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What Do Honey Bees Do

Honeybees have been on this planet for millions of years. In fact, some fossils date back to over 100 million years old. That’s a long time, don’t you think? To put it into perspective, man has been around for about 6 million years, and the modern version of humans has only been around for about 200,000 years. They have a pretty good head start on us. I’m not sure if that plays a part in what they do, but they actually do some amazing things! A bee has four stages of life; an egg, a larvae, a pupae, and an adult bee. And there are three types of bees in the colony; the Queen that lays the eggs, the drones who are the male bees, and worker bees that have all of the jobs of nursing the brood, collecting water, propolis, pollen, and honey, defending the hive from intruders and they have other jobs as well . I will explain each as we go.

The Queen Bee

The Queen Bee is unique to a colony of bees. Although I have seen instances where there were more than one, there is rarely ever more than one. Her life cycle begins as a fertilized egg. The egg will hatch in 3 days and become what is called a larvae. Sometimes it has been established that this larvae will be a Queen, and other times it isn’t. We will get more into that later. By the time this larvae reaches a few days old, it must be determined that it will be a Queen or not. After 4-5 days, it will be a worker bee only. So for now, let’s assume this larvae is going to be a queen. We will touch on the other scenarios later. So the nurse bee feed the Queen-to-be a substance called Royal Jelly, They give her all that she will need to become an adult bee. They place the Royal Jelly into the cell with the larvae. At day five of the larvae stage, the cell is capped over with wax and the larvae begins it’s pupae state. There is nothing more that the Queen needs (other than to be kept warm) until she hatches as an adult bee. A Queen will hatch at approximately the 16th day from when the egg was laid. Sometimes the temperature can delay or postpone this, but it is usually on the 16th day.

A lot may have been happening as the Queen developed. Since only one Queen is in a colony, there are only a few reasons why a new Queen was made. Maybe the old Queen died, she just got old and no longer was able to produce well, and perhaps there are too many bees in the hive and the old Queen will be leaving to start another colony elsewhere (when a hive swarms). If they are preparing to swarm, usually around the time that the Queen Cell is capped, the old Queen will leave with about half of the bees and go to find another place to live.

There is more to it than what I am going to say, but since I don’t want to include every possibility, let’s just say that the swarm happened. Now the new Queen emerges, and let’s just say there is only one Queen. Often times there are more. She is a Virgin Queen. She will take the next week to get stronger and orient herself to where she lives and then she will go out on her Mating Flight, which can constitute 2-3 days where she will breed with 10-20 different Drones. Because she doesn’t want to breed with her own Drones, she will fly up to 6 miles to breed with Drones away from her own colony. When she mates, she uses a special sack that stores the sperm. She will use the sperm to fertilize her eggs. When she returns from her mating flight, she will never leave the hive again, unless she swarms. She has all of the sperm that she needs for her entire life.

Now she will proceed to lay anywhere from 1200-2000 eggs a day until fall when she slows down her egg laying in preparation for winter. In the Spring she will ramp up her laying again. She will live about 3-4 years on average. During the summer months when lots of nectar and pollen is coming in, she will also make drones along with the worker bees. A Drone is made by her not fertilizing the egg. During this time she will make about 10% of her eggs Drones. But Drones are our next topic, so let’s dive right in.

Drones

Drones are the males of the Honey Bee world. The also start out as an egg, but one that the Queen did not fertilize. It has only one set of chromosomes. So the Drones will have 16 chromosomes (all from the Queen), and the Worker Bees will have 32 chromosomes (16 from the Queen and 16 from the Drone she mated with) We will get into that more in the Worker Bee section.

As with the Queen, the egg will hatch in 3 days and the larvae will emerge. Drones are also fed Royal Jelly for the first 2-3 days as a larvae to kick start their development, and then the nurse bees change their diet to bee bread (which is a mixture of honey and pollen). On day 5 the Drone larvae is also capped and it will develop as a pupae state until it emerges on it’s 24th day of life (3 days as an egg, 5 days as a larvae, and 16 days as a pupae). Drones take the longest to emerge.

Once the Drone emerges, they are fed by the nurse bees. They spend 1-2 weeks gaining strength, flying muscles, and eating. Then they will fly out to what is called a Drone Congregation area. This is an area where the Drones all fly together high in the air, to form a cloud of bees. There may be as many as 1,000 Drones. Because Drones are large and heavy, they cannot fly too far before needing to refuel and rest. They stay closer to home than when the Queen goes off on her mating flight. After mating, the male dies because the endophallus breaks along with associated abdominal tissues are ripped from the drone’s body after sex. A portion of the endophallus remains inside the Queen as well. At any rate, this ends the life of the Drone. However, it is estimated that less than 5% of all Drones actually succeed in mating. The remainder hang out eating the stores of other colonies. In fact, if a Drone flies into a different colony than it’s own, they don’t care. They feed him or let him feed himself as if he belonged there. Well, until it becomes Fall. Once the nectar stops coming in, most (if not all) Drones are kicked out of the hive by the Worker Bees to insure that they have enough stores to survive the Winter. Drones are expendable and do not stay in the hive over winter. How do the Worker Bees Know to do this? I don’t know, they just do. So let’s look at them further…

Worker Bees

Undeniably the most amazing Bee of all! Worker Bees start out like all of the others. 3 days as an egg. Then 2-3 days the larvae is fed Royal Jelly, but then it is fed Bee Bread until it is capped. It will emerge from it’s pupae state on day 21 of it’s life (3 days as an egg, 5 days as a larvae, and 13 days as a pupae). Almost immediately they become nurse bees. It is their job to feed the larva, the Drones, and the Queen. After a time of being a nurse bee, they graduate to being other useful bees in the colony. These new jobs include security at the door, taking out the dead, wax makers, cleaning the hive, take the supplies from the gatherers and put it where it belongs in the hive, dry the nectar to make honey, cool or heat the hive, and gather the following: nectar, water, pollen, propolis. Now I might have forgotten a thing or two, but that gives you the idea.

Although the Winter Worker Bees can live up to 6 months, most worker bees only live about 4 weeks. As you can imagine, they are doing so amazing things in such a short life.

And though you might think that the Queen rules the land, it isn’t so in Honey Bees. The Worker Bees decide if the Queen needs replaced. They decide if the Queen is going to swarm, and they decide where the new home will be when they do swarm. Also, it is the job of the Worker Bees to continue their genetics if something happens to the queen. If the Queen dies unexpectedly, the Worker Bees must make any larvae that they can into a queen. Once they start feeding them bee bread, they will only become worker bees, so they must decide which larvae will make the best Queen and usually they will make several in case one doesn’t make it. If for some reason, the Queen dies, and there are no eggs or acceptable larvae, the Worker Bees will wait for a time in case a Virgin Queen is on it’s mating flight, but eventually they know that the colony is doomed. This triggers their hormones to start producing eggs. And the Worker Bees will lay unfertilized eggs (which as you know will become Drones) in the hopes that these Drones will go out and mate with a Virgin Queen to carry on their genetics.

They also have a way of communicating that is amazing. They do what is called a Waggle Dance. This Waggle Dance is performed on a frame of usually uncapped comb. I am not going to get into very much detail here, but it has to do with the direction of the sun from the hive and a unique way of telling the other bees how far away it is. The bee usually gives out samples of what they have collected and the more excited the Waggle Dance, the more there is. So they can forage and if they find something good, they can come back and tell the field force what it is, where it is, and how much there is… sort of.

Because the Worker Bees’ life is so short, there is no telling exactly when they will parish, but in the Fall, the last eggs the Queen lays will be Winter Bees. They never leave the hive until Spring. They are fat-Bodied bees that only have one job… Get the colony through the winter. In the Spring they will start nursing brood, foraging for supplies and care for the Queen so that it can all start again. Like I said, truly amazing creatures!

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