Bees are four-winged, flower-feeding insects. They have enlarged hind feet, branched or feathered body hairs, and generally a stinger. Honeybees and bumblebees are the most common. Bumblebees are larger and stronger than honeybees. Bees are beneficial insects because they produce honey and pollinate crops.
Honeybees are in the animalia kingdom, the arthropoda phylum, the insecta class, the hymenoptera order and the apoidea family. Beekeepers are sometimes called apiarists. Honeybees and bumblebees are social bees and live in colonies. Solitary bees make their own small family nests.
There are 10,0000 – 20,000 species of bee including many wasplike and flylike bees. Most bees are small from 2 mm (.08 inches) long to 4 cm (1.6 inches) long. Bees and wasps are closely related. The main difference is that bees provide their young with pollen and honey, while wasps eat animal food, insects, or spiders. In addition, wasps have unbranched hairs.
Honeybees live in hives or colonies. A small hive contains about 20,000 bees, while some larger hives may have over 100,000 bees. Hives include one queen, hundreds of drones, and thousands of worker bees. The worker bees are female, but they do not breed. The queen bee is female and creates all the babies for the hive. The drone bees are male and do not have a sting.
Bees communicate with each other about food sources using dances. The sounds from the movement of the bees are picked up by the tiny hairs on the bee’s head. Bees use the sun in navigation.
The honeybee’s hive has cells made of wax. This is where the queen bee lays her eggs. She can lay 1500 eggs in one day. When the larvae hatch, they are fed by the worker bees. The workers collect pollen and nectar from flowers. The pollen is used as a protein source and the nectar is an energy source. Some of the pollen lands on the pistils of the flower and results in cross-pollination. This is important for some crops and flowers. The relationship between the plant and the insect is called symbiosis.
Bees turn the nectar into honey. Workers must visit over four thousand flowers to make just a tablespoon of honey. Beekeepers must be very careful when they remove honey from the hive. They try not to hurt the bees. The beekeepers give sugar syrup to the bees to replace the honey that they take.
The queen is the mother of the hive. There is only one queen and each day she has to lay the 1000 or so eggs that will develop into new honeybees. Her strong pheromones (body smells) keep the colony working together and prevent the worker bees from trying to lay eggs.
The drones are lazy boys. Their only work is to mate with a queen and only the fittest few will get this pleasure. Otherwise they sit around the hive being looked after by the workers or hang round on the bee equivalent of street corners waiting for a young queen to come by. All summer they luxuriate. But when the weather gets cold the workers drive these passengers outside to die. And yes, its true that when a drone mates with the queen he dies in the act – but he dies smiling.
It is the thousands of worker bees who keep the colony going. From the day they are born they slave away without complaining; cleaning and guarding the hive, feeding the developing bee brood (babies), building the honeycomb, and collecting nectar to process into honey stores for the long winter when there are no flowers. The workers keep the hive cool in summer and warm in winter. And they communicate very efficiently too – they can tell their sisters where to find the best flowers, and the amount and quality of the nectar they will find there. They can tell if the queen is safe and if that new bee trying to creep in is a stranger from another hive coming to steal their precious honey.
The honeybee goes through a number of development stages before becoming an adult. Whether it becomes a queen, a worker or a drone, all honeybees must make the transition through the four stages of metamorphosis; egg, larva, pupa and adult. The queen lays her eggs in the cells of the honeycomb. Fertilised eggs become workers (or a new queen) while unfertilised eggs become drones. The worker bees work hard feeding the rapidly growing larvae. Finally, the honeycomb cells are capped over so the larvae can spin their cocoons and pupate in private.
When the transformation from pupa to adult is complete, the young bee emerges from the cell to take its place in honeybee society. The process from egg to adult can take as little as 16 days for a queen or as long as 24 days for a drone. Once a worker emerges her life span can vary from just a few weeks to almost a year depending on the season, the food available and the work she has to do. The new worker bee is soft, fluffy and rather undeveloped. Over the next weeks various specialised glands will mature determining the work she does in the colony. The work includes cleaning, feeding the young brood, packing nectar and pollen in the cells, building wax honeycomb, guarding the colony finally graduating to nectar, pollen, propolis and water collection.
Honey is a thick liquid produced by certain types of bees from the nectar of flowers. While many species of insects consume nectar, honeybees refine and concentrate nectar to make honey. Indeed, they make lots of honey so they will have plenty of food for times when flower nectar is unavailable, such as winter. Unlike most insects, honeybees remain active through the winter, consuming and metabolising honey in order to keep from freezing to death. Early humans probably watched bears and other mammals raid bee hives for honey and then tried it themselves.
Bees collect nectar from flowering plants and store it in their honey sac in their abdomen where, by the action of the enzyme invertase, it is partially converted to honey. When back at the hive, they pass it on to the house bees who continue this change after which it becomes honey.
The honey is put into cells but because its water content is too high the bees need to fan dry air over it to evaporate excess water until its sugar content is about 80% at which point it is ready to be sealed into the cells by capping with wax.
If stored in an “unripe” condition the honey will ferment. The average load of a foraging bee is 40mg. and may be taken from 100 to 1000 flowers. Each trip lasts between 1/2 – 1 hour and the bee might make 10 trips per day. Honey is used by the bees, along with pollen, to feed the colony. The bees will collect honey until the hive is full or the weather prevents them, this is exactly what the beekeeper wants as he can estimate how much honey the bees need to over- winter and how much he can take for himself.
When a foraging bee alights on a flower her movement dislodges pollen grains which adhere to the plumose hairs which cover most of her body. She will hover near the flower and clean pollen from the hairs and collect it onto the “pollen baskets” on her legs. When back to the hive, she will deposit the pollen into cells near the brood.
The house bees will pack it tightly into the cells and then add honey and seal the cells with wax. Pollen is essential to the bees as it is the principle source of protein, fat and minerals. The collection of pollen also benefits the flowering plants as the bee’s action pollinates the plants enabling them to produce seeds.