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    Rob McFarland
    Keymaster

    The Busy Bee

    Honey bees carry pollen from the anther of one plant to the stigma of another. Pollination transfers genes among members of a plant species, ensures the production of seeds and produces the next generation of the plant. Without bees pollinating our food crops, we would not only have a very mundane diet, we’d even have difficulty feeding ourselves enough. Without pollinators there would be no strawberries, onions, cashews, beets, papaya, watermelon, cotton, soybeans, apple, cherry, grapes, cocoa—the list goes on. And on.

    Honey Bee Society

    Honey bees are insects; bees have been around for 72 million years and are descended from predatory wasps. With over 1 million identified species, insects inhabit virtually every ecological niche on Earth. They have three distinct body parts, (head, thorax, abdomen), six legs, two antennae, and an exoskeleton made mostly of chitin. Bees are a super organism; the entire colony is the basic unit of measurement, not the individual bee. A single bee cannot survive on its own and is part of the larger singular organism. Honeybees are “eusocial” which means they live in groups and divide up the work of foraging for food, caring for young, constructing the nest and defending the colony.

    Life Cycle of the Honey Bee

    Like most insects, a bee’s life begins as an egg, progresses through a larva stage to a pupae and then becomes an adult. A honey bee’s life begins when the Queen lowers her abdomen into the bottom of an empty cell and deposits an egg. Three days after the egg is laid, it hatches into a larvae which looks like a tiny, white, worm-like creature at the bottom of the cell. Nurse bees feed the larvae royal jelly for two days and switch to brood food until the sixth day when a larva begins to pupate. At this point the workers cap the cell to allow for pupation (the transformation from larvae into an adult bee.) Once the cell is capped, the larvae spins a cocoon. Inside the cocoon, the larvae transforms into three distinct body parts: four wings, six legs, and compound eyes. On the twenty first day, the bee chews her way out of her cell and her life of service begins almost immediately.

    Knowing the life cycle and recognizing eggs, larvae, and pupae is important to assessing the health of a colony.

    Queens

    The Queen’s responsibility is egg laying and she is the only sexually developed female in the hive. During larval development, she is fed a special diet of royal jelly which makes an ordinary egg become a queen. Along with her special diet, the queen develops in a specialized cell, appropriately called a “queen cell.” This cell is longer than a worker cell to accommodate the queen’s larger abdomen. Her large size enables her to deposit eggs deep at the bottom of each cell. At peak production, a Queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day. A week after emerging from her cell, virgin queens go on mating flights visiting drone (male bee) congregating areas. These mating flights happen over a couple days with the queen mating with a dozen or so drones. The number of times a queen mates is a factor in determining how attractive she is to the worker bees. The queen stores the semen from her mating flights for the remainder of her life and about 48 hours after returning to the hive, the queen will start laying eggs. Queens produce and release pheromones which serve as a way to communicate with the colony as a whole and direct individuals as to their role within the colony. One way to lure a swarm into a hive box is to apply lemon grass oil because it smells similar to the queen’s pheromones.

    Workers – nurse bees, house bees, and foragers

    Worker bees are sterile females and they do virtually all of the work in the hive. Workers are responsible for foraging for nectar, pollen, plant resins and water, building wax combs, caring for the queen, feeding larvae, regulating the temperature of the hive, cleaning up, and guarding the hive’s entrance. A worker’s life span ranges depending on when they emerge. Workers born in the foraging season will wear out their wings in as little as six weeks, whereas workers born in the Fall may live as long as six months so they can help rear new workers the following Spring.

    After workers emerge from their cells (born) they are fed by older nurse bees. Their first job is to clean up cells so they can be reused. By the third day they’ve graduated to nurse bees and will feed newly hatched larvae royal jelly. Royal jelly is secreted from mandibular and hypopharyngeal glands located on workers’ heads. After two days of royal jelly, workers switch to feeding the larvae brood food which is a mixture of hypopharyngeal component, pollen, and nectar. After the 10th day, nurse bees lose their ability to make brood food and begin to secrete wax from their abdomens, enabling them to build and repair combs. This is called the house bee stage. House bees begin daily orientation flights to learn the location of the hive and continue this until they advance to the foraging stage. House bees also receive pollen and nectar from foragers and deposit it in comb cells. They help to ripen nectar into honey and they process pollen into bee bread by adding nectar and enzymes. Twenty one days after hatching, worker bees begin taking daily foraging flights. They will continue to forage for the essentials—nectar, pollen, water, and plant resins—until their wings wear out and they die.

    Drones

    Drones are male honey bees and do no work other than inseminating virgin queens. They do not produce wax or forage for pollen and have no stinger. Fully developed drones leave the hive and gather in “drone congregating areas” in the hopes of mating with a virgin queen. Drones die immediately after copulation because part of their endophallus remains lodged in the queen. As summer comes to an end, in order to conserve precious resources, worker bees expel drones from the hive to die of starvation.

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