Just like human security guards watching over and protecting an important home, guard bees have the same responsibilities for their colony. Their mission: keep the colony’s inhabitants safe from intruders.
There are several different kinds of intruders that guard bees must protect against. They include:
- Honey bees from other colonies, specifically “robber bees”
- Other kinds of predatory insects, such as ants, moths and yellow jackets
- Small critters seeking to take refuge inside a beehive for warmth, such as mice
- Medium sized critters looking to eat bees or honey, such as skunks, raccoons and even some bird species
- Large sized predators such as bears
- And, of course, humans, who the bees likely assume intend to rob the colony of its honey
The obvious weapon that a guard bee utilizes, of course, is its powerful sting. There is more, however, to being a guard bee than stinging. Like a human security guard, a guard bee must also be attentive, be able to distinguish between normal activity and real threats, and also be able to quickly call for assistance, if needed.
Honeybees are not born as guard bees. In fact, the youngest bees in a hive make poor guard bees because their stinging capabilities are underdeveloped. It is the oldest bees that have the most developed stings, and the most potent venom. Given older bees’ stinging capabilities, plus the fact that they are old and have the least to lose by dying, it is obvious why the oldest bees in a colony typically take on the role of “guard bee.”
A typical strong colony usually has about ten to twenty guard bees at a time patrolling the entrance of the hive. This number can change depending on the size of the entrance, the season, nearby pressure from robbing, or presence of other threats. Obviously, if a large-sized predator such as a bear approaches a beehive, ten guard bees is not going to be enough to deter an attack. In that case, the guard bees quickly call for reinforcements, using an alarm pheromone. In such an attack, the entire colony is placed on alert, and all worker bees temporarily become guard bees, sacrificing their lives to protect the colony.