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THE HONEY BEE (Apis Mellifera)

Honey bees are fascinating social insects. The following is a basic explanation of how honey bees live and behave. 

Honey bees live in a colony consisting of one queen bee, drone bees (males) and worker bees (females). An average size colony or nest may contain 30,000 to 35,000 bees with some nests getting as large as 80,000 bees. The majority of the colony consists of females. The females are responsible for building the wax honeycomb that is the nest. The worker bees guard the nest, clean the nest, raise the young bees (brood/larvae), tend to the queen and gather water and food (nectar and pollen from plants). The worker bees are the smallest in size and have a life span of about 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and summer. They may live up to a few months during the winter time. The males are larger, do not have a stinger and their only function is to mate with queen bees. Mating takes place in flight in drone congregation areas. Drones have large eyes to aid in mating while in flight. Drones are produced when the queen lays an unfertilized egg in a comb cell. They have a mother and grandparents, but not a father!

The queen is the largest bee in the colony and produces pheromones called queen substance. Her pheromones dictate much of the colony's activity. The queen's most important function is to lay eggs. Up to 1,500 eggs a day may be laid. The queen deposits a single egg within a comb cell. Approximately every three weeks, those eggs become adult bees. A fertilized egg produces a female bee. A fertilized egg that hatches and is fed a diet of honey and pollen will become a worker bee. A worker bee has underdeveloped sexual organs, pollen sacs on its hind legs for carrying food and a barbed stinger. However, a fertilized egg that hatches and is quickly moved into a special cell filled with a substance called royal jelly, will produce a queen bee. The special cell is called a queen cell and royal jelly is the food for the larvae selected to emerge as a queen. A queen bee has fully developed sexual organs, but no pollen sacs and no barb on her stinger. A queen honey bee may live 3 to 5 years.

Bees store honey and pollen in the honeycomb cells as well. The honey is capped over with wax and stored until needed for food. Honey is produced from the nectar that the bees gather from flowers. Nectar is the source of the bees carbohydrates while pollen contains the protein they require. Bees have a range of about 3 miles in radius from their nest or hive that they may travel to gather nectar and pollen. The older worker bees are the food gatherers or foragers. This is their final duty in life as they usually work themselves to death. They must visit about a million flowers to make one teaspoon of honey.

As part of the bees natural behavior, they swarm. A swarm is when a new queen is produced within the colony and about half the bees in the colony leave the nest with the old queen. These bees will gather in the form of a cluster, sometimes seen hanging from a tree branch. They will stage in a location while scout bees locate a suitable permanent nesting site. A swarm seen hanging in a tree branch might resemble a football or a volleyball in shape and size. Sometimes it can be as large as basketball or as small as a grapefruit. Bees in a swarm are not usually aggressive since they have no brood or food to protect. A swarm resting or waiting for scouts to find a home may leave in 24 hours or less. Occassionally however, they will build an exposed nest right on a tree branch or under an eave. Once they have established a nest they are not likely to leave and they will become defensive.

Africanized honey bees (a.k.a. Killer bees) look the same as the European honey bees. Their sting is no more venomous or painful. The difference is mainly in their behavior and demeanor. They are agitated more easily and remain agitated for longer periods of time. They will defend in greater numbers, up to ten times as many, and will chase down their target up to ten times as far as their European cousins. When a queen bee mates, she mates with as many as 18 different drones. The genetics of the offspring that she will produce her entire life is dictated by the genetics of the drones that she has mated with. For example, if a queen mates with 10 drones and 5 possess africanized genetics then up to 50% of her offspring may be africanized.

Honey bees serve a vital role in pollination. While visiting flowers and gathering food, they transfer pollen among the flowers thus fertilizing them. They are responsible for a third of all the food we eat. Bees are on the decline worldwide, experts call it colony collapse disorder, the cause is not yet fully understood. Albert Einstein once said "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."

Lower left is a Honey Bee, upper right is a Yellow Jacket (Wasp)

Honey bee and Yellow Jacket (Wasp)

Honey bee and Yellow Jacket (Wasp)

Interesting Info:

Putting cool smoke on bees calms them and masks their alarm pheromone.

A bee breathes through its abdomen.

Honey is the only food humans eat that is poduced by insects.

Honey is the only food that does not spoil.

A person can sustain themselves on a diet of pollen only.

Ingesting local honey can relieve pollen allergies.

Tupelo honey is the only honey that does not granulate.

A bee can only sting once, the stinger remains in it's victim and the bee dies shortly afterward.


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