honeybee, is actually a one organism in a super-organism, and maybe one of the most important insects on the face of the earth. What we know as the honey bee is a member of the genus Apis is the genus that honeybees fall into. The Apis genus is distinguished by the storage of honey, and the construction of perennial and colonial nests made of wax. Currently, there are only seven species of honey bee recognized with Apis mellifera, being the western honeybee species. Honeybees create what are called eusocial colonies meaning they have one fertile female (the Queen) and many sterile females (the Workers). The colony will occasionally produce fertile males to breed with virgin queens these are called drones. Honeybees communicate through a complex combination of, dance and odors. The western honeybee was one of the first domesticated insects. I personally didn’t know anyone domesticated other insects, but a short google search proved otherwise. Also, honeybees are one of the few agricultural animals that are truly free range, in fact I can’t think of any other animal that isn’t fenced in, in some way or another. The western honeybee can be found on every continent except for Antartica
Life CycleThere are two different life cycles that have to be looked at when talking about honeybee life cycles. Colonies are made up of multiple different castes that must all work together for the colony to work. No single bee can survive by itself. If that is the case the only way for the honeybee population to grow is for the colony to reproduce into more colonies. The process of honeybee colony reproduction happens through swarming a process called swarming. In order for a colony to swarm the workers first create a new queen (we will talk more about this later). Similar to what you see in other monarchies you can only answer to one queen. So the old queen and a portion of the hive will leave. Swarms often happen in the springtime and you may find them similar to the picture seen to the right. Let me say this as a beekeeper please do not call the exterminator on these girls. They are typically extremely docile since they have no hive to defend. Look up your local beekeepers association and ask if they have a beekeeper who would like to give these girls a home. The reason you find swarms like this is they are all sticking together while some individual bees called scouts go out and look for a new home.
Now let’s talk about the individual bee’s life cycle. First, let’s talk about the queen because she is the foundation for the rest of the bee colony. The queen bee is the fertile female of the colony. Unlike the workers who are also female the queen is the only bee with a fully developed reproductive system. A queen is larger than the workers of the colony typically distinguished by a longer fuller abdomen. The queen goes from cell to cell laying a single egg in honeycomb cells prepared by other workers.
Three days after the queen lays the egg hatches it hatches into a larva. This larva is eyeless and legless and in an open honeycomb. Nurse bees then take care of this larva feeding and tending to it. After a 8 days the nurse bees cap the cell and the young bee entersthe pupal stage. Often these pupa are referred to as sealed brood. At 21 days old an adult bee chews its way out of its cell. Their first task is to clean the cell that they were raised in. They then take up other tasks within the hive. The first task that a newly emerged worker takes is that of a nurse bee. Their job is to go around and feed and take care for the brood (baby bees). Young brood in the larva stage of life may eat up to 1300 times in one day. After this the nurse bees are promoted to a couple different jobs. These include attending to the queen. The queen needs attendant bees because she is so busy laying eggs (around 1,500 day), she doersn’t have time to care for herself. Only a few bees will be attendants though, so the other bees during this time period will take up cleaning and undertaking duties. Undertaking duties? Yes, undertaking duties I know it sounds morbid, but the honey bees actually work themselves to death. Interestingly enough, the undertaker bees first drop their sisters off outside to be mummified, then carry them further off from the hive so that dead bees aren’t littered outside the hive. The next job is constructing comb, around 10-12 days old the worker bees begin to secrete wax. The honeybees have 8 wax producing glands on the bottom of their abdomen that secrete wax for about a week. These glands atrophy as the bee gets older and begins taking making flights. The way that bees build honey comb is through a process called festooning. When bees festoon they connect themselves together into a long chain of bees and hang from the sides of the site that they are building new comb. It is quite an interesting site to see. It reminds me of the barrel of monkeys game that used to be around when I was a kid, where the monkeys arms hang on the tail of the one above it. Well it is similar here except it is no monkey business these girls are expanding the hive so that there is more room for more baby bees, and storage space for pollen and honey. One of the other jobs that construction crews are tasked with is capping brood cells for the brood to enter the pupal stage of growth, and capping ripened honey. After completing their jobs as construction workers, the bees are moved to shelf stocking. They go down to receiving and collect pollen and nectar from the workers out foraging then take it and deposit it in honey cells or pollen cells depending on the product. The shelf stocking bees are also responsible for ripening nectar into honey. They ripen nectar by evaporating the water content of the nectar till it has around 18% moisture. To ripen the honey, and maintain the temperature of the hive for that matter the bees fan their wings. After completing her time in the hive the worker bees move on to become foragers. Foragers carry out three basic tasks collecting nectar and pollen, collecting propolis, and collecting water. The foragers that are out collecting nectar and pollen will visit between 50-100 flowers per visit. In her time as a forager she will collect enough nectar for 1/6th of a teaspoon of honey before dying of exhaustion. The foragers that forage for propolis (resin bees use as a sealant and glue) collect resin from trees and carry it back to the hive in their pollen baskets. Another small percentage of foragers collect water for the hive. The water has two purposes one is to maintain the temperature of the hive through evaporation. The other purpose of the water is to dilute raw honey for the brood, the lower moisture content of the honey could kill the baby bees through osmotic pressure dehydrating the young larva.
Honeybees are well known for one of their most popular products. What most people don’t know is that there are many more products that bees create that are useful to the public and the recreational beekeeper.
One of the the primary items that bees make, are more bees. I discussed earlier that bees naturally reproduce through swarming. This can be synthetically created through multiple different ways that we will discuss later on when discussing, packages, nucs, and splits. These new honeybee hives are sold every year to commercial and recreational beekeepers alike.
One of the primary commercial products that bees produce is pollination. The agriculture industry has grown to meet the demands of the population here on earth, but pollinators occurring in the wild like the mason bee have dwindled. Beekeepers providing pollination services with their bees will transport their bees around the country to meet blooming schedule of agricultural products ranging from almonds in California, to oranges in Florida. Almond pollination is the largest managed pollination event in the world requiring one third of all commercial hives to pollinate the almond crop.
Honey of course is our favorite honeybee product. Bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship. The plants need to have pollen moved from plant to plant to assist in their reproductive cycle, and bees need pollen and nectar as food sources for their hive. The bees collect the nectar in a second stomach sometimes called a honey stomach. There are enzymes in the honey stomach that help breakdown the nectar into honey. The raw nectar goes from over 80% water to under 20% water through the process of making it and curing. After being cured, the worker bees will cap the honey. Honey, has an indefinite shelf life which is good for us and the bees. Honey has been found in the catacombs of Egypt that was still viable. Currently, researchers are studying the antibacterial properties of honey.
We couldn’t talk about the products bees create without discussing beeswax. Beeswax is used in everything from candles, to beauty products. Unlike parafin wax which is a crude oil byproduct beeswax is a natural and safe.
There are a couple of other products that are sometime collected that have alleged health benefits, but the jury is still out on this. These products are pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. We discussed pollen and propolis, but not royal jelly. Royal jelly is a secretion fed to baby bees in the larval stage, small amounts are given to workers, and larger amounts are fed to baby queen bees.
We have only scratched the surface on the mighty honeybee here. If you found this interesting I encourage you to read more about the honeybee. If beekeeping piques your interest I definitely encourage you to do some more research and get into beekeeping it is an excellent hobby.