Honey bees are social insects. Their colonies includes a queen, drones and workers. Honey bees have been producing honey for over 100 million years.
Honeybees, also spelt honey bees, are flying insects known as a eusocial insects, meaning they are one of the most socially organized animals on the planet. Known for their distinct black and yellow color and their ability to produce honey, honeybees are very important to our environment and are perfectly adapted to help with pollination.
You might think there’s not much more to learn about bees other than about honey and pollination, but that is not true. Honey bees are fascinating, and if you’re ready to find out more about them, keep reading on!
Origin Of Honey Bees
Honeybees, Apis mellifera, are native to Europe, western Asia, and Africa. Honeybees are the only surviving group of bees from the Apini tribe, which is under the Apis genus. Human introduction of Apis mellifera to other continents started in the 17th century, and now they are found all around the world, including east Asia, Australia and North America and South America. There are currently 26 recognized subspecies of Apis mellifera.
Because honey bees are found worldwide, their nature and behavior can vary. For instance, while Italian honeybees are usually more docile, German and African honeybees can display extremely defensive behavior.
Characteristics of Honey Bees
Bees are a pretty distinct animal in terms of looks, and the subspecies of honey bees are no different. The body of the honeybee is segmented: stinger, legs, antenna, three segments of thorax and six visible segments of abdomen.
They are a red and brown color with black bands and orange yellow rings on their abdomen, and they have hair on their thorax. They have less hair on their abdomen and a pollen basket on their hind legs. Their legs are usually black.
Honey bees are colored with orange and black stripes as a warning. Predators can learn to associate that pattern with a painful sting, and avoid them.
Honeybees have two sexes, male and female, but there are two female castes. The two female castes are known as:
Queen Honey Bees
Worker Honey Bees
Workers, are females that do not attain sexual maturity, and queens are females that are larger than the workers. The workers are usually 10-15 mm long and the queens are 18-20 mm. The males, have only one caste:
Drone Honey Bees
Drones are larger than the workers, around 15-17 mm, and are present only in early summer. Males also have larger eyes than females, which helps them to locate flying queens during mating flights.
The workers and queens have stingers, whereas the drones are stingless. In worker bees, the sting is barbed, and tears away from the body when used.
The queen bee plays a vital role in a beehive because she is the only female with fully developed ovaries. The queen’s two primary purposes are to produce chemical scents that help regulate the unity of the colony, and to lay lots of eggs.
The different subspecies of honeybee all vary slightly. Their variations include differences in their behavior, size, wingspan and color, as well as their ability to tolerate warmer or colder climates. Check out this post for more honey bee characteristics and facts.
Lifespan of Honey Bees
There are four stages in the life cycle of a honeybee: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The insects build hives out of wax secretions from their bodies, which is then used by the queen to lay her eggs in. For all three forms of honeybees, the eggs hatch within three days and then develop into larvae.
All the larvae, known as grubs are fed royal jelly at first, but only the future queens are continued on this diet. When fully grown, the grubs transform into pupae. Queens reach maturity in 16 days, workers in about 21 days, and drones in 24 days. After emerging, the queens fight among themselves until only one remains in the hive. The old queen and the majority of her workers typically have left the hive by the time the new queens emerge. A bee swarm is often the sign of an old queen leaving the hive.
After undergoing metamorphosis and emerging from their cells, honey bees do not grow anymore. Workers will live for 2 to 4 weeks in the summer, or as long as 11 months if they live through the winter. Males only live for 4 to 8 weeks, and do not live through the winter. Queens, on the other hand, live for 2 to 5 years.
Diet of Honey Bees
Honeybees feed on pollen and nectar from blooming flowers, as well as honey and secretions produced by other members of their colony. The worker bees forage for enough food for their entire colony, using their tongues to suck the nectar up and storing it. They also collect pollen from flowers and groom it off their bodies and onto special structures on their hind legs called pollen baskets.
The bees that forage for food transfer the nectar they have collected to younger worker bees when they return, who then feed it to the members of the colony or transfer it to honey for long-term storage.
The young workers eat pollen and nectar and secrete food materials called “royal jelly” and “worker jelly” from glands in their heads. This jelly is then fed to young larvae, and the amount and type they get determines if they will be queens or workers.
Honey bees will forage for food wherever they can, including stealing from other hives if possible. They usually forage for food in the daylight, but will not forage if it is raining or very windy. They also cannot forage if the weather is very cold (below 10°C).
Behavior Of Honey Bees
Honeybees are eusocial insects. Eusocial insects are colonial animal species that live in multigenerational family groups, in which the vast majority of individuals cooperate to aid relatively few (or even a single) reproductive group members. They are very sociable animals.
In the case of the honey bees, the workers, who are sterile females, perform all the work of the colony while the males and the queen put all of their efforts into reproduction.
A queen is the only reproductive female in a hive, with the rest of the female workers being sterile. The queen’s job is to reproduce, and she lays eggs nearly continuously throughout the year, sometimes up to 1,000 eggs/day.
The queen is able to control whether or not an egg they lay is fertilized. Unfertilized eggs develop as males, while fertilized eggs develop as workers or new queens, depending on how they are fed as larvae.
A queen will often mate with many drones, a mating behaviour known as polyandry. Polyandry increases genetic diversity within a colony and thereby improves colony fitness and survival.
Drones also serve only one purpose: to mate with virgin queens. Soon after mating, drones die.
Colonies of honeybees reproduce by swarming. The workers produce queen larvae and, before a new queen emerges, the old queen takes half of the colony with her, in a swarm, to build a new colony. We will go into more detail about swarming later on.
Honeybees have been major pollinators of flowers for millions of years. The bees help flowers to reproduce by transferring pollen from one flower to another. Without this, many flowers wouldn’t be able to procreate and eventually would die out.
Humans benefit from pollination too, as it helps us to keep our gardens looking nice and also helps us to grow vegetables. Honey bees also extract nectar along with the pollen from the flowers, which is then turned into honey. We will explore this further on.
Honeybees are the only type of bees that swarm. A bee swarm occurs when a hive becomes overcrowded or overpopulated, and some of the bees leave the hive with the old queen, while a new queen takes over. Because they have left their hive, they stay in a swarm while they scout for their new home.
Bees swarm in many different places. These include in tree branches or in public trash cans. Bee swarms are often found less than 100 metres away from a beehive. Usually, they stay in this location from a few minutes to a few days before they find a more permanent place.
A bee swarm can vary in size, anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of bees. Swarming can occur at any time from March to September, but swarming season usually occurs during the first periods of really warm weather in late April through to June, so spring to early summer. Each time a swarm is created, it usually consists of approximately 50% of the bee colony. It typically consists of one queen bee, less than 50 drones (male bees) and thousands of worker bees.
A bee swarm is very important because it helps with the reproduction of a honeybee colony. It is also essential to the bees’ survival. If the hive becomes overcrowded, resources will be scarce and the colony’s health will begin to decline.
Honeybees are well known for the way in which they communicate with each other. Communication is based on chemical signals, particularly scent and taste, and each hive has a unique chemical signal that those in the hive use to identify each other.
The bees are always communicating with each other, most of which is done through the worker bees. The workers feed and groom each other, as well as larvae, drones, and the queen. In this process they pass on pheromones, chemical signals that indicate information about the health of the queen and the state of the colony.
Honeybees also use the same chemicals to help with their foraging, particularly their scent which can be used to detect certain flowers from a distance. The chemicals are used when a worker stings something, too. When she stings, her stinger releases an alarm pheromone that causes other bees to become agitated, and helps them locate the enemy. Workers and queens can also hear vibrations, which allows new queens to communicate with each other.
The most notable form of communication between honey bees is their “dancing”, When workers have located a good food supply, their wiggle their bodies to indicate the direction and distance of the food. The same dance is done by bees that return from scouting a new hive location after a swarm has left the original hive. Through their dance, they are able to show other scout bees the direction and distance from this potential new location.
There are two main types of honey bee dances: round dance and waggle dance. Round dance is a movement in a circle and is used to indicate the food source is less than 50 meters from the nest. Waggle dance is a figure eight pattern while the bee waggles its abdomen and is used for food located at a distance of more than 150 meters.
As we mentioned above, honeybees can be found all over the world. They are usually found in areas that have an abundant supply of flowering plants, but can also survive in grasslands, deserts, and wetlands if there is sufficient water, food, and shelter.
Honey bees need a cavity to nest in, such as a hollow tree. This is where they build their hive, which is where they live. When a hive becomes too overcrowded, the queen will take off with around half of the colony and build a new honeybee hive. This is why you see bee swarms and they help with reproduction of bee colonies.
A hive is a series of combs made of wax produced and secreted by the workers. Honey and plant nectar is stored in the cells of honeycomb. Workers guard the entrance of the hive. They are able to recognize members of their colony by scent, and will attack any non-members that try to enter the hive.
Importance Of Honey Bees
Honeybees are extremely important for our environment. Without them, many flowers would have trouble reproducing, as bees help with pollination and transferring the pollen from one flower to another. Thanks to their dancing, worker honeybees can also convince other workers to visit certain flowers for the pollen, which then leads to more pollination of that plant.
The bees also produce honey, beeswax and royal jelly, all of which are either eaten by humans or used in cosmetics and medicine. Honey bees store honey in their honeycombs, and it is collected from wild bee colonies, or from hives of domesticated bees, a practice known as beekeeping or apiculture. Honey is sweet because of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose.
Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy.
In beekeeping, the beekeeper encourages honey production within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the bees. When sources of foods for the bees are short, the beekeeper may have to give the bees supplementary nutrition.
It is thought that widespread commercialization of beekeeping is endangering local populations. While honeybees are not considered an endangered species, there are honeybee conservation organizations out there.
Extra Facts About Honeybees
- Honeybee workers will sting humans and domesticated animals in defense of themselves or their hive.
- A bee sting is painful but isn’t actually dangerous, unless the recipient is allergic to the venom. It would take about 20 stings per kilogram of body weight to be life threatening.
- Honey bees are organisms that are studied for research in the connections between nervous system structure and behavior.
- Honeybees are hosts to a variety of parasites, commensal organisms, and pathogenic microbes.
- Worker bees die after stinging, but the sting is painful enough to discourage the predator from attacking other bees or the hive.
- Some known predators of honeybees include bears, beewolves, crab spiders, honey badgers, skunks and toads.