The Life of Bees
Overview of Honey Bees Facts, Types & Characteristics
The body of the honey bee is segmented: stinger, legs, antenna, three segments of thorax and six visible segments of abdomen.
The head of the honey bee consists of the eyes, antennae and feeding structures. The eyes include the compound eye and the simple eye: the compound eye helps bees understand color, light and directional information from the sun’s UV rays, while the function of the simple eye, also called ocelli, helps in determining the amount of light present. The antennas’ function is to smell and detect odours and to measure flight speed. The mandible is the bee’s jaw, which is used in eating pollen, cutting and shaping wax, feeding larvae and the queen, cleaning the hive, grooming and fighting.
The thorax of the bee consists of the wings, legs and the muscles that control their movement. The forewing, which is typically larger than the hind wing, is used for flight and as a cooling mechanism, while the latter is used to fan away heat and cool the hive.
Lastly, the abdomen’s six segments include female reproductive organs in the queen, male reproductive organs in the drone and the stinger in both workers and queen.
In the wild, honey bee hives are often located in the holes of trees and on rock crevices. The hive is made from wax from the special abdominal glands of worker honey bees. Workers sweep up a few flakes of wax from their abdomens and chew these flakes until the wax becomes soft. Workers then mold the wax and use it in making cells to form the hive. Unlike other bee species, honey bees do not hibernate during cold periods. Instead, they remain inside the nests huddled closely together, sharing body heat and feeding on stored food supplies.
Honey bees are social creatures and live in colonies. However, they do display some aggressive behaviour within colonies: drones are ejected from their nests during cold weather, and a queen will sometimes sting other queens during mating fights for dominance.
Honey bee facts: The colony and responsibilities of each bee
Like some other bee species, honey bees are social and live in colonies numbering in the thousands. Three types of adult honey bees reside in one colony: the queen, male drones and infertile female workers.
In each colony, there is only one egg-laying queen, but there are thousands of workers. The queen honey bees mate with drones, establish new colonies and lay eggs. Queen bees lay eggs in the cells of the nest, and when they hatch, they become larvae. Each colony contains only one queen, who is capable of producing 2,000 eggs a day.
Adult workers tend the larvae inside the cells and feed them with pollen and honey for approximately three weeks, at which point they become adults. Mature bees chew themselves out of the sealed cells to emerge.
Drones, or male bees, are the minority in a colony and serve only one purpose: to mate with virgin honey bee queens. Soon after mating, drones die.
Although infertile worker females usually do not produce their own eggs nor establish new colonies, they perform several important tasks. Young honey bee workers tend to larvae by secreting liquid from their abdominal glands. As workers mature, they become responsible for carrying and storing food gathered by foragers. As strong adults, they forage for food until they die.
Honey bee facts: Distribution
Honey bees species are found worldwide. They are most visible in summer and late spring, when new queens leave their old colonies along with thousands of workers to build new nests. At this time, large groups of bees can be seen swarming together to find a new nesting place. It takes a swarm approximately 24 hours to locate a new nesting site. While most swarms are harmless, certain species of bees are extremely aggressive and may attack unprovoked.
For millions of years honey bees have been major pollinators of flowers and, therefore, the plants producing the flowers have relied on the bees. The goal of the plant is reproduction. The bees help accomplish this by unwittingly transferring pollen, a plant’s male sperm cells, from one flower to another. Without pollination, many plants would not be able to procreate and eventually would die out.
Humans benefit from this relationship though crop and honey production. Many of the crops people consume are pollinated by honey bees. Many growers maintain honey bee colonies for this very reason. Without pollination, the plants would not produce fruits and vegetables. Besides pollination, honey bees extract nectar along with the pollen from the flowers. The nectar is transported back to the nest where, through a process, it is converted into honey.
Honey Bee Dance
There are two major theories on how honey bee foragers communicate with other workers about a new food source: the honey bee dance and the odour plume. Although there is evidence to support each claim, the honey bee dance is more widely accepted. The dance language combines dancing and odour as a bee’s means of communication, while the odour plume theory claims that honey bee recruitment relies solely on floral odour. The honey bee dance plays an important role in the survival of the species: it has been a part of colonies for years and has remained one of the most important methods used in foraging for food.
The honey bee dance is a way for bees to communicate with one another. A honey bee that discovers a new food source will tell other honey bees about its location through the honey bee dance. When a worker bee returns from an abundant food source, she will dance inside their nest in a circle.
There are two main types of honey bee dances: round dance and waggle dance. Round dance, as the name indicates, is a movement in a circle. This 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. Exact distance can be communicated by duration of the dance. A longer dance indicates a great distance.
The dancing worker bee also can indicate direction with the waggle dance and will move in reference to the sun’s vertical position. The degrees to the right or left of the vertical indicate the direction of the food. For example, if the bee’s dance is rotated 30 degrees to the vertical then the food will be found at a 30 degree angle from the nest related to the sun’s vertical.
This language is also understandable by humans, and researchers determine effectiveness by measuring the amount and quality of new pollen and nectar brought into the nest. However, certain features of this dance language, including the fact that honey bees understand dance patterns even in the dark, are still not understood.
Honey Bee Life Cycle
The life cycle of a honey bee is perennial. Each colony contains three adult castes: egg-laying queens, sperm-producing male drones and nonreproductive female workers. The only job of the drone is to mate with the queen during seasonal mating flights, and soon after discharging their sperm, drones die. Worker honey bees are able to live for six weeks, while queens can survive up to five years.
The life cycle of honey bees begins when an egg hatches. During the first stage of its development, the offspring form a digestive system, nervous system and outer covering. Each member of a colony develops as an adult over varying durations. Queens become full-grown adults within 16 days; drones develop in under 24 days and female workers require 21 days during larval and pupal development.
Within each colony, a single queen rules her workers and drones. Future queens develop inside larger cells by constant consumption of royal jelly, while workers and drones are fed only royal jelly during the first few days of their lives.
When an existing queen dies or becomes incapable of laying eggs, worker honey bees raise a new queen. As the new queen becomes a young adult, she attends a nuptial flight, mating with several drones. With sperm stored from the mating flight, she begins to lay eggs inside the hive. Honey bee queens are able to lay unfertilized eggs, which will become male drones, and fertilized eggs, which become female workers or a new generation of queens.
In order for a colony to survive, the honey bee queen needs to lay a plentitude of fertilized eggs. These workers will forage for food, build a strong and well-insulated hive, take care of larvae and defend the colony from enemies. The queen examines each egg carefully before placing it into a cell. Laying an egg takes only a few seconds, and a queen can place up to 2,000 eggs within a single day.
When a young and healthy queen lays eggs, she packs them closely together within the cells. As a queen ages, her sperm stores decrease. In turn, she produces fewer eggs, and the pattern of the eggs within each cell begins to appear less orderly.
Mechanics of Honey Bee Mating
When a virgin queen flies to a site where thousands of male honey bees may be waiting, she mates with several males in flight. A male drone will mount the queen and insert his endophallus, ejaculating semen. After ejaculation, a male honey bee pulls away from the queen, though his endophallus is ripped from his body, remaining attached to the newly fertilized queen.
The next male honey bee to mate with the queen will remove the previous endophallus and eventually lose his own after ejaculation. Male honey bees are only able to mate seven to 10 times during a mating flight, and after mating, a drone dies quickly, as his abdomen rips open when his endophallus is removed. Even drones that survive the mating flight are ejected from their nests, as they have served their sole purpose by mating.
Virgin queens mate early in their lives and only attend one mating flight. After several matings during this flight, a queen stores up to 100 million sperm within her oviducts. However, only five to six million are stored within the queen’s spermatheca. The queen uses only a few of these sperm at a time in order to fertilize eggs throughout her life. If a queen runs out of sperm in her lifetime, new generations of queens will mate and produce their own colonies.
Honey bee queens control the sex of their offspring: as eggs pass through the ovary into the oviduct, a queen can determine whether a particular egg is fertilized or not. Unfertilized eggs become drone honey bees, while fertilized eggs develop into female workers and queens. Female workers do not mate, but they can lay infertile eggs, which in turn become male honey bees.
Queens lay their eggs in structural oval-shaped cells, which stick to the nest ceiling. Worker honey bees fill these cells with royal jelly to prevent larvae from falling. Soon-to-be workers are fed royal jelly during the first two days, while future queens are given royal jelly throughout the entire larval period. The development of each member of a colony differs depending on caste: male honey bees need 24 days for proper growth from eggs to adult, while workers need 21 days and queens require only 16.
Honey Bee Eggs
The life cycle of all insects, including honey bees, begins with eggs. During the winter season, a queen forms a new colony by laying eggs within each cell inside a honeycomb. Fertilized eggs will hatch into female worker bees, while unfertilized eggs will become drones or honey bee males. In order for one colony to survive, the queen must lay fertilized eggs to create worker bees, which forage for food and take care of the colony.
Each colony contains only one queen, which mates at an early age and collects more than 5 million sperm. A honey bee queen has one mating flight and stores enough sperm during the mating flight to lay eggs throughout her life. When a queen can no longer lay eggs, new queens become responsible for mating and laying honey bee eggs.
Honey bee eggs measure 1 to 1.5 mm long, about half the size of a single grain of rice. When the queen lays her eggs, she moves through the comb, closely examining each cell before laying her eggs. The process of laying one egg takes only a few seconds, and a queen is capable of laying up to 2,000 honey bee eggs within a single day.
A young queen lays her eggs using an organized pattern, placing each egg next to others within a cell. Queens begin laying their eggs in the center of the cell frame, so workers can place honey, royal jelly and other foods for larvae on the outer edges. However, as the queen ages, she lays fewer eggs in a less organized pattern.
When the queen lays a honey bee egg, it becomes attached to the cell by a mucous strand. During the first stage of development, the digestive system, nervous system and outer covering are formed. After three days, the eggs will hatch into larvae, which will be fed by worker honey bees with honey, royal jelly and other liquids from plants. These honey bee larvae have no legs, eyes, antennae or wings; they resemble a grain of rice with a small mouth. They will eat and grow into adult workers, queens or drones.
Honey Bee Queen
Although the honey bee queen is thought by many to be the most important member of her colony, honey bee workers sometimes determine when their colony is in need of a new queen. This occurs due to space constrictions, poor performance associated with age and the unexpected death of the queen.
Because the queen is capable of producing up to 2,000 eggs each day, space within a hive can become constrained. A swarm results, wherein the mature queen leaves the colony with half of her workers to establish a new colony. The other half of her workers remain with a new queen and continue to perform their tasks within the old colony.
Alternately, as queen honey bees age, their egg-laying abilities decrease, and they lay their eggs in less organized patterns. When an old queen begins to falter in performing such responsibilities, workers will induce her replacement, or supersedure. The aging queen is killed after the supersedure process.
Lastly, when a honey bee queen suddenly dies, an urgent and unplanned supersedure occurs. Worker honey bees identify several larvae within the proper age range and begin to condition these larvae to become queens. The sole difference between a honey bee worker and a queen is in nourishment received during the maturation process: workers feed prospective queens with royal jelly for their entire lives, while worker bees are fed royal jelly only during the first two days of their larval stage.
Each colony can be ruled by only one queen at a time. When a virgin queen emerges, she locates other virgin queens and eliminates them one at a time. In the event that two virgin honey bee queens emerge simultaneously, they fight each other to the death.
Queens control their workers by releasing pheromones known as the queen’s scent. After the new queen masters the hive, she attends a mating flight at a drone congregation site, where thousands of males wait. Drones discern a queen’s presence through her smell, but they will locate a queen by sight. Drones and queens mate in midair and drones die soon after giving their sperm to the queen. Queens mate with several drones in each mating flight, storing the drones’ sperm in her spermatheca.
The honey bee queen mates at an early age and usually attends only one mating flight, because her sperm reserves allow her to lay millions of eggs throughout her lifetime. Although a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day during active seasons, the amount and pace at which a queen lays her eggs is greatly controlled by weather, food availability and the particular habits of her subspecies of honey bee. The queen’s fertilized eggs become female workers or future honey bee queens. The queen’s unfertilized eggs develop into male honeybees, or drone
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