Bee Biology and Society

Bee Biology and Society

Honeybees belong to the order Hymenoptera, which includes other bees, wasps, and ants. Most Hymenoptera have two pairs of clear wings; all have chewing mouthparts. Some, including the honeybee, can suck up liquids. These insects undergo complete metamorphosis, or change in form, during their development. The four life stages are: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

Bees are perfectly equipped to collect pollen and nectar. They are covered with finely branched hairs that trap pollen as they visit flowers. While visiting flowers, the bees gather pollen from their hairs and store it in pollen baskets on their hind legs. A tongue-like portion of the mouthpart sucks up nectar.

Although man has managed bees for hundreds of years and carried them around the world, honeybees have not been "tamed." Bees in the most modern apiary follow the same instincts as wild bees that live in hollow trees. Successful beekeepers anticipate and work with or around the bees' natural behavior.

Honeybees are social insects, living together in highly organized colonies. Each member has a specific job to do. A single honeybee cannot grow or survive by itself. The three distinct kinds of honeybees in a colony are queen, worker, and drone.


The Queen

The queen is the longest bee in the hive but has the shortest wings. She is the mother of all the other bees. Her most important job is to lay eggs. Her productivity depends on the amount of food the workers bring in and the amount of brood space in the colony. She can lay more than 1,500 eggs a day. A good queen does not waste any space. She lays a solid pattern of brood, meaning one egg in every cell. Few eggs scattered among many empty cells or several eggs per cell are signs of problems. The queen might be missing or old, or parasites or disease might have weakened the colony. It can take some detective work to solve the problem. Your county extension agent can determine what samples to take from the hive to diagnose the problem.

Worker bees usually rear new queens for one of three reasons: 1) the former queen left with a swarm; 2) the queen is laying increasingly fewer eggs; 3) the colony is overcrowded and has no place to expand. A colony that loses its queen suddenly is very upset but soon starts to rear a new one. Worker eggs or larvae less than three days old are raised in quickly built queen cells which hang vertically and are about the size and shape of a peanut shell. A fertilized egg hatches in about three days. The larva eats a special food called royal jelly. After growing rapidly for about six days, the larva pupates in the cell. The queen emerges about eight days later.

A newly emerged queen stings the remaining queen cells in the colony and fights any other queens she finds. The former queen is killed if she is still in the hive. Usually she has already left with other bees in the colony. Six to eight days after emergence, the queen takes nuptial flights and mates high in the air with the male (drone). Then she settles down and lays eggs. She will leave the hive only with a swarm. (Swarming is the natural way by which colonies are established at new locations.)

Queens live about five years with some living as long as nine, but egg-laying drops off significantly after two years. Many beekeepers keep a queen longer than that; others replace the queen every year to keep the colony strong. Colonies with older queens are more likely to swarm. Swarming usually occurs just before the main nectar flow. Hives that swarm have drastically reduced honey production.


The Worker

Workers are smaller than the queen and drones, but there are lots of them. There might be only a few hundred during winter and early spring, but there are usually many thousands during summer when pollen and nectar are plentiful. A strong colony at full strength can have close to 100,000 workers. These bees keep the colony going.

Life begins as a fertilized egg. Laid singly in cells, each egg is attached to the bottom of the cell and stands upright. Eggs hatch in about three days. Each larva is fed royal jelly for three days then pollen and honey for three more. Pollen and honey are not as rich as royal jelly, so the larva becomes a worker instead of a queen. The white grub-like larva molts (sheds its outer covering) five times during the six days. Just before maturity, house bees cap the cell. The larva then spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa. The adult emerges 12 days later. It takes about three weeks to mature from the egg to an adult bee ready to go to work.

Workers' jobs change with their ages. Young bees, called house bees, do the hive chores. They produce wax and shape it into combs (structures of cells containing honey and brood) and use propolis (a gummy substance gathered from plants) to seal cracks or cover rough edges in the hive. House bees also fan their wings to ventilate the hive in summer, controlling temperature and humidity, and they provide heat in winter. Some guard the hive to keep out raiders. Many produce honey and royal jelly. A lot of time is spent feeding brood and cleaning and repairing cells. House bees also feed the queen, the drones, and each other.

Older workers, or field bees, gather nectar, pollen, and water.

The average adult worker lives less than a month during the busy season; overwintering bees live several months.


The Drone

Drones are larger than workers but not as long as queens. A drone has large eyes that touch each other at the top of the head. Drones do not have stingers, pollen baskets on their legs, or glands for producing wax, and their mouthparts are too short to gather nectar. Moreover, they do not even do jobs they could like ventilating the hive. Their only function is to fertilize the queen, and they die in the process. Drones are banished from the hive before winter begins.

While queens and workers develop from fertilized eggs, drones develop from unfertilized eggs. Drone cells are slightly larger than worker cells. This stimulates the queen to lay only unfertilized eggs in them. Drone eggs are also laid in worker cells that have become enlarged because of stretched or sagging combs. Small drones develop in worker cells if a queen gets old and loses her ability to fertilize eggs. Total time from egg to adult is 24 days.


The Colony

In many respects a honeybee colony is like a single animal. Individual bees and castes are like the cells and tissues. When one part is threatened, the whole colony reacts. If an essential segment of a colony becomes diseased or destroyed, the colony often can heal itself. It may divide and become two or more separate colonies.

The colony also changes to survive different seasons. Let's follow the life of a colony through a year.

In mid to late summer, only small amounts of nectar and pollen are brought into the colony. Often no brood are being reared, so the colony does not grow. A fall nectar flow usually allows a small crop of young bees to carry through the winter. The colony needs honey for energy and pollen for protein, minerals, and vitamins to survive the winter and raise brood in early spring. Survival depends on a large cluster of young bees and a good food supply. If the cluster is too small, it cannot generate enough heat to survive the winter. Bees die if their body temperature gets much below 57oF. The colony must be able to make and save heat to survive in winter.

Bees produce heat by digesting honey. They save the heat by bunching together in a tight cluster. The outer layer of bees is an insulating shell that traps the heat in the center of the cluster. The bees on the outer layers periodically change places with inside bees so that none of them become too cold. The cluster tightens or loosens depending on the temperature in the hive.

Below 57oF, bees do not work in the hive. They do not even move to get honey that is not next to the cluster. If it stays cold for too many days straight, bees can starve even if honey is just a few inches away. The colony soon runs out of heat and freezes. Even if honey is within reach, they can freeze if there are not enough bees to produce some heat and save it.

A large colony with plenty of food can keep the temperature at the center of the cluster around 90oF. This is warm enough to rear brood. They start doing this in late winter. As spring arrives, increasingly more brood are raised. As pollen and nectar are brought in, empty cells in the hive soon fill with brood and food.

Bees do not like to be crowded. If there is not enough room to add comb, some leave in a swarm. Colonies with plenty of space are less likely to swarm and will continue to grow. Beekeepers can keep healthy, productive bees by managing food and space wisely during the year.


Races of Bees

Honeybees in North America belong to a single species (Apis mellifera), but several races exist within that species. Races differ in coloration, temperament, industriousness, hardiness, disease resistance, tendency to swarm, and other characteristics.

No single race is best, but Italian bees have a good balance of desirable characteristics. They are hardy, industrious, and fairly gentle. Italian bees have yellow or brown bodies with varying numbers of dark bands toward the ends of their abdomens. They tend to raise young bees early and late in the year, so they need more honey for maintenance than some other races. Italian bees are a good choice for anyone getting started in beekeeping; however, they are susceptible to tracheal and varroa mite infestations.

Modem techniques have produced hybrid bees that have improved the qualities of the best races. Beekeepers can try queens from different queen breeders to learn more about the behavior and honey production of different strains of the same race. Most strains are gentle when handled under the proper conditions. If the bees are not gentle, requeen immediately with a queen from a gentler strain. There is no correlation between honey production and temperament.

Races of bees are often regarded as one would regard breeds of cattle or dogs. However, they should not be. Unlike domestic animals, honeybee races have not been strongly controlled nor bred only by people. They are much more variable than a breed of domestic animal. Honeybees were not significantly genetically selected by humans until recently because basic bee reproduction was not understood until 1845.


Africanized Honeybees

Originally, honeybees were brought to America by European settlers. In 1956, researchers in Brazil were trying to develop a more productive honeybee. They imported queens from Africa because they thought their offspring would be better suited for Brazilian conditions. Unfortunately, some African swarms escaped into the countryside where their queens interbred with the gentler European honeybees. While "Africanized honeybees" have been in Texas for several years, few serious stinging incidents have occurred.

These bees defend their nests more fiercely than European honeybees and swarm more often. Africanized honeybees became known as "killer bees" because of some widely publicized stinging incidents. Venom from an Africanized bee is no more potent than that of a single European honeybee. However, they are quicker to attack anything that enters their territory or approaches the nest, and larger numbers fly to the intruder. Most stinging incidents have involved animals but humans also can be attacked. In some cases the noise or vibration of tractors or mowing equipment has provoked the bees to sting. Chance encounters with individual Africanized bees on blossoms pose no greater threat than encounters with European honeybees. Even though mass attacks arc terrifying and could be life threatening, they are not common. The best defense for avoiding stings from all stinging insects is common sense.