives, and mate with them. It’s their last act, as they die in the process. They don’t do anything else in the hive. Nothing. Male bees can’t sting as they have the other kind of prick, and are known as “drones”. Male bees are larger and sturdier in form than female workers and make a lower pitch sound when flying, hence the name “drone”.

PopulationFluctuationIn Spring, the colony rapidly multiples in size.

The days are warming up, the sun is starting to shine, flowers beginning to bloom. If conditions are right, the queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day so the colony ramps from 10,000 bees to around 40,000 bees. The colony needs to build up a workforce, and to feed all these developing bees. This workforce is needed to build up honey stores for the upcoming Winter. Workers collect sugary nectar and protein rich pollen from flowers, to feed the hive and help grow the developing larvae and pupae, and prepare enough food for the cooler months.

In Summer, the colony rises to 60,000 bees

rapid colony growth continues to a peak of around 60,000 bees. The female worker bees are out collecting pollen and nectar, male drones are lazily cruising for virgin queens. The long term goal for workers is to collect enough nectar and convert it to honey, supplying ample food storage for the cold Winter months.

Approaching Autumn, the colony size starts to reduce

hopefully the large workforce has done its job collecting ample quantities of nectar and converted it to honey. The days are cooling, and the queen starts reduces her egg laying. In general, it take three weeks for an egg to develop into a pupae, then into a pupae, and then emerging out of the larval cell. This egg / larvae / pupae period is known as “brood”. Adult bees only live for around 6 weeks. So as the queen reduces her laying, the colony starts to reduce in size with natural attrition, to around 20,000 bees in Autumn.

In Winter, the males get kicked out, and reduces to 10,000

the colony retreats into the hive, and tightly clusters together to stay warm. It reduces in size further to around 10,000 bees, and kicks all of the drones out into the cold to die! The logic is they don’t perform any useful function over Winter, so might as stop them feeding on the precious food stores. It’s crucial for the harvesting beekeeper to leave enough honey for the Wintering bees – they’ll need around 20 kg to survive. A healthy hive will collect around 40 kgs in a year, so some careful harvesting in Autumn allows the spoils to be shared with the hoomans. The bees generally wont venture out at all over Winter, and will wait until the days get warmer and drier in Spring. As the Winter bees fly less, they also live longer.

Should the colony survive Winter with enough bees to keep the hive warm, and enough honey to eat, they’ll emerge in Spring to start the cycle all over again.

The moral of the tale is…

The thing that amazes me about this cycle is that bees in Spring and Summer might not live long enough to rest on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The whole enterprise in the warmer months is about building up honey stores to survive the cooler Winter months. Those Spring and Summer bees literally fly their little hearts out, for the benefit of the colony, their Winter sisters and future Spring and Summer brothers. If a single bee chose to fly less they would live longer, as the Wintering bees do. But if they all selfishly did that, there wouldn’t be enough honey for the colony to survive and they would all die.

There’s something in that, that we could all learn from.

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