The bee hive is fascinating because there are two levels of organism in the hive: the bee as individual and the hive as a whole.
The male bees are drones. They are the result of the queen laying an unfertilized egg with only one set of chromosomes: hers. As a result the drone has a grandfather but not a father since no sperm was involved directly in his creation. The queen lays the drone in a larger cell and he takes longer to grow and emerge. A drone chews his way out of his cell in 24 days.
The drone has no stinger and very large eyes. His large eyes evolved to help him see the queen when he is mating with her. Drones are great for beginners to pick up because they won't get stung. The drone looks a little like a cigar.
The job of the drone is to fly into the drone congregation area and be available for a queen to mate. There are drone congregation areas high in the air where drones from many hives gather. The queen flies through this area and mates with many drones - an average of 7 to 17. In the process of mating, the drone's penis literally explodes into the queen, breaks off and the drone falls to earth dead. He doesn't even get to enjoy his only purpose in living.
The rest of the time, the drone is just in the hive, being fed by the workers and doing mostly nothing until he flies out again to mate. At the end of bee season, the drone is a drain on the hive's resources and the worker bees cast him out to die. Bees go through the winter as an all-female group.
The female bees are divided into two castes: the workers and the queens
Worker larvae are fed royal jelly for the first few days, but then they are fed brood food: a milky mixture of pollen, bee saliva, and other elements. The worker is a non-functional female - she is unable to mate.The workers are the life blood of the hive.
The worker bees do most of the important jobs in the hive. When a worker emerges about 21 days after the egg is laid, she immediately goes to work, cleaning the cell from which she just emerged. Each job prepares her for the next. She gains strength in various muscle groups as she takes on different responsibilities.
She is a nurse bee for a while, feeding the larvae. She tends to the queen, feeding the queen, grooming the queen, and removing the queen's personal waste from the hive. She builds comb, receives nectar and pollen from foraging workers. She serves as a hive ventilator (in the process strengthening her wings for her last role as forager). She becomes a guard bee, protecting the hive from predators. Finally she is a forager bee and flies out into the world to collect nectar and pollen.
The worker bee who becomes a forager is also an important communicator in the hive. When she returns after she has visited a nectar source, it is her job to communicate through a dance (in the dark) the location of the source so other bees can also collect nectar there.
I think it's fascinating that she does most of her work in the dark and then does most of her work in the daylight - what a dramatic change! In bee season her life is quite short - only about three weeks. In the winter the over-wintering workers live much longer. You can tell an old forager bee as she flies into the hive because her wings will be tattered and worn.
And when she dies, one of her sister workers will become a mortician bee and carry her dead sister out of the hive and away to drop her body on the ground.
The queen emerges from her specially constructed cell in about 16 days. Evolution-wise this is a brilliant plan because if a hive is queenless, it is in dire straits and the early emergence of a queen really helps.
Bees need a queen when the old queen begins to lay badly or for some other reason seems unsuitable to the hive. They need a queen if their queen were squashed by the beekeeper in an inspection. There are many reasons for the bees to need a queen. Often hives make queen cells sort of for insurance in case they lose their queen. You'll find "queen cups" on frames all the time without eggs in them, ready to be used as a queen cell should the need arise.
When bees need a queen, they construct a queen cell which looks just like a peanut in the shell at Five Guys. It hangs off of the frame and is obviously bigger than any other cell in the hive. The queen is fed royal jelly exclusively throughout her larval stage. The good feeding of a queen is crucial for her development into a strong queen.
Bees usually create a lot of queen cells to assure that at least one of them does succeed. "Swarm cells" are queen cells that are placed on the bottom of the frame. Emergency queens (made by the bees when their queen is lost unexpectedly) are found in the middle of the frame. At emergencies like that, the bees pick the best egg they can find and turn that egg or eggs into a queen cell or cells.
When the first queen emerges, she goes around and stings the remaining queens through their queen cells so that she alone is the queen.
She still has a lot of challenges ahead. She spends a few days hardening and maturing in the hive. She then has to fly out of the hive and successfully mate and then return unscathed to the hive. This series of events has many hazards - she could be eaten by a bird; she could die some other way while away from the hive; the weather could be bad and interfere with her mating time. She may make several mating flights. When she returns, she never leaves the hive again unless she goes with a swarm.
The queen isn't really the ruler of the hive. She is simply an egg-laying machine just like the drone is a flying sperm. She spends her days laying eggs - sometimes 1000 eggs or so a day. She pauses for grooming and feeding but mostly lays eggs. Because bees have short lives and the hive depends on good population to carry out their foraging, the queen is essential to the hive and a hive with a laying queen is called "queenright."
The Hive as an Organism
In addition to the individuals in the hive, the hive itself functions as a whole living organism. From a Darwinian perspective, the hive as a whole feels a need to reproduce itself in the spring. The biological pressure is to split into two and to swarm.
In the early spring there is a tremendous push to build up the population of the hive. This serves two purposes - either to support a swarm or to provide lots of work force for gathering nectar and making honey.
A strong hive will be inclined to swarm. The hive prepares the queen for swarming - they put her on a diet and run her around the hive to get her in better shape for flying. On the day of the swarm (decided by the workers), the queen leaves usually between 10 AM and 2 PM with about half of the workers in the hive. About 75% of the bees who leave with her are young bees. This gives the new hive a better chance to succeed. The swarm flies away from the original hive and hangs somewhere on a branch or the side of a building or wherever the queen lands while they decide where to make their new home.
According to Tom Seeley in Honey Bee Democracy, at this point the bees begin a complex democratic decision making process, communicating by dance on the surface of the swarm. The communication is about new living spaces which scout bees check out thoroughly. When the decision is finally made by the scout bees, the swarm leaves the place where it is hanging and moves into the new home.
The beekeeper loves to find a swarm still hanging - it's free bees! When that happens the beekeeper takes the bees to their new home, but the job of the swarm is to find its own home and thus perpetuate the species.