Creating a Buzz about the Sweet Lives of Honeybees

igure 1: Honeybees tending their queen.

Figure 1: Honeybees tending their queen. Can you find her? Photo courtesy of Brenda Snape

I remember going out on sunny days and watching bees fly in and out of their hive; legs heavy with orange, yellow, red, or white pollen (Figure 1). If you haven’t guessed, our post today is about honeybees.

Honeybees (Apis melliferaI) are native to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Captive honeybees are subspecies of this species, and many have been crossed and bred for differences in temperament, honey production, over-winter capabilities and other traits that a beekeeper might desire. Today, Honeybees face other challenges like new diseases and parasites, and each variety is evaluated to assess their ability to withstand these new threats1.  Let’s fly into a honeybee hive and see its workings and the wonderful bees that make it thrive.

When we first approach the hive, we see several bees at the entrance. These bees are doing a couple different jobs. Some are lined up in rows with their rear ends up in the air buzzing their wings. These bees are fanning. You can see this behavior in the above video. They are moving air though the hive keeping it well ventilated and cool. That is pretty important when you can have 50,000 bees in one hive2. As we fly closer, we’ll see bees around the entrance. If you watch, you’ll notice they check out everyone who goes in. Bees identify hive-mates by how they smell. If you don’t smell like one of the hive, watch out. They chase off invaders and even kill them.

Figure 2: Honeybee life cycle.

Figure 2: Honeybee life cycle. Image courtesy of Stacey Guerrero’s Blog

Since we are one of the hive, these guard bees let us pass. Guarding is an important job and is handled by bees that are three weeks old2. Bees from other hives will steal honey if they are let inside. Worker bees have different jobs according to their age. The youngest bees, up to 1 week old, clean out the hive and feed developing larvae (Figure 2). Looking around, we see bees up to two weeks old building brand new honeycomb and receiving food from incoming bees2. These incoming bees are the oldest, ranging from three to seven weeks old. They are the foragers. They go out of the hive and find pollen and nectar to feed the rest of the hive (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Foraging honeybee with pollen laden legs.

Figure 3: Foraging honeybee with pollen laden legs. Photo courtesy of Alan Hammond

If we follow one of the incoming bees, we’ll see something amazing. Bees talk to each other. Not in the way we think of talking, but in a dance language. I encourage you to watch this video to learn the amazing language of honeybees.

There are other bees besides workers. One very special bee is the queen. She is distinct in her size and shape (Figure 1 and 4). She is the only egg layer in a healthy hive and is larger than other bees. She has a large abdomen for egg laying: up to 1,500 eggs each day4. She is surrounded by worker bees who feed and clean her. She maintains her rule through pheromones; signaling chemicals that mark the bees, communicate with them, and prevent them from laying eggs themselves. The queen lays a single egg in a honeycomb cell, and worker bees attend this egg once it hatches into larvae. They feed and care for the larvae until it pupates and becomes an adult. Once it emerges, it is checked out by the workers. If it’s healthy, it begins life as part of the hive.

Figure 4: Honeybee castes and their forms.

Figure 4: Honeybee castes and their forms. Using this information, can you find the queen in Figure 1. Image courtesy of Digital Museum of Natural History

As the queen ages or dies, her lack of pheromones or lack of brood signals the worker bees to raise a new queen3. If the hive gets too crowded, the old queen will lay an egg to be raised as a queen and will leave with some of the workers to find a new home. This is called swarming (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Honeybee swarm.

Figure 5: Honeybee swarm. Photo courtesy of T. Munk

In a beehive, the worker bees are all female.  Male honeybees are called Drones. Drones come from unfertilized eggs and have large eyes and abdomens (Figure 4). Their job is to mate with the queen and produce workers and future queen bees. It sounds like a cushy life, but come winter, they are the first to go out in the cold4.

There is so much more I could say about these amazing insects. Our health and food supply depends on them. Click here to see a list of foods in the grocery that are pollinated by bees.

There are many threats to our honeybees. Invading diseases and parasites cripple and even destroy hives, and there is a lot of research being done on how to treat them. Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, disrupt and even kill bees. Be careful about plants you buy and flowers you use in your yard. We’ll talk more about this in our next post on March 18. See you then!

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