Bees are extraordinary creatures. We take bees for granted, yet without them, the human race would be in serious trouble, with regard to their food sources.
Check out these amazing facts:
Apis mellifera is another name for the bee. In Latin, mellifera means ‘honey-bearing’. Apis is an ancient Greek word that has something in common with the word ‘swarm’. In Latin, mellifera means ‘honey-bearing’.
It is only the female honeybees that sting; the males (drones) cannot. The queen honeybee can sting, but she stays close to the hive, so stings from a honey bee queen are very rare.
Drones are fertile male honeybees, and they have an essential role in honey bee colonies. Honey bee males’ primary purpose is to mate with receptive queen bees, ensuring the survival of future generations and expansion of the colony.
Only 10 to 20 drones get the chance to mate with the honey bee queen in the air. They die immediately after mating.
The Mating Ritual of Honeybees
During the mating season, sexually mature drones will leave the hive or nest and form a cloud of bees in the sky. It is possible for up to 11,000 drones from 240 different colonies to gather in this way. Drone clouds can measure up to 200 metres in diameter and are located 10–40 metres above the ground.
About one hour after the peak of drone departure from the hives, the virgin queen will leave her hive for her nuptial flight and join the drone congregation.
Once the virgin queen enters the drone congregation, groups of drones start flocking to her, either due to her pheromone scent or visually. Thus, there is a comet-like swarm of drones on the virgin queen competing for her attention.
Within half an hour, a queen will be able to mate with 10-20 drones from among the thousands. Every drone bee which mates with the queen dies after mating. The drone’s reproductive organs are torn from its body while the queen flies off with the drone’s genitalia still attached to her. Nice, eh?
In the hive or nest, drones help regulate the temperature, which is especially important for developing young bees and larvae.
Their lifespan may be as short as a few weeks or as long as four months.
It is impossible for the drones to sting.
Nurse worker honeybees feed adult drones.
The first ones to be kicked out of the colony at the end of the summer, or if things get tough, are those who drain resources.
A drone develops from an egg to a fully grown adult honeybee in 24 days.
Drones typically live for 55 days on average.
And, yes, honeybees do actually poo as well. They defecate outside the nest or hive, and the poo is yellow in colour. So if you live near a nest or hives, you may see some poo splats on your car or your windowsills.
How a Honeybee Gets To Be The Queen
Queens are produced from the same eggs as worker bees. However, the larvae of potential queens are only fed a unique substance called ‘royal jelly’. (Worker larvae and drones are only fed royal jelly for three days).
The drones and workers produce pheromones, as does the queen, who makes a special queen pheromone. This special pheromone encourages workers to tend to her and the brood.
This inhibits the production of more queens.
The pheromones are so efficient at communicating within a colony that if the queen is removed, within 15 minutes, all the bees will be aware of the absence and immediately start creating a new queen. So they don’t hang about.
When colonies become so large so that workers cannot detect the queen pheromone as she is too far away, this encourages part of the colony to break away and create a new queen.
As a result, a new colony is formed.
The Queen honeybee may live as many as four or five years if she performs well in the colony or even longer if she does well. However, if she produces too few eggs, she may be replaced by a new queen – this is called ‘supersedure’. In contrast, the old queen is left to rot away while the new one is lavished with treats and affection.
Isn’t nature incredible?
The Honey Bee Dance
The Honeybee dance is known as the waggle dance. It is how a bee conveys to other bees where food and water are situated. They waggle their tails, and the nearer the food is, the wagglier (if that is a word) their bottoms are. It is incredibly clever.
The honeybee has to take into account wind strength, the suns position, and obstructions such as buildings, trees, etc. It is actually quite incredible – if the bee wags its tail upwards, that means the others should go towards the sun, and vice-versa. The signals and information given by this waggle dance are absolutely incredible. For instance, the honeybee will speed up the waggle by 1 second for every kilometre of travel.
A scouting honeybee tells a colony about a possible location for a new home. They wag their tails as a signal.
This performance was decoded in 1967 by a scientist called Karl von Frisch. He studied the behaviour of animals in the environment.
How Bees Make Honey
Honey is made by foraging worker honeybees visiting flowers. Neither the male (drone) honey bees nor the queen honey bees participate in this activity.
The bees will start foraging on the flowers as the weather warms. Bees have to work extremely hard to make honey, which involves endless trips to flowers to collect nectar.
They will usually collect the nectar from flowers within an area of around 4 miles to take back to the hive.
Bees secrete an enzyme from glands in their bodies. When the bees collect up the nectar, it is then mixed with the enzyme in the bee’s mouth. Thus, honeycombs are created from beeswax by the bees, where they store their honey.
The nectar is exchanged between bees at the beehive or nest, further blending the nectar with the enzyme.
These are then dropped into wax cells called honeycombs, hexagonal shaped cells made by beeswax and act like storage jars.
To help the honey evaporate, the honeybees fan their wings over the wet honey stored in the cells. Eventually, the water content drops to around 17%. The honeybees will cap the honeycomb by adding a layer of wax over the hexagonal shaped cells to form a lid when the honey is ready.
Around 20,000 workers and the queen honeybee will need to be fed throughout the winter. When the weather is bad, and there are few flowers, honey bees cannot collect nectar. So during the winter, they eat the honey that they have made themselves.
Honeybees v Bumblebees
Bumblebees do not produce honey. However, back at their nests, they collect nectar, which they store briefly in honey pots. Honey is not made from these nectar stores since they are consumed soon after collecting them.
So there you have it.
There are around 50,000 workers in a typical honey bee colony.
Compared to the worker honey bee, the queen is nearly twice as long.
As she establishes her colony, honey bee queens may lay up to 3000 eggs per day.
Honey bees use pheromones transmitted through feeding for communication. ‘Tropallaxis’ is a term for this process.
In order to produce one pound of honey, honey bees must travel about 55,000 miles, visiting around 2 million flowers.
On a foraging trip, honeybees typically travel between 1 – 6 kilometres but can travel up to 12 or 13 km.
Bees zoom around at speeds of up to 15 mph and beat their wings 12,000 times per minute!
Honeybees make about a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime.
Honeybees are the only insects that produce food humans eat.
Honeybees taste with their front feet, tongue, jaw, and antennae! There are more than 300 taste sensors on the antennae.
It is believed that bees can sense the hormones released by scared humans. Therefore, they will attack if they feel their hive is threatened.
It is believed that honey bees and other bee species are descendants of wasps.
Honeybees are among the most studied creatures on the planet after humans!
Honeybees are members of the insect order ‘Hymenoptera’, which includes other bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
Honeybees from the same hive have specific colour identification.
Pepy II of Ancient Egypt invented a clever insect repellent. He would cover slaves completely in honey so they would be drawn to the honey rather than to him.
Apparently, you become more intelligent by eating honey! This is because it has an antioxidant that improves brain functions.
Honeybees are attracted to the scent of flowers. This is because bees learn new smells (odours) best in the morning.
Honeybees may eat insect secretions when nectar and pollen are scarce. Occasionally, they consume fruit, such as plums and grapes.
Queen bees should most certainly live for two years but may live 3 or 4 years as well. Drone bees live for 55 days on average, and worker honey bees raised in spring may only live six weeks (those raised in autumn may live 4 to 6 months).
As a result of the honeycomb’s hexagonal structure, bees can make super-efficient use of beeswax, and waste is minimised!
Honeybees cannot see red, just like other bees. However, they do visit red flowers because they can see the UV rays.
As with all the other types of bees, honeybees have five eyes: three simple eyes on the top of their head and two compound eyes with many hexagonal facets. Funnily enough, their eyes are hairy for some reason.
In the United States, honey bees account for nearly 80% of crop pollination because they are easily transported across the country (although increasingly, solitary bee species and bumblebees are being reared for pollination).
Every month of the year, honeybees pollinate somewhere in North America!
During winter, the bees huddle together in a ‘winter cluster’ to keep warm.
Honey bee colonies in the wild will build their nests in cavities, such as tree hollows or caves – or around homes; they may even nest in unused chimneys.
The activity of honey bees is determined by temperature, not the seasons, as with other bee species. They are most active between the temperatures of 60 – 100 °F, but they can still forage in temperatures as low as 55 °F.
Honeybees have brains about the size of a small grain of sugar.
Researchers have discovered that honey bee colonies decide where to build their nests using honey bee polls. Scout bees fly out looking for nest sites and report back to the colony using their cute little waggle dance to communicate the location of the nest – and the better the potential site, the more enthusiastically the scout bee dances!
The other worker bees imitate the dance until eventually a critical mass has been reached, with enough worker bees agreeing on a new nest site to make a decision.
Honey bees have been trained to detect bombs! Honey bees have been trained to react to minute amounts of chemicals found in explosives. Trainers reward honey bees with sugar water when they correctly sense a particular explosive compound, such that bees automatically stick out their tongues in expectation of a reward!
Digitally reconstructing the complete brain of the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, researchers hope to one day create a flying robot that behaves like a sophisticated pollinator.
Human illnesses can be detected by honey bees trained to detect them.
A fossil record of 150 million years ago shows that honey bees predate humans.
Honeybees probably played a role in the first form of chemical warfare in Turkey in 65 BC, when they produced toxic honey (or ‘mad honey’) after foraging on a particular plant.
Different countries keep bees in different ways. Europe, for example, is known for keeping bees in hollowed-out tree trunks or straw skeps. Clay jars were used in parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Historically, honey was valued as a food and medicine by ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptians. Additionally, it was used in offerings and for embalming the dead. In ancient times, beeswax was used for magic rites, preservation, and medicine. The benefits of honey are widely acknowledged today.
Honey has been sought after by humans for centuries. The honey hunters depicted in cave paintings near Valencia, Spain, date from the Mesolithic era. The paintings are believed to date back 6,000 years.
Mead can be made by fermenting honey. Mead production dates back to about 7000 BC in northern China.
The French government requested records of all beehives during the French Revolution in 1791. Honey was used as a tax revenue source. Beekeepers who did not want to pay more tax destroyed their hives.
How To Help Bees
A bee will often remain motionless for a significant amount of time. The assumption may be that they are dead, but they aren’t! The bees will have travelled for miles and will have miscalculated their journey back to their hives. They will be exhausted and in need of some nourishment. So the way that you can help is to mix them with a special drink.
Here’s the recipe:
Stir together one tablespoon of water and one tablespoon of sugar until dissolved.
Either place the mixture into a shallow plate or saucer, or you can place it in a dinner spoon on a garden table or near where you noticed the bee.
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