bee biology

Bees of a different color

Ever wonder why you sometimes see bees of a different color in one hive? Maybe some are black and some are yellow? The answer is simple genetics. Since a queen may mate with many different drones (as many as 20), the progeny of that queen may look strikingly different from one another. Italian drones, for example, have a good chance of fathering yellow bees, and Carniolan drones may father black bees. And while those characteristics are clearly visible, other differences exist which are not so easy to see. Many differing traits within a single hive—including things like wintering ability and disease resistance—are a result of the drone’s chromosomes.

Multiple mating is nature’s way of assuring a mix of genetic information in the hive. If the queen mated just once, then all her offspring would be genetically similar. And genetic similarity is a negative trait when it comes to long-term survival of a species.

Different colored bees in one hive are like different colored cats in one litter. And the reason is exactly the same. A female cat may mate with more than one tom and give birth to a litter of half-siblings—just the same as bees.

Honey Bee Suite

Bees of a different color in one hive.

Half sisters? Yellow bees and black bees in one hive.


  • Thank you for answering this question. I just introduced my first 2 nucs to their new hive boxes 3 days ago and was inspecting them today. Kept noticing black bees intermixed with the golden yellow Italians. I found it interesting and was going to ask a fellow beekeeper tomorrow. Thought it could be a mixture of bees from the source but genetics makes good sense too.

    Also would like to ask about the color of my 2 queens. I was told the bees I was buying were Italians which I believe they are. Both queens look great and healthy but different in color. One is golden/yellow the other is almost a rust/dark red color. I assume genetics or possibly age? Just guessing though so I’d love to hear your insight on this.

    Love your site!


    One of the frames in one of the nucs had abnormal (wavy) comb. Any advice on correcting this? Will they fix it? Should I just leave it alone? Thanks

    • Hi Jon,

      I think the differences in color are just genetic variations and nothing to do with age. Just like two collies may look different, two queens may look different. Variety is good. The more genetic diversity in your apiary, the better.

      Wavy combs happen, usually when the bees have too much room to build. They will not fix it. I would just leave it alone, unless it is causing problems during inspections. If it’s in the way, just cut the comb away and return the frame to them so they can rebuild.

  • I have a photo of a bee inspired a few years ago and the colors were almost blue and pink. What does this mean? Is it a bee at all? Unable to post pictures.

  • Hi Rusty,

    We’re on our third year with the same stock of bees which we got as swarms in the middle of freak late-spring snowstorm. The bees in both colonies were rather dark in color when we first got them, and quite quickly the bees from both colonies – one more dramatically than the other – became mostly a golden color, with fainter stripes. We figured that they’d replaced their queens and didn’t think much of it, but the bees were much darker again in the fall, until the following spring. Then a bunch of golden bees again. Of course there is variation in color within the colonies, but on average all of the bees are quite a lot darker in the autumn to spring. We’ve noticed the same thing with all of their daughter colonies this year, now spread out over 3 locations, 8 colonies. I’ve searched here and around the Internet for anything on color differences in winter bees and have found nothing – am I crazy? I assume that they have some good genetic diversity since we live in a small city with a lot of bees, and a bee tree that’s at least 9 years old within a mile.

    The other unusual thing that we’ve noticed is that all of the colonies forage at much lower temperatures than we’ve seen described anywhere. Our colonies start foraging in the low 40s – they don’t seem desperate, just happy to get out, looking for water and finding a bit of pollen from the crocuses that started blooming downtown recently. They all have plenty of honey – top deeps are still mostly full. We are in Colorado and the hives all get direct southern light for most of the day, so I expect that the intensity of the sun helps explain part of what we’re observing, but I also have to wonder if the color changes we’re observing might be an inherited trait that helps with their cold-hardiness? We’d be grateful for any insight you have.

    • Anne,

      Bees get darker when they get older for two reasons. First, their hairs wears off due to rubbing against each other in the hive. Secondly, the integument (skin) of the bee naturally gets darker as they age. Based on those two things, it makes sense that fall and winter bees will be darker than spring and summer bees, assuming their genetics are all the same.

      • Hi Rusty,

        I just realized that I didn’t respond to this but thank you. All of our colonies overwintered successfully again last winter (thanks entirely to your advice) and I’ve made a point to watch more closely this year. We now have 24 hives that we’re monitoring this winter. In the past several weeks, since our first frost (which was dramatic, with a more than 60 degree drop in 24 hours!) the bees on “average” (which of course is very complicated) are significantly darker, specifically the bands of black seem much thicker compared to the light and some are almost completely black. Based on your advice I looked closely at a lot of them, and many of the darker bees are also very fuzzy and young – they seem comparatively darker than the older bees. Last year they were darker than now in early spring, but in the past month the change is rather dramatic, like a close friend changing hair color. I would be interested in any ideas you might have for quantifying what we’re observing for next season, or if you have any other thoughts. Thanks so much for providing such thoughtful resources for beekeepers and for sharing you knowledge.

  • Hi Rusty

    This spring I used a queen castle to put queen cells and nurse bees in. One section was empty. The queen cell in one didn’t take so I planned to unite the queenright and queenless that were right next to each other. To be safe I put my queen under a screen I tried to release her twice and the bees tried to ball her. I took a hard look at the queenless girls and found a queen. I have no idea where she came from. There were no other cells. Anyway my question is about the Mystery Queen. She is striped. And I mean obviously striped. She looks like a queen, lays like a queen etc. In fact she is laying very well and has a wonderful brood pattern. Busy girl. I have never seen a striped queen. Have you? What kind of queen could this be?

  • I thought about this today and came to an idea bees of different color are to ward off Asian parasites as well as other insects or predators try to get the bees with the different colors because nature is becoming of age saying we need food we need to survive so help them out and buy bees that flourish a rainbow of colors or the coat with many colors you get the idea so help get the buzz out and share with your beezy neighbors if this works spread the word 😉

  • I have a question that I’m not sure how to phrase. Let’s say a queen mates with exactly 10 drones. When the bees make queen cells do they show any preferential treatment to eggs of a certain parentage? Like if they make 10 queen cells would you see all ten dad’s represented (on average) or do they cull/promote the genetics they think are doing really well?

    • Jessica,

      That’s an interesting question. I don’t know for sure, but I assume it’s random. The worker bees themselves are divided into subfamilies that have different fathers, so if they can decern different parentage in the young larvae (which I don’t know), it seems they might have different preferences. I think the health and age of the young larvae are more important than their genetic origin.

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