The fascinating world of honey bees
We all know that bees make honey, but how many of us really understand the inner workings of a beehive? Honey bees are fascinating creatures, living in huge colonies with complex social structures. And that’s before we get into the magic of turning nectar into honey.
If you’re a beekeeper or you’re thinking of becoming one, finding out more about your tiny charges isn’t just interesting – it’s essential. The more you know about the social structure and biology of bees, the easier they are to understand and manage.
Apis Mellifera is the scientific name for what we commonly call the honey bee. This species is one of four honey-producing bees, and is the main type cultivated by humans. Thought to have originated in Eastern Africa, the honey bee spread to Europe and Asia on its own. When humans got involved and started cultivating beehives, the species ended up spreading all over the world.
Like all insects, a bee has six legs and a segmented body. It has two pairs of wings and antennae protruding from its head. Between the antennae lie three simple eyes and two larger compound eyes, which help it see colour and identify flowers for nectar collection. Worker bees are designed for nectar and pollen collection, with a second nectar-storage stomach and pollen baskets on their back legs.
Although a queen bee can live up to five years, the life cycle of most bees is pretty brief. Once they hatch from their eggs, bee larvae eat for six days, then go into a pupal stage – similar to a butterfly in a chrysalis. After another six to ten days, the adult bees emerge as workers, drones, or a new queen.
A bee colony is more like a huge single organism than a collection of individuals. The health and success of the colony are more important than any single bee, and solo bees can’t survive outside the hive.
Bee colonies are made up of up to 60,000 individual bees – a single queen, a few hundred drones, and thousands of female workers. During the summer, a hive will also contain thousands of eggs, larvae, and pupae.
Wild bees make their nests in hollow trees or other enclosed spaces, while domestic bees live in man-made hives designed to maximise honey production.
In the hive, bees have designated roles – queen, drone, or worker bee. Drones exist only to fertilise a new queen, and live just a few days before dying after mating. Once fertilised, the queen produces up to 2000 eggs each day. Because worker bees only live for around six weeks in summer, the queen must lay enough eggs to keep the population of the colony stable. She also produces a pheromone that attracts other bees and keeps the colony together.
The female worker bees do everything else to keep the hive humming along – they feed larvae, produce honeycomb, collect nectar and pollen, keep the hive clean, ventilate the hive by vibrating their wings, and make honey.
Bees produce honey during the warm summer months and store it to feed the colony through the winter. Each worker bee visits thousands of flowers to collect nectar and helps turn it into sweet, nutrient-rich honey. As a side-effect, bees also help to pollinate a wide range of plants by collecting pollen and spreading it between flowers.
The honey-making process starts when worker bees leave the hive to seek flowering plants and trees. When a bee finds a suitable flower, she will suck nectar from the bloom, storing it in a special ‘honey crop’ stomach. As she goes, her fuzzy legs collect pollen, which is also carried back to the hive.
When the bee’s honey crop is full, she returns to the hive. At the hive entrance, the store of nectar is passed to one of the bees on honey-making duty, who then passes it to another, and another. Transferring the nectar between bees reduces the moisture content and adds enzymes from the bees’ saliva, which break down the sugars in the nectar and eventually help it turn into honey. Each droplet of nectar is deposited into a honeycomb cell, which is then capped with wax. Surprisingly, the process of turning nectar into honey only takes around half an hour.
The honey dance
One particularly unique aspect of bee society is the honey dance. If a worker bee finds a nectar-rich area on her foraging journey, she will return to the hive and let the other bees know. She does this by performing a ‘dance’ that includes specific movements to communicate the distance and direction of the new food source, so other bees can find it and collect more nectar. It’s all part of the incredibly organised, efficient working of a honey bee colony.