Why are my bees different colors?

“I’m worried about my bees. They are very busy and the brood frames are full but the bees are so different; some are yellow, some brown or gray, and some are almost solid black. Is my hive being invaded by robbers? What should I do?”

Good question. What you are most likely seeing is a strong colony with a good variety of genetic material. Far from being a bad sign, a mix of colors is an indicator that your queen is sufficiently mated.

As you know, a queen bee mates many times before she begins to lay eggs. The sperm from all the different drones is mixed together and held in a storage organ called the spermatheca. For the rest of her life, the queen draws from this supply to fertilize the eggs which will become workers or new queens.

Each female bee in the colony will get half of her genetic material from her mother (the queen) and half from her father (one of the drones). For the sake of argument, let’s say this particular queen mated 16 times.

A subfamily for every drone

Sixteen matings means that the queen’s offspring can be divided into 16 different subfamilies. Each of these subfamilies has the same mother, but a different father. In human terms, the offspring are very much like half siblings: one mother, different fathers.

All the bees in one subfamily (that is, all bees having the same mother and father) will be very similar to each other, even though they are not identical. They are not identical because the genes from the mother (who has two sets of chromosomes) will sort out in different ways when she is producing eggs (which have one set of chromosomes). The genes from the father will all be the same since he has only one set of chromosomes to begin with. Overall, however, the bees within one subfamily will be very similar to each other.

Bees belonging to different subfamilies will be less similar to each other because, even though the mother is the same, the father is different. These bees have thousands of traits you cannot see, but one you can see is color. So when you open your hive and see different colors and patterns, you know you are seeing the offspring of different drones.

Multiple matings can strengthen a colony

It is well known that multiple matings lead to strong colonies, and it is easy to see why. Let’s say, for example, that one of the 16 drones is a strong, fast flier but he’s allergic to apple pollen. One whiff and he keels over dead. (I’m making this up, so don’t fret over apple trees.)

He will pass this bad gene to all of his offspring. At this point, I don’t want to get into dominant and recessive genes or the regulation of genetic expression by other factors. Suffice it to say that, depending on the mother’s genetics, this defect may show up in some of his progeny.

For the sake of argument, let’s say it shows up in 50% of his children, and that those bees will die at the first scent of apple pollen. Because of multiple matings, those that die will be only 50% of 1/16 of the colony (half of one subfamily) or 1/32 of the entire colony (about 3%). A colony can survive a loss of 3%. If, however, that drone was the only father, the colony would lose half the bees—a very different story.

Mitigating the bad genes

Although I used an on/off, all-or-nothing example to illustrate my point, many real-life negative traits are suppressed by multiple matings. Disease resistance, overwintering ability, foraging distances, stress regulation, and thousands of other things are genetically controlled, and damage to the colony by so-called “bad genes” can be mitigated by multiple matings.

So next time you see bees of many colors, know that the wonders of nature and genetic inheritance are helping your colony along. Celebrate! Everything is working according to plan.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bees of many colors share a hive.
Bees of many colors. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

chini
Reply

I love seeing the different colors of my bees. And it’s so cool to go into a hive and all the drones are the same. I know to look for a blonde queen when I see a lot of blonde drones running around.

cgrey8
Reply

Rusty correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I understand, this is THE reason backyard beekeepers would do well to buy a new queen every year or every few years from a keeper where the purchased queen had access to a large apiary of drones…the more hives the better.

Contrast that with a backyard beekeeper’s queens. If the backyard beekeeper only has 2 hives and no other colonies in the area, then regardless of how good the mother queen’s hive was, the mating opportunity for the new virgin queen is going to be limited to drones from the 2 local hives. Since drones are unfertilized eggs, the drones carry only genetic info from the mother queen, thus it doesn’t matter how well-mated the mother queen was, the drones will only carry genetic material of the queen. Thus even if the new virgin mated 15-20 times, if all the drones were from the 2-hive apiary, then that’s not very diverse. And if 1/2 the drones were from the same queen as the virgin queen was from, there’s only about 25% new genetic material for the new queen to work with.

Now what I don’t know is how identical or diversified drones from a queen are. I have to believe brother-drones are not clones. So brother-drones can pass on different traits. So while a queen with only 2-hives worth of drones isn’t ideal, it’s not completely useless. But for those that know, what are your experiences/thoughts/opinions on this matter? And are the common tell-tale signs of a “poorly” mated queen or a queen that’s been inbred too many times?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I was hoping no one would ask this yet as I’m working on several posts on queen genetics and bee breeding which aren’t ready. However, the short answer is I think your very best queens are local to your geographic area, most probably the ones you raise yourself. The reasons will be in those posts.

For various reasons, I would rather my queens mate with ferals or bees from other apiaries rather than mate from all the drones within one apiary, even if it is a big one.

Remember, though, that honey bees easily fly five miles. A circle with a five-mile radius contains 50,265 acres. It is highly unlikely that there are no honey bee colonies, managed or feral, within that area. You don’t have to worry about it; the queens and drones will meet up in establish drone congregation areas and chances are that mating will be good.

A drone mating from a couple of colonies as you describe most likely would not produce a viable colony. The reason being that such a situation would produce a lot of diploid drones and not enough viable workers. For more on diploid drones see, “What they didn’t teach you in bee school.”

More later. The posts on genetics are hard to write, but I’m deep into them. They will come.

Tom
Reply

I wondered just the other day when I was watching one of my hives, why I had such different colors in one hive. Thank you for explaining it to me!

Betty
Reply

Solitary wood bees are using my patio as a favorite hangout spot. How can I get them to go away?

Rusty
Reply

Betty,

Make sure your patio furniture is painted or treated, and then provide some untreated lumber for the bees to use and place it away from the patio. In other words, try to divert them.

Aaron Dionne
Reply

What Chini said all of a sudden makes sense to me, that all of the drones will look similar to the queen, because the drones come from unfertilized eggs, and therefore get no genetics from a father. They only get genetics from their queen mother.

Rusty
Reply

Aaron,

Right. There will be some variation because each of the eggs receive only half of the queen’s genetic material, but there is no genetic input from a male bee.

Anna
Reply

Your article reminded me of a scene from “More Than Honey” that I found very painful and upsetting to watch: an old beekeeper in the Austrian mountains killed one of his queens because she had mated with yellow drones and started producing mixed color offspring instead of just black ones. Later, one of his colonies died because of foulbrood. I remember reading in at least one other source that it is better for the colony when the queen is, well, more promiscuous …And I love this photo of so many colors of bees!

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

I didn’t like that scene either.

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