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How Bees Work: Understanding the Honeybee Social Structure

We see them buzzing around all the time, but have you ever wondered how bees work? Indeed, the buzzing honeybee social structure has fascinated many for ages. Honeybees are known for their incredible efficiency, one that is almost impossible for man to imitate. The tiny creatures are highly organized and each bee is assigned a special job to handle within the beehive. It is this organization that brings out the smooth operation of various activities within the hive. Bees are like termites and ants in some ways, since only a few members of the colony are allowed to make babies or larvae. The rest of the members of the hive engage in other activities including fending for the little ones.

Bees may have small and simple brains but their memory is quite outstanding. Their sense of smell is excellent given the 170 genes devoted for sensing smell. Surprisingly, bees also communicate through smell and are known for their attack hormone usually released whenever there is an intrusion in their hive.

Roles within the Bee Colony

How Bees Work - Queen Bee

The honeybee is a social insect and that means they live together in family groups. This social group engages in a wide variety of complex tasks that is impossible for solitary bees to undertake. The bee colony is made up of three types of adult bees: queen, drones, and workers.

Worker Bee

The worker bees handle tasks such as nest building, brood rearing, and collection of food. Each individual worker has its unique task depending on its age. The survival and reproduction within the hive is not a task of an individual bee but rather a collective responsibility of an entire bee colony. Each individual worker, queen or drone can never survive on its own.

The worker bees are the smallest and are the majority in the bee colony. They are ideally underdeveloped females and cannot lay eggs. The worker bee has some special features that make her ideal for some hive duties: scent glands, pollen baskets, brood food glands, and wax glands. The workers also handle tasks such as: clean and polish cells, care for the queen, guard hive entrance, remove debris, build wax combs, ventilate and air-condition the hive, and bring food to the hive.

A worker bee can live for up to 6 weeks during the summer and those reared in fall will live for up to 6 months. This helps the colony survive the winter and assist in nurturing a new generation for the bee colony.

Queen Bee

Each bee colony has a single queen bee and hundreds of drone bees. The drones are usually available in late spring and summer. The presence of the queen and the workers maintains the social structure of a colony. All activities within the hive are controlled through communication dependent on chemical pheromones and communicative “dances” among the bees. The size of workforce, the queen, and amount of food in store determine the strength of a bee colony.

The main role of the queen bee is reproduction. She lays fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The peak egg-laying season is spring and early summer. During this time the queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs every day. She will gradually cease laying eggs and eventually produce little to no eggs the next spring. A queen is capable of producing up to a million eggs in a lifetime, equivalent to 250,000 eggs per year.

The queen produces a chemical pheromone, which acts as a sort of social glue since it is brings together the entire colony. She produces a substance called queen substance produced by its mandibular glands. The egg-laying and chemical production of the queen bee will determine the quality of a bee colony.

You can distinguish the queen form other bees by its large and long body. She is at her biggest during the peak egg-laying season and its abdomen is elongated. Its wings will only cover 2/3 of her abdomen and its thorax is larger than the one for the worker bee. She also has a longer and curved stinger when compared to that of the worker. She also has shorter barbs and does not have pollen baskets and functional wax glands. The queen bee can live for up to 5 years with a productive life of 2 to 3 years.

Drone Bees

Drone bees are the male bees in a bee colony. They are the largest and are only present during late spring and summer. The drone has a bigger head than the queen and worker bee and its compound eyes are connected at the top of its head. They do not have pollen baskets, wax glands, or a stinger.

Drones main duty is to fertilize the virgin queen and this carried out in what is referred to as a mating flight. A drone takes a week to mature after emerging and will die after mating. The drones do not engage in any other useful activity within the hive but their presence is essential for the normal functioning of a bee colony. They depend on worker bees for food and can still feed themselves at 4 days old. A drone consumes 3 times the food a worker bee eats and therefore an excessive number of drones can adversely strain a bee colony. They begin drill flights at 8 days old and these flights are undertaken between noon and 4.00 p.m. They will never collect pollen or nectar and are drawn out during cold weather when food reserves are scarce. The drone life ends after mating flights but with queenless colonies, they are allowed to stay indefinitely within the bee colony.

What do Bees Eat

How Bees Work - Bee Gathering Nectar

Bees feed solely on two types of food: honey and pollen. The honey is made from nectar, that is, the sweet juice collected from the heart of flowers. The nectar is collected and stored in the bee’s special honey stomach for transportation to the honey-makers in the hive. The worker bee also has what is referred to as a valve that opens to the nectar sac. This valve is opened whenever she is hungry for a little of the sweet nectar to flow into her own stomach for rejuvenation.

If you thought human technology has really developed, then you should think again. A plane created by man has the capability of handling a quarter of its weight. The bee on the other hand can carry nectar and pollen equivalent to its body weight. It flies around with this load from the flowers that can be far away from the hive at times. The worker bees that handle this task are normally 10,000 to 50,000 in number per hive – a workforce that is extremely organized. As a matter of fact, worker bees make about 30% of the workforce and this will usually change depending on the changes in the environment. For instance, during the flowering season, young bees engaged as nurse bees transform to worker bees so as to improve the efficiency of collecting the abundant pollen and nectar.

Swarming of Bees

How Bees Work - Bee Swarm

We are all familiar with bee swarms. This is a normal occurrence in a bee colony. It usually takes place when a queen becomes too old. She will fly away from the hive with a number of bees, majority of which are nurse bees. At this time, the colony is left with larvae that will be its successor. Bees that used to be foragers and free-agent will then switch roles and become nurse bees. Some lab tests carried out showed that ten percent of foragers became nurse bees after a part of the hive population was taken away. Foragers are ideally fragile and hence the low number that switch to nurse bees. This can be explained as a way of protecting the colony from any potential outside infections that could be introduced by the worker bees when seeking pollen and nectar.

Swarming in bees also occurs whenever a hive has two queens or when a colony has become so large such that it has outgrown a hive. In that case, part of the colony will split and move away seeking a new home to build a new colony.

How is Honey made?

How Bees Work - How is Honey Made

The golden sweet honey has been a valuable commodity for as long as humans have been in existence. In ancient times, it was considered a symbol of wealth and happiness. It is still a valuable commodity in the current age and it used widely across many industries. But how is honey made? Is there a magical formula to honey production? Well, the bees know best how they make honey, but sure, we’ll tell you about it.

Honey making begins with the worker bee heading to the field to seek nectar and pollen mostly during the summer months. She will suck the nectar from the flower and store it in a special stomach then carry it to the honey-making bees in the hive. Nectar is ideally composed of 80% water, essential amino acids, and natural sugars. As stated earlier, the bee will carry a load of nectar and pollen close to its own body weight. She will return to the hive when her nectar sac is full. The nectar is collected from 150 to 1500 flowers.

On landing at the bee entrance, the worker bee passes her store of honey to one of the indoor bees or honey-makers, who will then pass the nectar to the next bee and then to the next. This is done via mouth to mouth and in the process the moisture content of the nectar reduces from 80% to 20%. The process of transferring nectar from bee to bee changes the nectar to honey. The honey-makers also have special enzymes within their honey stomachs which break down the complex sugars in nectar into simple sugars. This makes it easy for the sugars to be digested by the bees. Alternatively, nectar will be deposited directly into the honeycomb cells without passing through the mouth-to-mouth process. In this case the high temperature within the hive will vaporize the water content in the nectar and transform the nectar to honey. The transformation of nectar to honey normally takes about half an hour and at the end of it the honey is resistant to molds, fungi, and bacteria. It can therefore stay for many years without need for refrigeration.

Once formed, honey is placed storage cells and kept safe using beeswax as it awaits the arrival of the newborns. A substance called “bee bread” is also manufactured by the bees. It is made by mixing pollen and nectar. This is prepared for the larvae since it is highly nutritious and best-suited for nourishing the baby bees.

The honey-making process requires excellent aeration within the hive and ideal temperature. In order to ensure the hive is well-aerated, the bees collectively fan their wings. They will work tirelessly even at night and will be heard as they try to provide sufficient air circulation within the hive.

The worker bee will deposit the nectar and pollen, clean and care for herself before going back to collect more food for the bee colony. The cleanup exercise is undertaken as a way of rejuvenating the worker so that she can be more efficient in her work. She will work tirelessly throughout her lifetime, collecting nectar and pollen, taking it to the hive, cleaning herself, and then embarking on more trips.

The worker bees begins their work when three weeks old. By the time they are 6 to 7 weeks old they will have a lot of work to do within the bee colony. Literally hundreds of bees will be working at the same time within the hive and the buzzing sound will be common around the bee colony. A total of 300 worker bees will gather approximately 450 grams of honey in a period of 3 weeks. The bee colony will consume up to 200 pounds of honey within one year and a single worker bee makes 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. That means it is only through their collective work that they can make honey sufficient to feed the bee colony, not to mention the honey harvested by humans for our consumption.

A Final Word

Bees are amazing creatures to behold. They are highly organized and that is why they can do what they do. A single worker, drone, or queen bee will never last a day on its own. There is a lot humans can learn from the honeybee. The honey-making process in particular is intriguing to behold or imagine.

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