Life in a Beehive
A honeybee hive usually has between 20 000 and 80 000 bees living together in a colony. A colony is made up of one queen bee and several hundred drones (males), with female worker bees making up the balance. All the bees share one goal: survival of the colony.
Queen Bee (Mother of the Hive)
Each honeybee colony usually has only one fertile female: the queen and she lays all the eggs in the hive. In the spring, when the colony is growing at its fastest pace, a productive queen can lay up to 2 000 eggs per day. She spends most of her life in the brood chamber of the hive and depends on the worker bees to feed her and dispose of her waste. When worker bees decide that a new queen is needed (because, for example, her egg production is dwindling), they feed a new larva on royal jelly alone. As a result, it develops into a sexually mature female bee. She is fed only royal jelly for the rest of her life, which can be up to four years. You can recognize the queen by her longer and larger abdomen, although beekeepers often mark her with a permanent pen or a daub of paint so she’s easier to identify. Beekeepers need to make sure the queen stays healthy and continues to lay eggs so that the colony survives.
Drones are male bees and their sole purpose is to mate with the queen: they don’t work, don’t make honey and can’t sting. Since a queen only needs to mate once, most of the drones won’t even get the chance to fulfil their role. But worker bees keep them around, just in case a new queen needs mating. Drones usually live for about eight weeks and, in that time, have all their needs met by worker bees. In the fall, the worker bees kick the drones out of the hive because keeping them through the winter demands too much work and food. You can recognize drones because they are stouter and a little bit longer than worker bees. Their eyes are twice the size of worker bees’ eyes because a drone needs good eyesight when he follows the young queen high up in the air to mate.
Worker bees are female but are not capable of reproducing. They do all the work in the hive, and they control most of what goes on inside. Their jobs include housekeeping, feeding the queen, drones and larvae, collecting the pollen and nectar, and making the wax. Because they work so hard, during the busy season worker bees live for only about six weeks. Worker bees are shorter and more slender than drones and the queen, and their back legs have special baskets to help them collect pollen. Like the queen, they also have stingers, but they can only sting mammals once and then they die. They can, however, sting other insects over and over again to protect the hive.
A Worker Bee’s Life
At various stages of life that last maximum 50 days, worker bees are assigned different tasks, all aimed at ensuring the survival of the colony.
|Nursing & Serving|
Making honey is an important task for worker bees. They feed it to the developing larvae and also need it as a food source over the winter. The work involved in gathering nectar from flowers and transforming it into honey back in the hive requires that all the worker bees in a colony work together. The honey made by bees is, of course, also enjoyed by people, as well as by other animals and insects.
At some point, as a means of transforming nectar (which is 70 percent water) into honey (which is 17 percent water), worker bees fan their wings at top speed. As the air circulates, the moisture evaporates.
Wax Making and Building
At a certain age, glands on the underside of worker bees’ bellies begin to produce wax flakes. They use this wax to build new cells and to cap the ones storing ripened honey. Wax making takes a lot of energy. Bees need to eat 8 kg of honey to produce just 1 kg of beeswax.
At some point, the young worker bee is responsible for receiving the nectar from a foraging bee returning to the hive, and putting it into a cell. She also adds an enzyme to it, which helps ripen the honey. If there are not enough worker bees on hand to take in the nectar from foraging bees, they will perform a special dance, called the “tremble dance,” to encourage other worker bees to help out with this job. Bees use different dances to communicate with each other.
All bees, except the queen, depend on flower pollen as a protein source and nectar (a sweet liquid found in
flowers) as an energy source. At midlife, worker bees begin to go out of the hive to collect nectar, a sweet liquid from flowering plants such as fruit trees and pollen to feed her hive mates, including the larvae. They cover a radius of about 4 km from the hive and visit 4 410 000 flowers to make 1 kg of honey. A single worker bee makes just 0.8 g (1/10 of a teaspoon) of honey over a lifetime. Foraging is a difficult and dangerous job for worker bees and, eventually, their bodies wear out. In the open fields, they face huge risks, such as getting chilled or even being eaten by a bird. They work as long as they can, but most worker bees die while out foraging. Bees use special dances to tell other foragers where to find good sources of nectar and pollen. This is an important but dangerous task. Worker bees will continue this job until they eventually die, at about six weeks old.
Since honeybees can’t talk, they perform special dances as a means of communication. They use dances to relay different messages, from the need to swarm, to the direction of and distance to a source of food. Field bees use the “waggle dance” in particular. When they find a great source of nectar, they perform the dance back at the hive to tell other bees where to find the flowers. The dance shows the direction of the flowers relative to the sun, and the bees automatically adjust the dance according to the changing position of the sun in the sky. The speed of the dance indicates how far the nectar is from the hive.
Caring for the Colony
All bees work together to ensure the survival of the colony. Every bee has a special job to help keep the colony healthy. Worker bees are responsible for cleaning the hive, feeding the young, guarding the hive and many other tasks in the hive.
A beehive is one of the cleanest and most sterile natural environments. Worker bees keep it that way to prevent disease. All cells need to be cleaned before they are reused for storing honey or new eggs. Young worker bees also remove diseased and dead larvae or bees from the hive as quickly as possible, taking them as far away from the hive as they can. If they sting a large intruder (like a mouse) to death, it’s too big for them to remove. Instead, they seal the body off with propolis (a sticky substance containing antimicrobial properties) that they collect from trees. Propolis is often called “bee glue”.
Nursing and Serving
Worker bees must also care for the developing larvae. They feed them a combination of honey, pollen and royal jelly. The worker bees check on each larva over 1 000 times per day. And because the queen and drones can’t look after themselves, worker bees must care for them, too. They feed them, groom them and remove their body waste from the hive. They even encourage the queen to keep laying eggs.
Once a worker bee’s stinger has developed, she can take on the job of keeping the hive safe. Guard bees position themselves at the hive’s entrance to detect intruders (including bees from other hives), often by smell. Worker bees can sting mammals such as skunks only once, but can sting other insects repeatedly without dying.
We are digging our own grave if we are not taking care of bees.
- Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, 2015. Bees A honey for an idea, 43pp.
- David Cramp, 2008. Pratical manual of beekeeping. Training manual; Spring Hill House, Spring Hill Road, 329pp
- Eadly, 2004. Taxonomic revision of the African stingless bees(Apoidea: Apidae: Apinae: Meliponini), African Plant Protection vol. 10, no. 2, 63-96
- GeoChemBio (GCB) - Ecology and General Biology
- Basic Beekeeping Manual 1
- Pam Gregory, 1990. The Life of the Bee. Training manual for Developing countries, 8pp
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