bee biology

Why are my honey 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.


Why are bees different colors? Because they have different fathers.

Bees of many colors. © Rusty Burlew.


  • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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,

      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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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,

    Thanks for the information on the diversity of bees within a single colony. I bought a nuc in early July and have been noticing almost the exact variation among the workers as illustrated in the photo….and I was having the same concerns about robbing.

    However, I do have another question. I’ve been feeding my bees during the dearth (it’s August now) and added another deep brood super two weeks ago. My concern is, I have not seen any drones, either capped cells or hatched. Should I be concerned? The queen is beginning to lay in the upper brood box to which I transferred three frames from the bottom.

    • Conrad,

      I don’t know where you are writing from and that could make a difference, but in much of North America drones are being expelled for the winter. From now until next spring, you shouldn’t see any signs of drones unless, of course, you live in a warm climate. See “It’s not a good time to be male.”

  • HI I’m not sure if you’ve answered this already or not but in my hive (Warre, top bars, no foundation, Italian bees) it’s brand new this year and while very active my husband and I have noticed that not only are there many color bees but also bees that are varying sizes. I know some could be drones? But some come in with pollen sacs full and there are way too many different sizes for it to be just drones and workers. Is this normal for a new colony that is making its own comb for the first time? Some are tiny and others quite large all seem to be working though. I was initially worried about robbing. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    • Natalie,

      Honey bees are different sizes for the same reason they can be different colors. The queen mates with about a dozen drones, so the bees have a variety of sizes and colors and disease resistance and abilities. Even in a family with the same parents, the children are not identical.

  • Hey Rusty,

    As a follow up to my earlier comment. While we still have many sizes the incredibly large bees that I saw were in fact new queens out on maiden flights. Our hive split a total of 2 times now and they appear to be getting ready to again. We’ve added extra space so that’s not the issue. Just a really healthy hive I guess we started them from a package beginning of April and they’ve filled almost five boxes now and we have another hive that we caught from their swarm (probably weighed about 2-3lbs) that is already filling out comb two days after being put in the new Warre hive. We’re super excited especially because we were told they wouldn’t swarm in their first season. The original queen that came with them had a clipped wing which I didn’t know until after we got her that they even did that so maybe that was the original reason they were replacing her? Either way I wanted to thank you for all your helpful articles and advice. Our bees are going like crazy.

  • I just googled “gray bees” because I noticed bees of several colorations pollinating our blackberry bushes. I’m glad to know this is a good sign for bee hive health. What would we do without them?!

  • I have seen a couple of larger almost black bees. They concern me. Is there anyway to send a picture to show you?

  • Hello I have a new queen just hatched in a NUC. The first time I spotted her she was a dark tan colour. I inspected a few weeks later and the new queen must be successfully mated as there are now quite a few workers being laid. My question is does a queen change colour a little as she matures? Like I said above the first time I saw her she was a tan colour and now I see she is much darker with just traces of the tan colour. Thank you

    • Tony,

      To me, a virgin queen can look quite different from a mated one. As far as color goes, I don’t really know but I suppose it’s possible that the color changes as their hormone levels spike.

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