Honeybees

Honey bees

worker honey bee

Above and below is the honeybee body which has the typical bee shape. Below right is the head of a honey bee showing the tongue. Honey bee size ranges from 12 - 20 mm long. The honeybee is not native to the USA, but was introduced by European settlers.

honey bee head

Honey bee lifecycle

There are around 60,000 - 70,000 bees in the average hive. The queen and workers (all female), and drones (males) are produced when needed.

Honeybee mating - out with a bang!

Usually just a few hundred drones are produced at a time. One or more drones fertilizes the queen during the single nuptial flight. The sperm from the drone is inserted into the queen explosively - the pop can actually be heard! The drone dies after this single mating because when the queen and the drone separate the drone's genitalia (along with some abdominal contents) are hauled out and remains in the queen. The queen can mate more than once however. The next male to mate with her will just scrape out the genitalia of the previous male as he mate with the same fatal, explosive end. The matings continue until the queen judges she has a sufficient store of sperm in her spermatheca to last her a lifetime. Then she returns to the hive. The queen can lay around 2000 eggs per day, and can live for five years, so can lay over one million eggs in her lifetime. It is the queen who has the power to decide whether the egg she lays will be fertilized or unfertilised as she can release or withhold at will sperm stored in her spermatheca. Fertilized eggs can develop into workers or new queens, and unfertilised eggs into drones (males).

The eggs are white and laid singly into the wax cells. They are fixed to the bottom of the cell by a sticky substance secreted by the queen. Fertilised eggs develop into females (workers or queens), and unfertilised eggs develop into males. The eggs hatch into maggot-like grubs (see below) and are fed by the workers. In the first 3 days of larval life the grubs increase their weight 100 times. It is during this time that the grub is fed royal jelly (see below for more about royal jelly). Then on the third day the food is changed to a honey/pollen mix. In just 5 or 6 days the grub is fat and ready to pupate. The workers gather pollen and nectar from flowers. Honey bees, like bumblebees get all their food from flowers. The honeybee worker's tongue is covered in tiny hairs and is long and flexible, so is good for sucking nectar from flowers (see right).

The nectar is carried back to the hive in the stomach of the bee, then it stored and becomes honey as the water in the nectar evaporates and the sugar is more concentrated. Pollen is carried back to the hive in pollen baskets in the bee's hindmost legs, (see below). The first leg has a comb to clean pollen and dust off the antennae and tongue. Below is the hindmost leg of a honeybee showing the flattened area of the pollen basket.

honeybee leg

The drawing below shows, 1. the young larva, 2. the larva just before pupation, 3. the pupa.

honeybee larva and pupa

Honey bees have the typical hexagonally faceted compound eyes of insects, each eye has around 6300 ommatidia (facets), see the drawing of the head above. They also have 3 ocelli, or simple eyes.

Food. Honeybee food consists almost entirely of pollen and nectar. - both from flowers. Pollen is mainly protein, and nectar is mainly carbohydrate.

Wax. Young workers secrete wax from scales on the underside of the abdomen. This wax is moulded to make cells.

Life span. After emerging as an adult a normal worker's life span is just 4 - 6 weeks during the summer months.

Flight speed has been recorded as 2.5 metres per second with a wing beat of 250 per second. Compare this with other insects.

Honeybee Work

On emergence as an adult the worker does a variety of jobs; usually this depends on age and experience.

  1. Inexperienced young workers clean cells and feed older larvae.
  2. They move on to feed younger, more delicate larvae on royal jelly (see below).
  3. Next comes general housekeeping, cleaning, throwing out debris, storing food, ventilating the hive on hot days.
  4. This stage usually occurs at around 3 weeks into adult life. They emerge into the open for the first time and practice flying, then they take up guard duty at the nest entrance.
  5. Finally, the most dangerous job of all - they leave the safety of the hive and their sisters and mother to fly off to forage for food. They forage for food until they die. When winter approaches, or when cold weather prevents foraging, the workers huddle round the queen and feed on stored honey until the weather is better, or spring arrives.

Foraging range. Studies have shown that the normal foraging range of honeybees is 1 - 6 km., however in rare occurrences they have been known to forage as far as 20 km from the hive. Obviously this has implications for the spread of pollen from genetically modified crops.

"Queen substance" is produced by glands in the queen's mandibles (jaw). As long as the queen is healthy this queen substance prevents the development of the workers' ovaries. Once the queen is old or dies the workers ovaries develop and they feed some larva enough royal jelly to produce new queens.

Queen substance is passed throughout the hive like all the other contact pheromones by the bees licking, grooming and feeding each other.

Commercially produced bee products

Why a honeybee dies after it stings us

When a honeybee stings a mammal the bee dies because its sting stays in the mammal's skin and pulls out the poison sac and some of the abdominal contents. This is because the sting is barbed at the end, and mammal skin is stretchy. If the bee were to sting another insect it could easily pull out its sting as the insect is covered with brittle chitin. The muscles attached to the poison sac continue to pump even though they are no longer attached to the bee, so it is important to scrape off or pull out the sting as quickly as possible. There is also an alarm pheromone released with the sting, and this recruits more bees to come and investigate/attack.

The only time a honey bee queen uses her sting is when she kills rival queens in the hive.

Honeybee swarming

Swarming is most common in spring and early summer. The old queen and about half of the bees leave the nest to form a new colony. A newly hatched queen will take over the existing hive and remaining bees. The swarming colony may rest temporarily in "unsuitable places" causing some alarm in the human population.

Local beekeepers will soon capture the swarming colony and re house it in a suitable hive. This is the natural way of increasing their stock.

Differences between bumblebees and honey bees

There are some very important differences between the bumblebee life cycle and the honeybee life cycle.

Varroa destructor

Varroa destructor is a mite that parasitizes honey bees leading to loss of honey and wax, as well as poor pollination of crops.

It was first identified in 1951 in Singapore, and has spread worldwide because of the movement of infected colonies, and the importation of infected queens. Beekeepers aim to "control" Varroa as the cannot eradicate it.

The Beehive Inn, Eamont Bridge

In this hive we are all alive
Good liquor makes us funny
If you be dry step in and try
The virtue of our honey.

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