Thursday, July 5, 2012

Did You Know? All About Bees!

by Jim Northrop

Perhaps honeybees are the most highly organized members of the bee species.  Not only do they create complex social organizations, but they continually store honey (made from the nectar of flowers) and bee bread (a material made from pollen), to feed themselves and their young. Honeybees continue to store honey and bee bread not only for the breeding season, but also to sustain the hive during the winter. However, the story of the typical queen bee would rival the conspiracies of a medieval palace.

During the greater part of the year, the population of a honeybee hive is composed exclusively of two sorts of individuals --- the mother, or queen bee, and workers, or neuter bees (which are sterile females). The males, or drones, generally appear in May and are all dead by the end of July. The queen lives for several years, the workers only one to two months in seasons of activity, and the drones one to two months. 
The queen has a longer body and shorter wings than the workers. She can use her sting repeatedly without rupturing herself, and normally will use it within minutes after escaping from her pupal cell. She will explore the hive thoroughly and sting to death all other queens present, even those that have not yet emerged as adults.

The old queen, with a large number of bee workers, has already left in a swarm, to find a new place for a colony. The young queen soon goes out on her nuptial flight, pursued by dozens of drones. Within two days she is back in the hive, prepared to lay eggs at the rate of 200 a day for the rest of her life. She lays each egg in a separate cell in the brood region of the hive, a short distance away from cells in which honey or bee bread are stored.

The life of a worker bee follows a regular schedule, with tasks changing to match development of various glands in her body. She produces saliva as a varnish for the cells in which the queen will lay eggs. She visits the honey stores and cells with bee bread, to get food she can regurgitate for the larvae of different ages.
After a few days of guarding the door from intruders, she becomes a field bee. Each day, until their wings wear out, field bees daily gather nectar, pollen, resinous materials for sealing cracks in the hive. When weather is hot and temperatures rise, field bees also gather water to cool the hive through the process of evaporation. A single hive may contain 60,000 workers at one time.

Worker honeybees appear to change their behavior according to the amount of a “queen substance” produced by their queen, and the amount of food stored in the hive. They communicate with each other in the darkness of the hive by special dances and sounds that tell other workers the direction and approximate distance to food they have found, as well as some measure of its abundance.

While some people like to compare the organizational talents of honey bees and those of human endeavors, perhaps it is just as well that humans have never achieved the unfailing, inflexible organizational discipline of the honey bee.

About the Author. Jim Northrop is a long-time member of and volunteer for the Great Swamp Watershed Association (GSWA). A resident of Madison, New Jersey, he has served on GSWA's Board of Trustees and currently lends his support to the organization's Land Use Committee and it Communications Taskforce. Jim has authored many articles that appear in GSWA's biannual newsletter, its monthly eNewsletter, its website, and its several blog outlets.

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