The Life of the Bee

Excerpts from: The Life of The Honey Bee, Its Biology and Behavior with an Introduction to Managing the Honey-Bee Colony, by C. L. Farrar. This paper originally appeared as three articles in the American Bee Journal; December 1967, pages 461-462, 464; January 1968, pages 21-23; February 1968, pages 60-64.

Worker Honey Bees

The worker bees are sexually underdeveloped females smaller than the queen but capable of laying small numbers of eggs under some conditions. Worker bees that lay eggs are called laying workers. Their eggs, usually placed in worker cells, develop into undersized but functional drones.

Worker-bee larvae hatch from the eggs in 3 days, are fed royal jelly for 2 1/2 days, and then their diet is changed to include pollen and honey for 2 1/2 days. They are sealed in their cells for 12 days, during which period they spin a cocoon and transform from the larvae to the pupae, emerging as adult bees 20 days after the eggs were laid.

The difference in the cell and food environment causes the worker bees to require 5 days longer to develop than the queen, yet their life expectancy is only 5 weeks during the summer and a few months during the winter. Any worker larva under 24 to 48 hours old can be developed into a queen under the proper colony conditions that insures the nurse bees will construct a queen cell and feed royal jelly lavishly to the developing larva. The rearing of queens for market is a highly specialized field of beekeeping.

The worker bees differ markedly from the queen in many respects other than function, length of life, and behavior. Structurally they have a longer tongue for gathering nectar, modified mandibles (jaws) especially designed for comb building, special glands for secreting royal jelly, enzymes for the conversion of nectar into honey, and glands that function in communication; highly specialized leg structures for gathering and carrying pollen, four pairs of wax glands on the underside of their abdomen for the secretion of wax, and a straight barbed sting for the defense of the colony. The queen's sting is curved and smooth and is used only to destroy rival queens.

The worker bees exhibit a well-defined division of labor based primarily upon their physiological age but modified to some degree by the needs of the colony. The physiological age of bees is similar to their actual age during the active season when the colony is raising brood and storing food. During dearth periods, especially in winter, a 60-day old bee may be younger physiologically than a 20-day old bee in summer.

In a general way, bees under 3 days old clean and polish the cells for the queen to lay in and for food storage; those 3 to 7 days old feed the older larvae; those 7 to 14 days old secrete royal jelly for feeding the queen, younger worker larvae, and queen larvae of any age, and they secrete wax for comb building; those 14 to 21 days old forage primarily for pollen; and those over 21 days old forage for nectar. All the bees in the colony probably contribute to the process of changing nectar into honey and in the air conditioning of the colony to maintain a suitable temperature and humidity. Other labor activities include gathering water and propolis, and defense of the colony.

There is considerable overlapping of the age groups engaged in the various duties. When the age groups are not in normal balance, bees of any age can do the work necessary, but not so efficiently. Bees under 3 days old and the field bees can feed the queen and raise brood or they can secrete wax and build comb even though their glands are not fully developed or they have degenerated from lack of use. Similarly, very young bees can forage for pollen and perhaps nectar when there are no field bees of normal age to do this work.

Worker bees inherit many skills man employs that they manifest purely on a behavioral basis whereas man has had to develop these through intellectual inquiry, learning, and experience. They are skilled architects and craftsmen, qualified dieticians and nurses, proficient house keepers, experts in heating and air conditioning, and fully qualified to police and defend their colony.

Their architectural skill and craftsmanship is exemplified by the beauty of the honey comb, its structural strength, economy of material, and the rapidity with which they construct the uniform hexagonal cells. The building of comb is accomplished by first "plastering" the wax into approximate position in the form of round cells, and then thinning down the wax walls to a uniform thickness to produce the hexagonal cells for strength and economy of wax. As dietitians they prepare one kind of food for the queen larvae and another for the worker and drone larvae. Each larvae receives approximately 10,000 visits from the nurse bees during development. The hive is maintained immaculately clean at all times, and the guard bees with their stingers for armor protect the hives against all intruders.

Honey bees, like other insects, are cold-blooded and have a body temperature close to that of their environment. However, the honey bee colony functioning as a single organism can maintain uniform hive temperatures under northern winter conditions identical with those in summer or in the tropics. Only recently has man accomplished this by developing elaborate heating and air-conditioning equipment. By clustering together, they generate and conserve heat, or they lower the temperature by evaporating moisture and establishing air currents through the colony to maintain a uniform temperature of 93° F. within the cluster, even though the outside temperature is at -50° F. or 120° F. Under low temperatures, the cluster temperature ranges from 45° F. on the surface to as high as 93° F. within when brood is being reared.

The most conspicuous characteristic dominant in honey bees is their great industry. Honey bees do not procrastinate by doing tomorrow what they can do now. They may fly 50,000 miles and visit 5,000,000 blossoms to gather enough nectar to produce one pound of honey, which is stored not for themselves but for the survival of the colony. The bees that gather this food do not live long enough to enjoy it. One bee, of course, cannot fly such a distance, yet the bees of a colony may store 5, 10, or even 20 pounds of honey in a day. They must gather 200 to 300 pounds of honey and 50 pounds of pollen (10 gallons) to meet the colony's needs each year. The beekeeper also expects to harvest a surplus of 100 or more pounds of honey for his efforts. The bees have to be industrious to gather so much food, rear so many young, build comb, air-condition the hive, and perform all the other duties peculiar to the colony.

How Honey Bees Communicate

A society as efficiently organized as the honey-bee colony certainly would be expected to have a means of communication. The language of bees doesn't involve an alphabet or words and it was little understood until recent years. Professor Karl von Frisch, after some 40 years of observation and research, was able to interpret the language of bees. His experiments clearly showed that the bees have an accurate language based upon characteristic dances, odor, and taste perception. When a foraging bee locates a source of pollen or nectar, she can communicate this information to other bees in the colony accurately as to direction, distance from the hive, and the kind of plants supplying it.

The language dance performed within a colony is oriented on the combs in relation to the sun. The angle between the sun, food source, and hive determines the direction of the dance orientation. A dance straight up on the combs vertical axis means towards the sun; to the right, so many degrees to the right of the sun; and to the left, so many degrees to the left of the sun. A rapid dance means a short distance; a slower dance means increased distance. The bees do not actually have to see the sun to be capable of transmitting or interpreting this food source information since they can perceive and interpret direction from the polarized light they receive from the sky. The plant producing the food is identified by the odor association of the food gathered by the dancing bee.

Assume that a scout bee finds food in an apple orchard one mile to the east in the direction of the sun at 8:00 o'clock in the morning, the dancing forager will move over several cells straight up the vertical axis of the comb, vibrating its abdomen from left to right at a frequency appropriate to the distance. She then turns first right then left to reverse herself and repeats the straight-line run of the wagtail dance, pausing occasionally to give food to surrounding bees. She usually repeats the dance a number of times in one location and then moves on to another and performs the identical dance again. The bees of a certain age respond to food gathering leave the hive in search of food from the same source in the direction and distance indicated by a dancing bee. These bee recruits will not stop to visit plums, pears, dandelions, or some other kind of blossom after receiving the odor association of food from apple blossoms. If food is available from this same orchard at noontime, the dancing forgers will make the straight-line run of their wagtail dance 90° to the left of the vertical axis of the comb. If food is still available in the evening, the dance will orient along the vertical axis but in a downward direction.

Scout bees forage for food sources before the main force of food-gathering bees venture forth to the harvest. The recruited bees also dance when they return to the colony as long as food is available. Thus, the number of foragers increases at a rapid rate, the increase being limited by the food available. When the supply from a given plant species is limited, other scouts from the same colony may find plants of a different species and location producing pollen or nectar. Thus, there may be more than one informative dance performed in the hive at one time. Honey bees once oriented to a plant species rarely visit others as long as the first source continues to supply food.

Dances similar to those giving direction for food are performed by scout bees who locate a domicile to be occupied by a swarm that has issued from a colony. There are many other dances performed by bees that obviously extend the area of communication beyond food gathering and locating a domicile.

Bees Do Sting

Many people know only that bees make honey and sting. Practically all bees, hornets, and wasps are stinging insects. Only the females have stingers and only the worker honey bee has a barbed stinger. These barbed stingers are left in you when you are stung. A sting from a bumblebee hornet or wasp is often more severe than that from a honey bee. If you are attacked by these insects, they are likely to sting several times in rapid succession as their sting is not barbed.

If stung by a honey bee, scrape the stinger free from the wound as quickly as possible. This will reduce the amount of venom injected and the consequent irritation. Because the poison sac of the honey bee stinger is attached to it, any attempt to grasp the stinger to pull it out will only squeeze more poison into the wound.

Beekeepers usually receive enough bee stings to become immune to the swelling within a short time, but the initial pain which lasts 10 to 15 seconds is just as intense following the last sting as the first one. Local swelling following a sting is normal. The various treatments you may have heard about have only psychological value because you do "something."

Stings are rarely serious, though the swelling that follows is uncomfortable for 1 to 3 days if no immunity has been developed. Those rare individuals who experience difficulty in breathing or have some other abnormal reaction following a sting should see a doctor immediately.

If you learn how interesting a study of bees can be before you get stung and your reaction to stings is normal, that is only local swelling with the accompanying itching, you are not likely to let a few stings deter you from the bees. Honey bees will not attack unless they are disturbed by yourself or someone else. Honey bees, like people, differ in temperament. While some strains of honey bees are vicious and some are cross, the great majority can be handled without difficulty. When the bees of a colony are unusually prone to sting, the colony should be requeened with a more gentle strain.

Avoid Accidents Because of Bees

An accident is unlikely to occur when the element of fear is not present. If a bee stings because it is sat on or gets under a persons clothing, the victim is just as apt to think he or she was stuck by a pin as stung. Bees that happen to get into moving vehicles can cause severe accidents if the drivers or occupants panic because of fear of being stung. It is well to remember that none of the "stinging bees" will attack the occupants under such circumstances, so the driver should pull off the road, stop, and let the bee out.

Keeping Bees

Exposure to the interesting facts about the life of honey bees may have "whetted the appetite," so to speak, so that the reader may wish to keep a colony or two. Selected references are appended which will provide useful information in such a venture. (The two National Geographic Magazine articles contain exceptionally fine colored photographs of bees and describe their activities.)

Beekeeping will prove much more interesting and you will probably be more successful if you become acquainted with other bee enthusiasts in your locality. Your county agent, state agricultural experiment station, and state department of agriculture can help you establish contacts and provide information on local problems. A number of cities have bee associations with memberships up to several hundred. There may be either a local or a county association in your community; also there will be statewide organizations in practically every state.

Honey-bee colonies can be kept anywherein urban locations or in the country provided they are situated where they do not become a nuisance to one's neighbors. Because a colony of honey bees may forage over 8,000 to 25,000 acres, there will be adequate pollen and nectar producing plants for your bees, even in heavily populated areas.

Before deciding to keep bees in a populated area be sure you know your neighbors. Stimulate their interest in the bees and plan to share a little honey. Locate the colonies where shrubbery or other objects will direct the flight of the bees above your neighbors property. Consider locating them in the garage using entrance tunnels to the outside. Work the colonies only when the bees are flying freely. If the bees of a colony prove to be cross, requeen it with more gentle stock without delay.

It is desirable to start with two colonies because if you only have one colony and it loses its queen it may mean the end of your beekeeping. Loss of both queens in two colonies is unlikely. A comb of brood can be taken from the queen-right colony to hold the morale of the bees if the queen is lost in the other until a new queen can be obtained and introduced. Investment in bees and equipment for more than two colonies is seldom justified until you are certain you enjoy working with bees and until you have gained enough knowledge and experience to manage them successfully.

Many disappointments can be avoided if, before making an investment, you read and study books or bulletins on honey bee management, as well as bee journals and trade supply catalogs. Instructions vary widely on the choice of equipment, how much you will need, and how to start the colony. Factory-milled hive equipment is desirable but, if you have a power saw and prefer to build your own hives, obtain one unit of a factory-cut hive and make your hives with exactly the same dimensions.

The Langstroth or standard 10-frame hive with frames 9 1/8 inches deep has been the most widely used throughout North America since the Rev. L. L. Langstroth designed it in 1852, based upon his discovery of the principle of the bee space. Any size or style of hive equipment can be used if it provides the required space for the colony to develop and store honey without restriction when the space is kept properly organized in conformance with normal behavior of bees. The hive must, of course, have removable frames and provide the normal bee space between combs and sets of combs. All sections of the hive should be the same dimension and interchangeable.

A shallow type of hive taking frames 6 1/4 inches deep is recommended in preference to the standard Langstroth hive. Shallow hive bodies permit better colony control with less individual handling of the frames than the standard equipment; they can be used successfully as brood chambers and supers for surplus honey, making these interchangeable; and they are lighter to handle when full of honey. Many commercial beekeepers have adopted the 6 1/4 inch shallow frame hive body for use as supers and, as their standard-depth equipment requires replacement, it is likely many will adopt the shallow brood chamber to obtain uniformity in their hive equipment. The beginner who is establishing his colonies in new hives will do well to choose the shallow equipment.

The beginner is advised to produce his surplus honey in these shallow frames for use as comb honey. Section comb honey production requires specialized skills, and to extract honey from the comb requires a honey extractor and other equipment that the beginner can do without.

Eight 10-frame shallow hive bodies are needed for each colony. The frames for four of these (40) should be assembled with a reinforced foundation. The frames for the other four chambers should be assembled with thin surplus foundation if the honey is to be used as comb honey. When the honey is to be extracted, the same foundation is used in the supers as in the brood chambers. Provision of less equipment than this will make management problems more difficult and possibly result in the loss of surplus honey.

Three-pound packages of bees with young queens should be obtained for establishing the colonies in new equipment on foundation. (The 2-pound package is used when the beekeeper has comb of honey and pollen available from other colonies.) The package bees should be introduced into the hive early in the spring when flowers are abundant and weather conditions permit the gathering of pollen that is needed for raising brood. The proper time will be approximately when willows, fruit trees, and dandelions bloom. The new colonies will have to be fed 15 to 45 pounds of sugar (cane or beet ) made into syrup by dissolving two parts of sugar in one part of hot water. This syrup is needed for the bees to secrete wax and draw the foundation into comb and to supply food until plants secrete nectar abundantly from which they can make honey. Feeding should be continued until all the combs are drawn in the brood chambers or until the bees are gathering nectar freely from the field. A colony will not take syrup from the feeder when nectar becomes available.

The establishment and growth of the colony in the shallow 10-frame equipment is shown pictorially in the accompanying sequence of pictures [NOT AVAILABLE]. A special hive split through the middle, hinged at the back, with one half supported on casters, was prepared for the purpose of photographing the colony to better show the growth of the colony from the time it was established until it is ready to overwinter.

A smoker, bee veil, and hive tool are essential in the handling of bees. The smoker is indispensable and one must quickly learn to use just the right amount of smoke, neither too much nor too little, so that the bees remain quiet on the comb. A bee veil should always bee worn, and the hive tool is much more satisfactory than a screwdriver for separating the hive chambers or frames.

What you see the bees do will prove fascinating; what they produce for your table will prove delicious; and it is just possible you may have some fruit trees that will be more fruitful because you are keeping bees.

Suggested References

The Honey Bee. James Hambleton. Smithsonian Publication 4494. (Smithsonian Report for 1961,pp. 465-478). Washington, D. C. 1962.

Man's Winged Ally, the Busy Honeybee. James Hambleton. National Geographic Magazine LXVII(4): 401- 428. April 1935.

Inside the World of the Honeybee. Treat Davidson. National Geographic Magazine CXVI (2):188 -217. August 1959.

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. John Root, 1962 edition. A. I. Root Company Medina, Ohio.

The Hive and the Honey Bee. R A. Grout, 1963 edition. Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Illinois

The American Bee Journal. Dadant & Sons, Hamilton Illinois.

Gleanings in Bee Culture. A. I. Root Company, Medina, Ohio.

The Bee World. The Bee Research Association, Hill House, Chalfont St. Peter, Gerrards Cross Bucks., England.

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