The queen bee is at the top of the totem pole. There is only one active queen for the entire colony. The queen bee of each colony gives off a unique scent that is also acquired by all other bees in the colony, and is what bounds them together. If the queen bee dies (i.e. accidently killed by the beekeeper, disease, predation), then the entire colony is at risk of dying. In this situation the worker bees can produce a new queen by continuing to feed the younger cells royal jelly. Normally they stop feeding new eggs the royal jelly after 3 days, but if they continue after that point, then the egg can evolve to become a queen bee. Thus the worker bees will tend to these cells in a hurry in an effort create a new queen. This is necessary to keep the colony viable if they sense their current queen has died or is sick. The worker bees may also encourage new queen development if they believe the existing queen is reaching the end of its productive life span. Typically the queen cooperates in this case, realizing when it is time to move on. To improve the survival odds the workers will try to produce multiple queen cells. This can sometimes result in multiple queens hatching; which gets resolved through either the strongest queen fighting the others to their death, preemptively killing the other queens that have not yet hatched, or one or more leaving to establish a new hive.
The foragers are the ones that go out searching for pollen and nectar on a variety of plants depending on what is in bloom at the time. They are also responsible for finding new plants they believe to be productive and to report their location back to the colony in the form of a "bee dance". Some believe the decision for future foraging is based on the number and amount of vigor the various foragers apply with this bee dance to communicate new locations. The more that effectively communicate a specific location, the more popular it becomes as a foraging location. Thus there is a reinforcing feedback loop that builds on the popularity of the foraging area.
Guard bees will tend to the entrance of the hive and act as bouncers to prevent bees from other colonies (they each have the scent of the queen) or other prey like wasps, ants, or mice from getting in and raiding the hive of its precious honey stores or the brood itself. For this reason a weak hive is more susceptible of losing its honey stores and thus dying off if it cannot adequately defend itself from others. If you watch the entrance of a hive, especially if it has recently been disturbed, you can typically see a small group of guard bees standing around the entrance that will check other foragers as they return from the field. Guard bees are the ones that will also attack and sting if their hive is disturbed. One difference between the european honey bees found locally in Northern California and the africanized bees found in the southwest desert region of the country is that the entire colony will empty out to attack a threat (and with much more vigor) versus just the guard bees.
The worker bees are a separate group that tend to the hive inside, creating new cells for the queen bee to lay its eggs (thousands a day), and taking care of these cells and subsequent nurse bees that emerge but are still too young to tend for themselves. They are also responsible for creating the honey and establishing a separate area in the hive for its storage. The honey serves as the food source for the entire colony, and also intended to last them through the winter when plants for more dormant until the next spring when nectar can be gathered again. The workers also keep the colony clean, dragging those that have died or too sick to be productive. If you watch a hive long enough, you can watch them fly out with another bee in their hands and legs, sometimes flying about 10 to 20 feet from the hive before dropping the dead and returning. In this way they help keep the colony and surrounding area clean and free from parasites.
Last on the totem pole will be the drones, whose only purpose is to mate and fertilize the queen when a new colony is being established. Otherwise they tend to be just bums, neither foraging or helping around the hive. As a result, at the end of the foraging season near the end of the fall season and when it is no longer likely a new queen will be needed, the workers will kick out most of the drones in order to improve the efficiency and odds that the colony can survive through the winter. Speaking of which, winter is the toughest time of the year for honey bees given the pollen and nectar output from plants will be less for foraging, so they must rely more on what they have accumulated during the earlier part of the season. The cold also makes it more difficult to keep the brood in the proper temperature range for survival and necessary for new bee development. One advantage of urban beekeeping is that there tend to be a wider variety of plants (from neighbors gardening endeavors) and more likely some that will continue to provide nectar or pollen even in the colder months, and thus helping improve the survival odds for the bee colony during this tougher time of year.
All content and images are property of Stephen Fischer Photography, copyright 2011. Last updated: 2/01/2013