The Buzz on Bees – Background

The hum of honeybees as they flit from flower to flower from spring through fall carries the promise of summer fruits and autumn harvest. ­­­ Many flowers depend on bees and other insects to transport their pollen, and that pollen is needed to fertilize the flower’s eggs so they can mature into seeds. The relationship also benefits the bees because they depend on nectar from flowers to make honey and to mix with pollen to feed to their young. When we look at the amazing adaptations of honeybees, both physical and behavioral, we learn much about the life and work of these busy, buzzy insects.

Honeybees are social insects, living in colonies of many thousands of bees. Each colony is a single family comprised of the queen and her offspring. Working together in a highly organized way, honeybees accomplish remarkable feats of construction, navigation, decision making, defense, and honey making – far beyond what an individual insect could do on its own. 

There are three types of bees within a hive: the queen, the male drones, and the female workers. Each has a special role in the colony. The single queen bee, recognized by her long, slender abdomen, is responsible for laying all the eggs the colony requires in order to survive. A new queen ventures outside the hive only a few times in her life. During these flights she mates with a number of drones before returning to the hive. There she proceeds to lay eggs, up to 2,000 a day during the spring and summer months. She is able to determine the sex of each egg by whether or not she fertilizes it. Fertilized eggs develop into female workers, while unfertilized eggs become drones.

A drone’s body is plumper than that of a worker or queen bee, and its large eyes meet or nearly meet at the top of its head. Drones depend on their sisters in the hive, the worker bees, to feed and groom them, for they are not equipped to feed from flowers themselves.  Drones have a single function – to mate in flight with a young queen bee. They fly from the hive and congregate high in the air with drones from other colonies, lured together by pheromones emitted by young queens.  If successful, the drones die after mating.  The others return to the hive to fly another day.  In the fall the workers refuse to feed the remaining drones, and they are forced out of the hive to die. Every spring new drones are produced in the hive.

The female worker bees are the laborers of the hive, proceeding through a series of jobs as they mature. Like the queen and drone, the worker bee begins her life as a tiny egg laid in a cell of the wax comb inside the hive. A small larva hatches out of the egg. For the first three days of her life, the worker bee larva is fed a substance called “royal jelly” by adult worker bees in the hive. Later she is fed a mixture of pollen and honey, called “bee bread.” The larva eats and grows, and after five days she turns into a pupa, a resting stage during which she undergoes metamorphosis, changing her form completely. After nearly two weeks, she emerges from the cell as a mature bee, with eyes and wings and antennae, six bristly legs, and a furry body.

Newly emerged adult worker bees begin their adult lives as housekeepers, cleaning out the cells. Next, they become nursemaids, feeding and grooming the queen and larvae. From their hypopharyngeal glands, they produce “royal jelly,” a mixture of honey and their own saliva, which they feed to the queen and to the youngest larvae. Soon, the worker bee begins to produce little wafers of wax by means of glands on her abdomen. Now she is ready to be a construction worker, using the wax to construct new comb and to fashion caps for the honey-filled cells and the brood cells. Next she’ll become kitchen staff, preparing the honey and packing pollen and honey in the cells for storage. If needed, the worker bee may stand guard at the hive entrance and protect it from intruders such as robber bees or hungry bears. By now the worker bee’s flight muscles are sufficiently developed to take on her last and most demanding job, that of field bee. She forages for nectar and pollen from flowers to bring back to the hive. There are variations, certainly, to this timeframe, as the specific activities of a certain bee at any time are governed by the needs of the colony. Most worker bees live for about six weeks. The bees that spend the winter inside the hive live longer, until the following spring.

Honeybee bodies have many special features. On their heads they have two large compound eyes with thousands of tiny lenses that help them see the world around them, detect motion, and sense color and polarized light. They also have three simple eyes that are sensitive to light and may help the bee orient to the sun. Their antennae allow them to sense vibrations and odors. The honeybee worker has a long straw-like tongue (proboscis) for reaching nectar inside flower blossoms and a special “honey stomach” for storing the nectar and carrying it back to the hive. Their legs, attached to the thorax, have special hairs and claws for feet. The front legs have a special groove and thumb-like spine that is used as an antenna-cleaner. The middle legs have a spur for handling the wax wafers the worker bee produces from wax glands on her abdomen. Bees use their legs to comb pollen off their body hairs and pack it onto the “pollen basket,” an expanded section of their hind legs with long bristles that hold the pollen while the bee flies back to the hive. Bees have four wings; the hindwing and forewing on each side hook together to assist in flight. Finally, at the tip of the abdomen, worker bees have a barbed stinger and poison gland, a formidable defense.

The anatomy and life cycle of queen bees and of drones is different from that of worker bees in a variety of ways, reflecting the different responsibilities of each caste within the hive. Queen bees take sixteen days to develop from egg to adult and may live three to five years. Queen bees have longer abdomens than workers to accommodate their active reproductive system, and her stinger is unbarbed and used to fend off rival queens. The queen bee’s chemical pheromones are essential in maintaining the social order of the hive.  Drone bees take twenty-four days to mature from egg to adult. They possess no food-gathering equipment and no stinger.

Bees depend on flowers for pollen and nectar, which they use for food. Honeybee foragers have a remarkable way of communicating with other bees in their colony about the distance and the direction to a good patch of flowers. They do so by means of a dance, performed by returning foragers. A “Round Dance,” in which the bee runs in a circle first clockwise, then counter clockwise, indicates that the source of nectar is within about a hundred yards of the hive. When the flowers are farther away, a “Waggle Dance” is performed. It resembles a figure-eight with two circles joined by a straight run. The bee waggles her abdomen from side to side during the straight part of the figure. If the bee is dancing outside the hive, the straight part of the dance points in the direction of the flowers. However, most returning field bees will go inside the hive to recruit other foragers. Here they must dance in the dark, on combs that hang vertically from the hive ceiling. In this case, the waggle part of the dance is done at an angle from the vertical that is equal to the angle between the sun and the flowers. Other bees gather around the dancing bee, and, with their antennae, sense the movements of the dancer. The scent of the flowers, carried on the returning bee’s body, gives another clue about the kind of flower to hunt for. Sharing information in this way saves a lot of energy for the other foragers, and the whole colony benefits.

Each bee colony constructs the elaborate wax honeycomb in which young are raised and honey is stored. The nursery area of the hive is called the brood comb. These hexagonal cells vary slightly in size for worker and drone bees, and the queen can measure the cell size with her front feet and detect that difference. The six-sided construction is a very efficient design. Because they share walls with adjacent cells, less wax is needed and there is no wasted space between cells. Queen cells, constructed by the workers when they feel their queen needs to be replaced, are different. They are larger, rather peanut-shaped, and sit vertically on the frame.

In addition to honey, bees give us a variety of other products. Beeswax is used for many things, from candles to waterproofing. Propolis, a hard, reddish brown material often found on the frames in a hive, is the bees’ glue. It is collected from the sticky leaf buds of some plants (like balsam poplar and cottonwood) and used to hold the honeycomb together. Health food stores sell propolis as a traditional medicine. They also sell royal jelly and bee pollen as food supplements.

Honeybees are important as pollinators of agricultural crops and wildflowers, remarkable for their highly organized behavior and unique dance communication, and well loved for the sweet-flavored honey they produce. It’s fun to observe honeybees going about their daily lives, and there’s much to be learned by studying these hardworking insects and their complex social structure.

Suggested Reading

Dadant, C.P., First Lessons in Beekeeping. Dadant Publication, 1997.

Frisch, Karl von. The Dancing Bees. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1953.

Winston, Mark L. The Biology of the Honeybee. Harvard University Press, 1991.

Avitabile, Alphonse and Diana Sammataro. The Beekeeper’s Handbook, 3rd ed. Cornell University Press. 2006.

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