Love these insects or hate them, bees have been a part of our earth much longer than humans have. They date back to the Cretaceous geological era: the last period dinosaurs lived, about 150 million years ago. Fossils of bees have been found in the United States from bees that lived 60 million years ago. 20,000 species are now found on all the continents except Antarctica, which is too cold for bees. There are eight surviving species of honey bees. And, of course, honey has been considered a desirable food for thousands of years.
Bees are an important part of the pollination cycle of a plant. While the bees are gathering nectar, they also gather pollen and spread it among other plants. Some bee species get pollen stuck to their hair that covers them. Other species have corbiculae baskets on their legs that transport the pollen. Every time a bee heads out, it visits an average of 100 flowers. Each bee makes about ten flights a day. A bee can end up several miles away from their hive looking for food.
The queen honey bee is the largest of the colony. She lays the eggs and is the mother of all, living for about four years. Bees that are destined to become queens are fed royal jelly until they develop. About ten days later, she leaves the hive in search of other bee colonies and mates with about a dozen males just once in her life cycle.
The drones are males that come from unfertilized eggs. They exist only to impregnate a queen from another hive, then die.
Worker bees take care of the larvae, defend the hive, as well as gathering and producing food. Those that live in the summer live for about a month; those that are born in the fall live throughout the winter. Worker bees are all sterile females. What tasks they will perform depends on the age of the bee. After being born, the bee is responsible for cleaning out the cell of the beehive it came out of. It will be used again for either the next larvae or for honey storage. After the first few days, the bee becomes responsible for cleaning the rest of the hive. Next, the aging worker bee becomes a nurse who takes care of the young larvae. Then the bee takes care of the queen who will be busy laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. At the age of 12 days, the young bees can use pollen to make honey. After about two weeks of age the bee can produce wax. At 20 days of age, the bee can defend the beehive. Only by midlife will the bee become ready to go out and forage for pollen.
Bees produce honey, royal jelly, wax, propolis and venom. Honey is what a bee eats to live. They make it themselves from nectar and honeydew. It is stored in honeycomb cells which are sealed until needed. Royal jelly is the substance used to feed larvae. It is produced by mixing pollen with fluid that comes from nurse bees. Wax is created by special glands in the belly of worker bees. It is used to make the honeycomb where the honey is stored. Propolis is produced from resins of tree bark that the bee has processed and digested. The bees use it as a disinfectant, spreading it on the walls of the beehive.
Bees, like all insects, have a body that is divided into three sections: the head which has the sense organs; the thorax, which has the wings and legs; and the abdomen, with the stinger and venom gland for protection.
Venom is the bee’s self-defensive weapon. When a bee stings a human, it will die because the stinger which is barbed will remain imbedded in the skin. It will tear out the bee’s intestines. The venom is delivered through the hollow stinger. There is a distinctive odor to the process which alerts other bees of nearby danger. Only worker bees and queens are able to sting; however, the queen bee only stings when fighting for dominance against another queen. Bees are much more apt to sting when defending their hive than when out foraging.
Bees are fascinating creatures, and an understanding of their life cycles and processes really adds to the appreciation of them.
Find it at the Library:
Banfi, Cristina. The World of Bees. Milan, Italy: White Star Kids. 2018.
Gehring, Abigail. Homesteading. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. 2014.
Sanders, Charles. The Self-Reliant Homestead. Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books. 2003.
Sheleton, Neil. The Everything Backyard Farming Book. Avon, MA: F & W Media. 2013.