Photograph of honeybee by artist
Bees are four-winged insects, usually with a sting. There are over
12,000 species, but only about 600 of them are social in habit. Among
the social bees are the honeybee (or hive bee) and the bumblebee.
The bumblebee is round and furry and moves around slowly. The honeybee
has a more streamlined body and moves around much faster
(about 15 miles/hour).
Bees have been producing honey for at least 150 million years.
Bees create honey by repeatedly regurgitating and dehydrating nectar.
They use this honey as food stores for the hive during the winter when
little or no nectar is available to them.
Most bees are pacific unless you disturb them, but there are
also some aggressive species. The weather often affects the temper of
bees. On windy and cloudy days, when they are unable to search for
nectar and pollen, bees will be more aggressive. Bee stings can
be fatal to someone that is allergic to them.
Bees have five eyes. Two large compound eyes and three simple
eyes. Bees can perceive movements that are separated by 1/300th of a
second. Humans can only sense movements separated by 1/50th of a
second. Bees can't recognize the color red, but they can see
While foraging for nectar and pollen, bees inadvertently transfer
pollen from the male to the female components of flowers. This way
they help the fertilization of many of our crop-bearing plants.
Honeybees live in colonies of 20,000 to 80,000 bees. A colony
includes the queen, workers and drones.
Most of the bees in the colony are worker bees. Workers are the
smallest bees in the colony. They are sexually undeveloped females
produced from fertilized eggs. They build and repair the hive, search
for nectar and pollen, produce wax and honey, feed the queen and
larvae and protect the hive against enemies. The life span of worker
bees depend on the time of year. Most worker bees live about 28 to 35
days. However, workers that are reared in September and October, can
live through the winter.
Drones are male bees without stingers. They are developed from
unfertilized eggs, produced by the queen by withholding sperm. Their
sole purpose is to mate with the queen. They don't collect food or
pollen from flowers. If the colony is short on food, drones are often
kicked out of the hive. They usually live about 6 months.
The workers select the larvae to be raised as queens. These
larvae are larger then the worker larvae, because they are fed food
bearing a higher sugar content. The first queen to emerge disposes of
the other queens by stinging them. Within days she will fly to where
the drones assemble and mate in flight for 1-2 days with up to 17 of
them. During the mating she will receive about 90 million sperm cells,
which are stored in a special pouch (the spermatheca) and will last
her entire life span of about 2-5 years.
about 10 days after mating the queen will start laying eggs. She
will lay one egg per minute, day and night for a total of 1,500 eggs
per day. Should she stop her egg-laying pace, her workers will
move recently laid eggs into queen cells to produce her replacement.
Picture of bumblebee taken
by Wanda Embar.
Honeybees fly 55,000 miles and visit 2 million flowers to produce
one pound of honey. In one trip, a worker will visit between 50 and
100 flowers. She will return to the hive carrying over half her weight
in pollen and nectar. One worker bee will produce about 1/12th of a
teaspoon of honey in the course of her lifetime.
A productive hive can make and store up to 2 pounds of honey each
day. I takes about 35 pounds of honey to provide enough energy for a
small colony to survive the winter. Being able to feed on stored
supplies makes it possible for honeybees not to hibernate during the
winter, like other bees do. They share their body heat by clustering
together in dense packs.
The stingers of a honeybee are barbed. When the stinger pierces
the soft skin of a mammal, the attached venom pouch pumps a mixture
containing melittin, histamine and other enzymes into the target.
After the bee pulls away, the barb anchors the stinger in the victim's
body. The stinger and venom pouch are left behind and the bee soon
dies due to abdominal rupture. The stinger is not left behind when a honeybee
stings another insect.
Honeybees communicate with each other through a dance
"language". Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in 1973
for deciphering the language, which consists of two basic dances. A
dance in a circle for indicating a source of nectar, without giving
information about distance or direction. A tail-wagging dance to
indicate the exact distance to the nectar source.
Bumblebees live in small nests and therefore never swarm. They are larger and stronger than
honeybees and more adapted to
fertilize plants in which the pollen and nectar lie deep, as in red
clover. They are also able to work in colder weather than the honeybee.
In the spring the bumble queen will begin a new nest with a ball
of pollen and wax into which she lays about 6 eggs at a time from
which the worker bees will emerge. They will immediately start
collecting nectar and the queen will stay in the nest laying more
eggs. When the nest has reached the right size (late summer), the
queen will lay eggs destined to become drones and next years queen
bees. Once hatched the drones will leave the nest and live independent
lives. Their only purpose is to mate with the young queens. Unlike honeybees, the young bumble queens live and work in the colony for
the rest of the summer and autumn. As the first frosts begins, the old
queen, her workers and the independent drones will die. The newly
mated queens will survive in hibernation to begin the cycle again next
Bumblebees don't produce a lot of honey, just enough to feed
Bumblebees are much less aggressive than honeybees. They only
attack when they feel their life is under threat. When they sting,
they don't lose their stinger and die like honeybees.
One of the only natural enemies of bumblebees are skunks.
Picture of carpenter bee taken by Wanda Embar.