The Biology of the Honeybee
I must say, I had quite a bit of fun going back through my beekeeping textbooks and reteaching myself the biology of the honeybee. In fact, last winter, around the time when I became interested in having a hive of my own did I first fall in love with biology of this tiny insect, their anatomy and communal habits. I truly found them incredible, fascinating, and a little wild that those tiny bodies could contain so much intelligence and organization. The way a colony of bees operates is something that has fascinated and stumped humans throughout history, and while we have much knowledge on how their lives work, there are still many things about bees that we have to learn. Humans have been harvesting honey since the stone age, and I don't believe that we will stop anytime soon as we continually seek out the purest, most natural form of sugar on earth. For we, as humans, are bred to desire it! Today I want to share with you what first led me to fall for bees and becoming a beekeeper. While I still have never had a hive of my own (I just ordered my first package of bees that will arrive in April!), this lesson is more on the science behind how a bee colony operates and what your overseeing job will entail. I think this is something all people who are interested in keeping bees should learn before deciding to purchase a hive. You must know all of these things to successfully raise a hive and harvest honey, or you may find yourself confused, overwhelmed, and with a big loss of money and precious bees.
What are Honey Bees?
Bees, or more particularly, honeybees are insects from the order Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, sawflies, and ants). They have chewing mouthparts, or mandibles, but they are most well known for their proboscis or "special tongue" that they use to sip nectar from flowering plants. They have two pairs of wings, but the front pair are always longer. Most often, they have a pinched waist, which is the constriction between their abdomen and thorax. They are most well known for their striped bodies of yellow and black as well as their stingers, which we will get to soon!
I believe one of the most interesting parts of the honeybee is its community structure. Honeybees are social creatures that live in colonies of overlapping generations. While they have power in numbers, they are not like their wasp relatives in that they are parasitic to other insects. If anything they are socially parasitic! They eat pollen and nectar from flowering plants and help those plants to continue to grow and produce as they pollinate many gardens and various plant life across the world. Their sheer size of numbers, usually 10,000 - 80,000 bees per hive, is the reason for their ultimate survival over time.
Anatomy of a Honey Bee
In every honeybee colony there are three types of bee: the queen, the worker, and the drone. Each has their own unique anatomical structure and is therefore different in outer body shape, internal structure, habits, and habitats. While they differ, they all share basic similarities. A honeybee is armored with an exoskeleton and covered in branched hairs. With these hairs, a bee is able to see and communicate with touch. As a hive is most often very dark and crowded, this is the bees' main way of relaying messages amongst each other. They rely heavily on vibrations or "dancing" to determine where food and water is located, if a predator has entered the hive, or any other issues throughout day to day life.
Bees have complicated head structures which include glands (on worker bees) that can secrete different substances like royal jelly to feed brood. Their eyes are compound which are used for distance sight, along with three simple eyes. Bees can only see primarily in blue and green tones; they cannot see the red end of the spectrum, but they can see ultraviolet light. That is most often why it is suggested to not plant red flowers to attract bees as they cannot as easily spot them while flying overhead. Their mouthparts, which are mandibles used for chewing, can feed larvae, collect pollen, manipulate wax comb, and carry things. They have a long tongue called a proboscis, which is used to suck up nectar from flowering plants and then turned into honey.
Bees also communicate through pheromones. The queen bee can send out a pheromone known as the queen substance that lets the colony know she is still alive and living amongst them. She can also let male bees know that she is available to mate with. The worker bees send out unique scents of their own which can help foraging workers know how to get back home, alarm scents for when predators are approaching, and even a scent for determining the gender and developmental stage of brood, or baby bees.
What most people are often concerned with when it comes to a bee's anatomy is its stinger. Not all bees can sting. Only female bees, or the queen and workers, have stingers that can be used on other animals (including we humans) to defend their hive. The worker bee has a barbed stinger, and because its barbs get stuck in a mammal's flesh (it cannot get stuck in another insect) pulls out the internal organs of a worker bee and kills it. Honeybees are very docile creatures, so they do not often sting unless provoked, as they will die immediately afterwords. The queen bee's stinger is not barbed and is mainly used to fight other competing queens to the death. The male bees, or drones, do not have stingers at all but instead their male sex organ resides in that place.
Reproduction and Genetics
One of the most mind blowing parts of a hive's genetic structure is the fact that there are obviously many females around if they are the only ones leaving the hive to forage. I mean, how can they possibly make that happen?! I found it was easier to understand when you realize that only unfertilized eggs turn into males. While the queen bee is the only bee laying eggs, she can determine which egg that is laid will be fertile or infertile. How is this possible? Bees are a Haplodiploidy. That means that males have one set of chromosomes while females have two sets. There are many different charts and such to showcase this, some of which goes over my head (I was not great at biology in school!), but as a basic fact: bees can control the gender of their offspring and therefore, have found over thousands of years that females are better at working than males are, which serves the reason why workers are only female.
What is the purpose of the male bee? To mate! That's literally it. He eats, mates with the queen bee, and dies. Male bees have no fathers, only maternal grandfathers. How interesting is that? A bee's reproductive system is also quite intriguing. As I will soon share, the queen is the only bee mating and producing eggs as she is only fully developed female in the colony. All female bees, or fertilized eggs, have the capability of becoming a queen. The difference? The chosen queen (this is chosen by the other workers) is fed only royal jelly, which is a substance secreted by worker bees and made up of mostly protein, water, and other minerals and sugars. This substance is also fed to other brood, but only for three days, before they are weaned onto pollen and honey instead. This strict feeding of royal jelly to the queen allows her to develop the sex organs needed to produce fertilized eggs. Her ovaries contain a life's supply of eggs, which she will lay every day on an average of 1,500 daily. That's an egg every 30 seconds! As for the males, their sex organ is located in their digestive tract. When they ejaculate, their endophallus organ is ripped from their bodies, and therefore kills them quickly afterwards. The queen, who will mate with multiple males to ensure a more diverse colony, can store their sperm for a lifetime.
How is the gender of each bee determined? It's not the queen who decides, which is what I always assumed! It's actually the worker bees who determine which type of bee is needed next. They will build different sized brood cells for each type of bee. The workers grow in a small cell, and the queen will lay fertilized eggs there. If their queen is becoming old and worn, they may decide to turn one of those fertilized eggs into a queen instead of a worker! Drones, or unfertilized eggs, are laid in wider cells in a different part of the hive when needed. In the winter, the drones are kicked out of the hive as they are no longer needed.
The Life Cycle of a Bee
This is the most interesting part, to me anyway, of a bee! Each type of bee has a different life cycle that determines their jobs in the hive. They are fascinating and are helpful in determining how your hive is operating and what you can look for when inspecting and observing your own bees. I will begin with the worker bee first as the other two, the queen and the drones, are easier to understand after explaining the life cycle of a worker bee.
Bees go through a complete metamorphosis life cycle, meaning that they begin as an egg, hatch into a larva, grow into a pupa, and transform into an adult after a cocoon stage. All of this happens inside of the hive and is the reason why bees create comb; the eggs are laid inside of the comb in one part of the hive (the brood box) and the honey is made inside of a different food chamber (the upper deep brood box). Each type of bee has a different number of days to go through this cycle: queens hatch in 16 days, workers hatch in 21 days, and drones hatch in 24 days. Baby bees begin as eggs in the hive, hatch in 3 days as larva, and are then fed depending on their gender. For the next 5 days, they will be fed royal jelly and/or honey and pollen. Then they are sealed into the cell with wax as they cocoon themselves - they are now considered pupa. After they hatch as an adult, the bee will use its chewing mouthparts to break out of the cell and into the world!
The worker bee is the main lady of the stage. She is the honey maker, the one that we rely on in order to harvest that sweet golden liquid from a hive. While the queen, her royal majesty, is important in her own way, I think that a majority of the attention for a hive should go to the hard little worker herself. Here is how a worker bee's life looks after hatching:
- Day 1 - 3. The worker bee chews through the wax capping of her cell and emerges. She spends the next three days engorging herself with pollen and honey, which she eats by cleaning out her cell. All of the cells must be spotless and immaculate for the queen as she will not lay an egg in a dirty cell.
- Day 3 - 16. The next job for a worker bee is to take care of the dead. She will remove dead bees or those that are sick and diseased (this includes larva, too) from the hive, taking them as far away as possible. In the winter this may mean just outside the hive's entrance. This is the best way to ensure that the hive remains healthy and lively. This can also mean the taking away of diseased pests as well.
- Day 4 - 18. The worker can now be used for many different jobs in the hive. She may switch amongst these over the course of the next 18 or so days and will change depending upon what is needed most in the hive. One job is that of nursing the brood, or the baby bees growing in the comb. The workers will feed and care for the developing larvae; this can mean checking up on a single larva 1,300 times a day! They are fed a mixture of honey and pollen along with royal jelly. Afterwards, they can work as an attendant to the queen. As you will learn below, the queen's only job is to lay eggs. The attendants help to feed, clean, and even coax her to continue laying eggs. They also perform the task of collecting pollen and nectar from the foraging workers who drop off their finds at the hive's entrance. They spend their time storing these precious ingredients in variousbcells to turn into honey! Next, they'll fan the hive, which helps to regulate temperatures for the colony and hasten the evaporation for curing honey.
- Day 12 - 35. This is the job of a graduated worker, which involves using the special glands on their abdomens to produce wax to build honeycomb.
- Day 18 - 21. Before leaving the hive, some workers become guard bees. This is a term you will hear quite often and should become familiar with when watching your own hive. These bees station themselves at the hive entrance to attack predators and pests as well as to inspect members of their own colony before entering. This can include not allowing the entrance of unfamiliar bees! If a bee who is not a member of the colony enters the hive, they may take some honey or pollen and simply leave.
- Day 21 - 42. The worker bee's life cycle is nearing its end. Now it will go out into the world and begin to forage for food. This work is dangerous and often leaves the underdeveloped worker fatigued and damaged. They will visit over 5 million flowers and can travel up to a radius of 8,000 acres. All of this must be done to produce 1 pint of honey alone. You can tell how old a worker is based on their fading colors and damaged wings.
As stated many times before, the queen bee is only royally named because she has been granted the gift of full development. If all fertilized bee eggs were fed royal jelly for the entire 5 developmental days, then they too would be queens. Isn't that interesting?! With her lovely sex organs, the queen can now spend the rest of her lifetime laying eggs. Queens can live for 2 or more years, though she is often replaced after 1-2 years as her production begins to slow. This is often why you will see queens for sale separately from package bees - sometimes you only need to purchase a queen if yours needs replacing!
Because she is laying so often, on an average of 1,500 times a day, she does not have time to feed, groom, or relieve herself. This is the job of her attendants, or younger worker bees. They bring her honey and pollen to eat, clean her, and remove her waste. The queen has an stinger that does not have barbs. This allows her to fight with other possible queens (workers will often raise a few queens, who will fight, to ensure the strongest survives) and not die afterwards.
The male bee's only job is to mate with the queen. These bees are wide and barrel shaped, often described as lazy and not useful amongst the hive. Because they are so large and cumbersome, they can also not feed or groom themselves. Workers must care for them as well, and they eat a lot of food, so they can seem kind of annoying! Drones do not have pollen baskets on their legs, so they cannot forage. They do not have glands to produce wax so they cannot build comb. They do not have a stinger do they cannot guard the hive. This leaves them with little to do but eat! When it is time for a virgin queen to mate, she will spread her scent. The males and the queen will then take to the sky, often a mile or more away from the hive and up to 300 feet in the air, and perform the mating ceremony. The queen will mate with multiple drones, which of course, then kills them.
In the winter when the hive is dormant and not producing eggs, the workers will drive the drones outside as they are simply taking up needed space.
As you can see, the inner workings of a hive are much more complicated than many are led to believe! There is so much happening inside that I wish we could see all of the time. I love being able to learn all of this information and share it with you. After taking so many bee classes, it has been fun to hear a little bit differently and the same about how a hive operates and how we, as beekeepers, are mainly just there to oversee the work that the bees do all on their own. I am so ready to receive my own lovely ladies (and men, too, I guess... ha!). I have had so many of you asking for more posts on beekeeping, which I find myself laughing at because I am not yet even a beekeeper! This will be a year of learning and experimentation for me, and probably years ahead, but I know that I can share this information with you now. It is what I have been studying for over a year now, and I do honestly think that you have to know this before starting a hive of your own. Maybe one day I can teach how to keep bees, but for now, it will just be sharing my experiences! My goal always is to break down this art of homesteading into basic terms and lessons so that you can experience them without feeling overwhelmed or discouraged.