The Honey Bee

It is native to Asia and the Middle East and was introduced to North America by early European colonists. By the mid-1800s Honey Bees had become widespread. Today, they’re naturalized on every continent except Antarctica.

Honey Bees can be easily reared, are adaptable to many climates and to laboratory conditions, and have a complex social life. They are one of the most studied and best known insects.

Honey Bee Diversity

In addition to the familiar European Honey Bee (EHB), there are six other recognized species of Honey Bees, including the Indian Honey Bee, Koschevnikov’s Honey Bee, the dwarf Honey Bee, the andreniform dwarf Honey Bee, the giant Honey Bee, and the mountain giant Honey Bee.

The European, the Indian, and to some extent the dwarf Honey Bees are the species that have been domesticated, although the European Honey Bee (EHB) is by far the most widespread domesticated bee and the only species kept in North America. There are many races of the European Honey Bee (EHB).  The ones most well-liked in modern beekeeping are the Italian, Carniolan, and Caucasian.

Most Honey Bees used in hives today are mixtures of these and sometimes other races. Africanized Honey Bees, also known as killer bees, are a hybrid of African and European races naturalized in the western hemisphere.

Honey Bee Social Organization

The Honey Bee is a social insect that can survive only as a member of a community, or colony.  The honey bee colony inhabits an enclosed cavity, its nest. Domesticated colonies are kept in artificial containers, normally wooden boxes, known as hives.

Honey Bee Castes

The Honey Bee community consists of three structurally different forms-the queen (reproductive female), the drone (male), and the worker (nonreproductive female). These castes are associated with different functions in the honey bee colony; each caste possesses its own special instincts geared to the needs of the honey bee colony.

The Queen Honey Bee

The queen is the only sexually productive female in the honey bee colony and accordingly is the mother of all drones, workers, and future queens. Her capacity for laying eggs is outstanding; her daily output often exceeds 1500 eggs, the weight of which is equivalent tothat of her own body.

Anatomically, the queen is strikingly different from the drones and workers. Her body is long, with a much bigger abdomen than a worker bee. Her mandibles, or jaws, contain sharp cutting teeth, whereas her offspring have toothless jaws.  The queen has a curved, smooth stinger that she is able to use repeatedly without endangering her own life.

In contrast, the worker Honey Bees are armed with straight, barbed stingers, so that when a worker stings, the barbed, needlesharp organ remains firmly anchored in the flesh of its victim. In attempting to withdraw the stinger, the bee tears its internal organs and dies shortly thereafter.

The queen bee lacks the working tools possessed by worker bees, such as pollen baskets, beeswax-secreting glands, and a well-developed honey sac. Her larval food consists almost entirely of a secretion called royal jelly that is produced by worker bees.  The averagelifespan of the queen is one to three years.

The Worker Honey Bee

Worker bees are the most numerous members of the honey bee colony. A healthy colony might contain 80,000 worker bees or more at its peak growth in early summer. Workers build and maintain the nest and care for the brood. They build the nest from wax secreted from glands in their abdomen.

The hexagonal cells, or compartments, constructed by the workers are arranged in a latticework known as the comb.  The cells of the comb provide the internal structure of the nest and are used for storage of the developing young bees and all the provisions used by the honey bee colony.

Comb used for storage of honey is called honeycomb. Workers leave the hive to gather nectar, pollen, water, and propolis, a gummy substance used to seal and caulk the exterior of the nest.

They convert the nectar to honey, clean the comb, and feed the larvae, drones, and the queen. They also ventilate the nest and when necessary, defend the honey bee colony with their stings. Workers don’t mate and as a result can not produce fertile eggs. They occasionally lay infertile eggs, which give rise to drones.

As with all bees, pollen is the principal source of protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins, the food elements essential for the growth and development of larvae of all three castes. Adult bees can subsist on honey or sugar, a pure carbohydrate diet.

Besides accumulating and storing food for all the members of the honey bee colony, the workers are responsible for maintaining the brood at 33.9? C (93? F), the optimum temperature required for hatching the eggs and rearing the young.

When the nest or hive becomes too hot the workers collectively ventilate it by fanning their wings. During cool weather, they cluster tightly about the nursery and generate heat.  The eggs, which are laid one per cell, hatch in three days.

The larvae are fed royal jelly for at least two days and then pollen and nectar or honey. Each of the hundreds of larvae in a nest or hive should be fed many times a day.

For the first three weeks of their adult lives, the workers confine their labors to building the honeycomb, cleaning and polishing the cells, feeding the young and the queen, controlling the temperature, evaporating the water from the nectar until it thickens as honey, and many other miscellaneous tasks.

At the end of this period, they function as field bees and defenders of the honey bee colony.  The workers that develop early in the season live extremely busy lives, which, from egg to death, last about six weeks.

Worker bees reared late in the fall typically live until spring, since they have little to do in the winter except eat and keep warm. Unlike other species of bees, Honey Bees don’t hibernate; the honey bee colony survives the winter as a group of active adult bees.

The Drone Honey Bee

Drones are male Honey Bees. They’re stingless, defenseless, and unable to feed themselves-they are fed by worker bees. Drones have no pollen baskets or wax glands and cannot secrete royal jelly. Their one function is to mate with new queens. After mating, which always takes place on the wing in the open air, a drone dies immediately.

Early investigators of the mating habits of the Honey Bee concluded that a queen mates only once in her life. Recent scientific studies, notwithstanding, have established that she usually mates with six or more drones in the course of several days.

The motile sperm of the drones find their way into a small, saclike organ, called the spermatheca, in the queen’s abdomen.  The sperm remain viable in this sac throughout the life of the queen.

Drones are prevalent in colonies of bees in the spring and summer months. As fall approaches, they’re driven out of the nests or hives by the workers and left to perish.

Honey Bee Reproduction and Development

The queen controls the sex of her offspring. When an egg passes from her ovary to her oviduct, the queen decides whether the egg is fertilized with sperm from the spermatheca. A fertilized egg develops into a female Honey Bee, either worker or queen, and an unfertilized egg becomes a male Honey Bee, or drone.

The queen lays the eggs that will develop into more queens in specially constructed downward-pointing, peanut-shaped cells, in which the egg adheres to the ceiling. These cells are filled with royal jelly to keep the larvae from falling and to feed them.

Worker bees are raised in the multi-purpose, horizontally arranged cells of the comb. Future workers receive royal jelly only during the first two days, compared to future queens, who are fed royal jelly throughout their larval life. This difference accounts for the great variation in anatomy and function between adult workers and queens.

On average, the development of the queen from egg to adult requires 16 days; that of the worker, 21 days; and that of the drone, 24 days.

Honey Bee Activities

Field Honey Bees collect flower nectar. On entering the hive with a full honey sac, which is an enlargement of the esophagus, the field bee regurgitates the contents into the mouth of a young worker, called the house, or nurse, bee.

The house bee deposits the nectar in a cell and carries out the tasks necessary to convert the nectar to honey. When the honey is fully ripened, the cell is sealed with an airtight wax capping. Both old and young workers are required to store the winter supplies of honey.

Pollen is carried into the nest or hive on the hind legs of the field bees and placed directly in the cells.  The pollen of a given load is derived primarily from plants of one species, which accounts for the Honey Bee’s outstanding role as pollinator.

If it flew from one flower species to another, it’d not be effective in the transfer of pollen, but by confining its visits on a given trip to the blossoms of a single species, it provides the cross-pollination required in many varieties of plants.

About John Payton

Bee control expert and founder of a bee control company
This entry was posted in Bee Control, Bee Removal and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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