Bees, they capture the mind and imagination of people around the world. But what is it about them that intrigues us so much?
These highly organised workers have an almighty impact not only our planet but also on our lives.
They are mother nature’s finest creation, a gift to keep the world green and forever blooming.
There are tens of thousands of species of bees on this planet. With one species of bee that we, as humans, have developed a very special bond with… Apis Mellifera.
Just as we created bonds with dogs, cats, rabbits and birds, etc. The honey bee has also become a domesticated species that joins the exclusive list of ‘man’s best friend’.
For more than 5,000 years, humans have been avid beekeepers. Developing nurturing bonds with the bees that they keep.
Today we will explore the magical and illuminating world of bees. Along with why you could benefit from having your very own bee colony.
Food for Thought
Honey bees are social insects that produce honey while collecting pollen and nectar for sustenance. As we have mentioned several times throughout the website, bees will visit up to an average of 50 flowers per trip during spring and summer.
Fifty flowers may seem tiny when compared to the bigger picture. Now take that single bee and add in her 60,000 sisters… that’s a potential 3 million flowers visited and pollinated by just one colony!
Now extend that to the many hives on one plot. Then to a single country. Then a continent… you get the picture. The combined global pollination power of bees is so immense, it’s almost beyond comprehension.
We say ‘potential pollination’ because many bees will visit the same flower more than once. And other flowers may give off negative scents or visuals when they are nectarless. Regardless of that fact, the work that they do is invaluable not only for the environment, but for us too.
Plants and bees reward each other in an act of symbiotic mutualism. Symbiotic mutualism can be found throughout the natural world, with honey bees and flowering plants being one of the most successful examples.
Flowering plants offer up a sweet reward in the form of nectar. In exchange for this nectar, bees carry pollen from one plant to another ensuring the continued survival of both organisms.
Approximately 75% of flowering plants that make up our food chain require pollination from animals. And bees from local beekeepers make up a huge percentage of these pollinators. Without them, many of the staple fruits and vegetables that make up our diets would almost disappear in the space of a few years.
In Europe, bees are not only valued for the wax and honey that they produce. But also for the insect pollination that they perform.
Economic Value of Honey Bees in Europe
In the United Kingdom alone, bee pollination has an economic value of more than £900,000,000 (€1.1 billion Euros) making British beekeepers (and European ones) hugely important.
Another way to look at it is if bees were paid minimum wage, a single jar of honey would collectively earn them £160,472! (€180,000) This shows just how valuable the work is that bees do, and that is for honey production alone.
These are just a few of the reasons why bees are so hugely important to the environment and human survival. Yes, we could survive without many of the crops that bees pollinate, but our diets would be much less varied and food demand would skyrocket to epic proportions.
More than Just Food
While honey bees are valued for their crop pollination, their value goes well beyond this. Many gardeners decide to install hives in their garden specifically for improving blooms and ongoing seed production.
For many different types of flowers, if not pollinated, they cannot produce seed. This results in zero natural seed dispersion, and a lack of flowering plants the following year.
As honey bees can travel up to six miles from their hive in search of food, gardens within this radius of a beehive colony can benefit massively from their work.
Typically, honey bees begin to emerge from the hive in mid-March and continue throughout the year until late autumn.
Choosing flowers that bloom throughout the seasons can help bees thrive. This could mean choosing non-native species that give bees staggered access to nectar and pollen when native wildflowers have gone into hibernation.
When bees have an abundance of nectar nearby to produce large quantities of honey, they enter a period that is known as the ‘honey flow’. For beekeepers, this is like hitting the jackpot on the lottery but with a difference.
It doesn’t have to be down to chance. Carefully planning the plants that you will grow can almost guarantee a yearly honey flow! In temperate climates, choosing plants that are able to bloom with limited sunshine and below average temperatures goes a long way with helping.
Both gardens and small orchards can benefit from the power of pollination that only bees provide so well. From yearly increases in the number of flowering plants in the garden to fruit yields increasing by up to 70% from a single hive installation, local benefits can be immense.
Bringing Home the Honey
Now that we have covered the hugely important pollination benefits of bees, let’s move on to what they are famed for. Honey production!
Honey is vital to bees… and a sweet reward for beekeepers. Hobbyist beekeepers reap the rewards of tens of thousands of honey bees in a single hive. Which makes the act of beekeeping one that is beneficial to the environment the food chain, and the taste buds.
When it comes to honey production, bees work together with exact precision. Each has her own role to fulfil and does so instinctively.
Just take a look at the worker bee. Throughout her short life, a worker bee is capable of producing 1/12 of a tablespoon of honey. On its own, it seems almost irrelevant.
But combined with up to 60,000 other bees in a colony, the honey output can be tremendous. Up to 100 lbs (45.3 kg) of honey can be produced by a single colony every year!
For just 1 lb of honey, bees will collectively visit approximately 2 million flowers. Which means that they can travel up to 55,000 miles (88,513 km) to collect enough nectar for it!
That means that for 100 lbs of honey, bees fly the same distance as going to the moon and back 23 times!
And that honey can take on many different characteristics, even between neighbouring beehives. The taste, viscosity and colour of honey is determined mainly by the types of flowers bees visit.
Health Benefits of Honey
Honey is more than just a sweet treat to put over ice cream and on toast. It also comes with a plethora of health benefits for us humans. Honey stored in jars can last almost indefinitely.
OK. So science hasn’t exactly proven the health benefits of propolis or honey when it comes to human health. But, in many countries around the world, honey and propolis have been shown to have health benefits beyond doubt.
We just mentioned propolis, which you may be wondering ‘what is that?’. Propolis is a substance that bees produce to improve the strength of their hives. Bees collect resin from trees, which acts as a glue.
But this isn’t just your average glue. It is antimicrobial, antiviral, antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-fungal, antiseptic… and waterproof! The perfect components for keeping a beehive healthy.
Honey itself contains many life-sustaining enzymes, antioxidants, flavonoids, minerals, vitamins and water. As an example of the health benefits of honey, it is loaded with powerful antioxidants called polyphenols.
Polyphenols are thought to help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers and heart disease. Another antioxidant found in Honey is pinocembrin. Pinocembrin he is believed to help with brain function. (Perhaps this is why bees are so intelligent considering they have a brain the size of a sesame seed).
Basically, honey can be amazing for its health benefits. Of course, honey is food for bees and needs to sustain them through winter. So it comes as no surprise that honey is a nutritional SuperFood that provides sustenance and nutrition in a liquid gold form.
Honey Bees Make Sweet Pets
For the non-beekeeper, calling honey bees pets can seem crazy! But for the beekeeper, this is exactly what they become.
Just as a dog owner or a cat lover brings that animal into their family, beekeepers do the same with their bees.
OK. So you might not be able to play fetch with your bees. And they probably don’t want to cuddle up with you on the sofa at night. but that doesn’t make the bond between bees and beekeepers any less significant.
When you got your very first beehive, you carefully nurture your new colony to be strong and healthy. If your colony gets sick, you worry just as much as you would with any other pet.
You watch as your colony grows from strength to strength and starts to expand. And honey production is not your first objective. It is simply a bonus (if there is enough to share).
As a beginner beekeeper, you will be fascinated by the way that bees work together in harmony. Your first colony will begin to expand by establishing their hierarchy and jobs within the hive, setting up an efficient production line.
Then the field bees (the bees that go to forage) will start collecting nectar and pollen to build their reserves and help their colony expansion thrive.
The house bees (the bees that remain inside the hive) work hard to take care of the larvae, the queen, and the health of the beehive itself.
Your first winter can be a trying time for your new bee colony. And many beekeepers give their new bees a helping hand to see the winter through.
By spring, your new colony should be established, albeit fairly small. However, by summer your beehive can be home to up to 60,000 or more bees.
But it doesn’t stop there. You will monitor and care for your bees throughout the year. the more productive they become, the more time you will invest in maintaining the colony.
And as with anything you spend a lot of time on, you develop a special bond with your bees much like people do with dogs, cats and other common pets. To the non-beekeeper, they are just bees. To a beekeeper, they are 60,000 miniature members of the family you grow to love.
Seeing Bees Swarm
A bee swarm can be alarming to see for new beekeepers. But why do bees swarm? The months when a hive is likely to experience a swarm are in late spring and early summer.
Swarming happens when there is limited space inside a beehive. To resolve this issue, a large portion of the bees will leave the hive with a queen to establish a second colony.
This expansion is a good sign that a bee colony is healthy and performing well. But swarming is also a time filled with life-and-death decisions.
If the swarm sets up home in a place that isn’t big enough for storing resources for over winter, chances are that they will not see spring.
When bees first vacate their current beehive, they stay nearby in a temporary location. From here, scout bees venture several miles in all directions looking for a suitable location.
When they return, they communicate with the swarm by performing a dance. As all of the scouts start to return, this becomes a dance-off that ends with the bees deciding where to move to. Think of it as a government trying to win votes.
This democratic process gives honey bees the best chance of survival and is a joint decision instead of a dictatorship. Once the swarm has finally decided on a location, they set off to establish a new colony that will hopefully thrive.
As a beekeeper, you can increase the number of colonies you have by using a bait hive. These are empty beehives that are set up to attract and encourage swarming bees to set up home during swarming season.
A bait hive is typically a large beehive with more than sufficient space for storing food supplies to see them through winter.
There are many people who advocate swarm prevention. And while some of these methods work, it is important to remember that bees swarm good reason. Trying to stop the process could be detrimental to your colony.
So rather than trying to prevent the process, install several bait hives for them to relocate to. This not only gives them the space that they need but can also drastically increase the number of colonies that you have.Ma
The Queen Bee is a Killer
Just as with royal families around the world, there can only be one Queen ruling a colony. However, the queen bee doesn’t actually rule in the way that we are accustomed to.
The queen has influence over the worker bees, but as we mentioned earlier, democracy rules in a beehive of honey bees and a Queen’s fate can be sealed by her daughters.
In a beehive, there can only be one Queen. When worker bees start creating new Queens, a royal death match ensues! The current reigning Queen or newly hatched Queens will dispatch the competition with a deadly sting injected into the unhatched rivals.
Sometimes, two or more new Queens will emerge at the same time. This results in a fight to the death where the winning Queen gets to claim the hive.
When it comes to determining the gender of eggs, the queen can choose whether certain eggs are to be fertilised or not. This happens when the eggs are moving from her ovaries to the oviducts.
While worker bees are able to lay eggs, they would only be able to produce drones as they do not go on a mating flight. Thus, their eggs are unfertilised.
Cell orientation is a deciding factor.
Horizontal cells are for drones and worker bees.
Vertical cells are for new queen bees.
Game of Drones
A drone is born from an unfertilised egg and his one sole purpose in life is to breed. They do not contribute food to the hive and our stingerless, making them useless for protection.
When a drone mates with a virgin Queen bee, his endophallus (penis-like structure) is inserted into the Queen’s sting chamber and then is ripped off after ejaculation.
As the endophallus is pulled away, it rips open his abdomen and he quickly dies. A queen will mate with 7 to 10 drones during her mating flight, with each new drone removing the previous drones endophallus from the queen.
A queen will not mate with drones that she has produced herself or are her siblings. Instead, she will fly to a drone congregational area, where hundreds or thousands of drones wait for the opportunity to mate.
Drones only have a one in a thousand chance of mating, and those that don’t succeed will return to their hive… until they are kicked out.
Worker Bees are Assassin’s Too
Worker bees don’t only take care of the queen with food, personal care and protection. When a queen becomes less productive, they literally ‘take care’ of her.
As the Queens egg-laying production begins to drop, worker bees start the process of re-queening. New Queen bees are raised to take over the current queen bees position and the current queen is killed.
Once the worker bees have decided that a queen is of no use to them, they climb on top of her to create a cocoon of bees. This smothering causes the queen to overheat, leading to her imminent death.
Worker bees are also ‘bouncers’ of the beehive and have no qualms about kicking out returning drones.
Worker bees see drones as a drain on the hives food stores during winter and collectively take swift action. The poor drones are literally evicted from the beehive. And with no way to collect food or defend themselves, death is imminent.
Honey Bee Anatomy
Honey bees may be small, but they are extremely sophisticated and complex. For more than 150 million years, honey bees have perfected their role on the planet.
Anatomically, evolution has seen the honeybee change very little. It’s anatomy is so efficient that the need to change has been almost non-existent.
While queen bees, drones and worker bees differ in the roles that they perform, their anatomy is very much the same.
Here are the three sections that make up a honey bees exoskeleton (external skeleton):
The abdomen contains the reproductive organs, wax glands and stinger.
The head contains the brain, mandibles, antennae and eyes.
The thorax is where the wings and legs are located.
Now let’s take a closer look at each of the sections in more detail.
Honey Bee Abdomen
The honey bees abdomen is where the stinger, wax glands and reproductive organs are located.
The stinger is the first thing that comes to mind when people think about bees. As the only line of defence honey bees have to protect themselves and the colony, they rarely use it.
This is because when a honey bee stings a thick-skinned mammal, it usually results in the death of the bee.
The stinger is more than just a line of defence though. It is also an egg-laying device and varies in appearance between different types of bees.
A queen bee’s stinger is smooth meaning she can repeatedly sting without dying.
A worker bees stinger has a barb on it. This means that stinging a thick-skinned mammal usually results in her death.
Drones don’t have a stinger. They don’t lay eggs, therefore they have evolved to bee stingerless.
Honey Bee Wax Glands
Worker bees have four scales on their abdomen that produces wax. Typically, only younger worker bees are responsible for producing beeswax, which is used for the construction of cells.
As liquid wax is secreted onto the scales, the air causes them to harden. Every 24 hours, a young worker bee can create approximately 16 scales. For a single gram of beeswax, roughly 1,000 scales need to be created.
However, when you consider that thousands of worker bees can be producing scales at any one time, the quantity of beeswax produced can be significant on a daily basis.
Honey Bee Reproductive Organs
Queen honey bees have a spermatheca as part of her reproductive organs. This is used for storing collected sperm that she collected during her mating flight.
When she lays eggs, the spermatheca fertilises them as they make their way out of her ovaries. Generally, the queen will start laying eggs when she reaches 7 to 14 days old. She will continue to produce eggs right up until the day that she dies.
As we mentioned earlier, a drones reproductive organ can only be used once. As soon as he has achieved his goal of ejaculating into a queen bee, it is ripped away from his body resulting in his death.
Honey Bee Stomachs
Honey bees have two stomachs inside their abdomen. This enables them to carry nectar without absorbing it while opening a flap to their food stomach for energy when they need it.
The crop (honey stomach) differs from their digestive stomach in that it is hardened. This prevents nectar from entering their body and being used as a fuel source.
At the opening of the honey stomach is the proventriculus. The proventriculus constricts the honey stomach and helps control the flow of solids and nectar.
When a honeybee needs to use nectar or pollen for energy, it is passed into its mid-gut. The midgut is where the small intestine, proventriculus and ventriculus are located. The midgut is where energy is absorbed into the body of the honeybee.
From the midgut to the hindgut, a short tube called the Ileum connects the two. This is where beneficial microbes are housed to assist with digestion. Food from here passes into the rectum, which works like the large intestine by absorbing water before excreting waste.
Honey Bee Thorax
Before racks of a honeybee is located in the midsection and focuses primarily on movement. It is here that a honey bees two pairs of wings and six legs are located.
Honey Bee Wings
A honey bees wings can help a honeybee reach speeds of up to 15 miles an hour when airborne and they beat their wings 190 times a second.
Arranged into two pairs, the back wings have a row of hooks that connect to the front wings. looking at the size differences between the two pairs of wings, the hind wings are much smaller than the fore wings.
Regardless of the size difference, both pairs of wings work together to create lift. As the wings start to beat, the up-and-down strokes create a twist much like a propeller.
Honey Bee Legs
The thorax is home to 6 segments, each housing a leg. These are divided into three pairs.
The front pair of legs are used for keeping the antenna clean. The rear legs are used for collecting and depositing pollen in the pollen basket.
The legs are more than just for mobility. Honeybee legs have taste receptors on them, which work much in the same way as taste buds do on the tongue.
Each of the legs also has sticky pads and claws which helps the bees land and adhere to a variety of surface types.
Worker bees back legs are slightly different to the back legs of other bees in the colony.
Their rear legs contain a pollen press and special micro-combs that are used to sweep, collect, pack and carry propolis and pollen back to the hive.
Honey Bee Pollen Basket
Situated just beneath the hind legs of the worker bee is the pollen basket. This concave structure is surrounded by many hairs.
When a bee lands on a flower, pollen sticks to her body. She uses the small-micro combs on her hind legs to sweep the pollen backwards toward the pollen basket.
The pollen is then deposited and packed into her pollen basket. A little bit of nectar is mixed in with the pollen to hold it together when she is airborne.
Lastly, the hairs that surround the concave pollen basket help keep the pollen firmly in place until she arrives back to the beehive.
Honey Bee Head
The honey bees head is where the majority of visual and sensory organs and components are housed. in this section, we will take a closer look at what a honey bees head is made up of.
Honey Bee Antennae
The antenna of honey bees provides senses of taste, smell, touch and even hearing.
Mechanoreceptors are responsible for providing a sense of hearing and touch. Vibrations allow bees to detect sound, replacing the need for ears to hear.
Honey bee antennas also have 170 odour receptors that work in the same way as a nose. This makes detecting scents possible.
The antennae are also used for communication, with the right antennae being the primary source of communication. While it is unknown why they favour the right side, it is believed that it follows the same methodology as to why humans naturally favour the left or right hand.
When looking at honey bee antennae, drones have 13 segments while female honey bees have 12.
Honey Bee Eyes
In total, honey bees have 5 eyes on their head. Two of these are compound eyes and three are simple eyes, each performing different functions and allowing different wavelengths of light to be seen.
The compound eyes are large and consist of many different eye units. These units transfer multiple pieces of visual information that are then combined into a single image in the brain.
A honey bees compound eyes make it possible for polarisation. This helps protect the bees eyes from direct sunlight much in the way that sunglasses do for humans.
The simple eyes of a honey bee work by collecting at UV light. UV light works by separating pollen from other parts of the plant and making it easier for bees to zone in on.
When combined with their compound eyes, bees have superior UV polarised vision, making foraging and finding food extremely efficient.
Honey Bee Brain
While tiny, bee honey bee brain is extremely efficient. The sesame seed-sized organ consists of a variety of lobes and structures, including the optic lobes, the antennae lobes, and mushroom bodies.
Along with the central complex, the mushroom bodies assist with visual learning, which has been shown to help honey bees learn how to differentiate between positive and negative behaviours.
Honey bee brains might be small in size, but they are extremely effective and allow honey bees to perform complex tasks with ease.
How long do Honey Bees Live For?
In this final section, we will take a closer look at how long the average honey bee lives for. A honey bees lifespan is determined by its type. We will run through egg development, larvae development, and the lifespan of a honey bee.
Honey Bee Eggs
When the queen lays an egg in a cell, development takes place over three days. After the third day, the egg hatches to release newly born honey bee larvae. Bee larvae are also known as grubs and visually, look the same as maggots.
Worker bees become larvae after 3 days of being laid. In total, they spend six days as larvae.
Queen bees remain as larvae for approximately 5 1/2 days.
Drones remain as larvae for six and a half days.
This is followed on with the pupa stage. The pupa stage is when larvae transforms into a baby bee.
Worker bees remain in the pupa stage for approximately 12 days.
Queen bees remain in the pupa stage for around 8 days.
Drones take the longest at between 14 and 15 days.
In total, the time it takes for different bees to go from a freshly laid egg to a fully formed bee is:
21 days for worker bees
16 days for queen bees
24 days for drones
Honey Bees Life Expectancy
The average life expectancy of honey bees also depends on its type. Worker bees, queen bees and drones all have different life spans.
Queen bees live anywhere between 4 to 7 years, with the middle range being average and the end range being rare.
Workers born between spring and autumn will live for roughly six weeks. Those born at the end of autumn can live for up to 5 months and work to keep the queen bee alive overwinter.
A male bees (called drones) lifespan depends on its success of mating. If successful, a drone may only live for a couple of weeks. If unsuccessful, a drone may survive for 2 months before being evicted and left to die.
Summary of Honey Bees
Honey bees are magnificent creatures that work hard to survive and thrive.
Their impact on the environment is immeasurable and without them, the landscape would be a very bleak place.
It is all too easy to take honey bees for granted and ask you that their only purpose is for honey production.
There is no denying that honey is a treasure chest of deliciousness we humans enjoy. But it is important to remember that honey should be for the bee first.
Personally, we think that honey bees are miraculous. With many different honey bee races around the world, from the famously friendly Italian honey bee to be notoriously aggressive Iberian honey bee, finding one that fits into your beekeeping is easy.
We hope that this guide has given you more knowledge about honey bees, their anatomy, their structure… along with the invaluable service they provide to the world. Now you can take this information and use it for establishing your very own first honey bee colony.