Bees - Detailed Information

Text | bees,

The Life of the Honeybee

A hive contains a single colony of honeybees. There is one female queen, whose job is to lay eggs, up to 1,500 a day at the height of the season. A few hundred stingless male drones are produced with the sole purpose of mating with virgin queens, but the vast majority of bees in a colony (that can number up to 60,0000) are sterile female workers.

All honeybees undergo complete metamorphosis. A worker begins its life as an egg. After three days it hatches into a slightly translucent white larva that is fed up for four days, then sealed in its cell with a wax cap. During the following thirteen days it magically transforms into a winged adult that on the twentieth day of life, bites its way through the wax cap and emerges to begin a series of many different jobs.

A queen can live for 3-4 years. Workers born in the autumn live until the following spring, but spring- and summer-born workers die of exhaustion after only 6 weeks. You can tell a honeybee’s age by how furry her body is – youngsters are covered in velveteen fur, the old girls’ bodies are bald and shiny.

Young adults stay inside the hive, first of all caring for the larvae and cleaning the hive (healthy bees are super hygienic). Later they tend the queen, build and repair the comb and guard the entrance against unwanted invaders. To maintain an even temperature they cluster round the queen and brood (eggs and larvae) and shiver to generate heat if it is cold. In hot weather they fan their wings to increase ventilation and cool the hive.

The last, and most exhausting, of a worker’s procession jobs is to fly up to three miles from the hive in search of nectar, pollen, propolis and water. Apart from when a colony swarms, the only worker bees you will see outside a hive are foragers. When a forager discovers a new source of provisions, she carries a sample back to the hive and enacts a complex waggle dance on the comb, relaying the abundance of the goodies and the geographical coordinates of where they can be found (thought to be calculated by the angle of the sun, magnetic north and the line of gravity).

Bees collect protein-rich pollen from the stamens of flowers that they pack into ‘baskets’ on their back legs. Once back in the hive, they mix the pollen with honey or nectar to make bee bread, food for developing larvae. A beekeeper is always reassured by the sight of lots of bees returning to a hive laden with pollen as it indicates that there are plenty of young larvae inside, so the queen is laying and all is well with the colony.

Foragers collect syrupy nectar from the nectaries at the base of flowers by sucking it up through their straw-like proboscis. Back at the hive, they pass it from mouth to mouth, intimately mixing it with enzymes. Then they pack it into cells in the wax comb, and vibrating their wings, they evaporate the water content until it is too low for the honey to ferment. Only then do they seal the cells in the knowledge that the honey will keep. It will feed the colony on days when the weather prevents bees from flying, and then throughout the winter.

Bees also collect propolis, a resinous substance, from tree buds and sap. Like bee cement, they use it to fill any holes or crevices in the hive. It is immensely strong, and most often the beekeeper needs the help of a hive tool to prise apart the comb frames for inspection - bees are swift to reseal every crack once he has departed. Propolis has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, characteristics that the bees exploit as they use it to ‘polish’ cells in the brood chamber before the queen lays a new generation of eggs. Once humans discovered the power of the substance, we began to harvest it alongside honey, to process into tinctures, throat lozenges and toothpaste.