A bee colony

A bee colony – or family – consists of:

• A queen bee – the only fertile female. She lays eggs, keeps the colony happy, is the longest bee and lives 18 months on average, although she can survive up to six years.

• Up to 30,000-60,000 worker bees – small infertile females that groom and feed other bees, maintain the hive, collect nectar, pollen, propolis and water, and make honey. A spring- or summer-born worker lives six weeks at most, an autumn-born one six months.

• Several hundreds or thousands of drones – fertile males that are shorter and stouter than the queen, have large eyes but no sting, wax glands or pollen baskets, and live eight weeks at most.

The beehive

Wild bees build nests in trees, logs, hedges, cliffs or walls. Removing their honey destroys their nest. Over the centuries, people have designed reusable nests – 'hives' – that enable harvesting of honey without bothering the bees too much.

Worker bees fill the hive with vertical, double-sided sheets of wax honeycomb. Each side consists of hexagonal cells, most of which are 5–7mm/1.5–¼in across. These receive worker eggs and store the colony's food: honey, pollen and bee bread, a mixture of pollen, nectar, saliva and microorganisms. Slightly larger cells receive drone eggs, and very large, thimble-shaped ones receive queen eggs.

Many beekeepers supply honeycomb starter sheets so that bees don't need to make so much wax and, as a result, have more energy to make honey. These sheets encourage workers to build relatively few drone cells, whereas honeycomb built entirely by bees has more drone cells. This triggers the queen to lay more drone eggs, and it's said that having more drones makes a colony happier.

Honey is the bees' main source of carbohydrate, pollen their main source of protein. But both contain many other vital nutrients.

What each bee does

As a young adult, the queen couples with up to 40 drones. These then die, but she stores their semen. In April and May, the queen lays up to 3,000 eggs a day, each smaller than a grain of rice. Her fertilized eggs become workers and queens, while the unfertilized ones become drones.

After mating, and for the rest of her life, the queen's mandibular glands secrete a cocktail of 30 pheromones into her mouth. The scent of this 'queen substance' attracts workers to lick and feed her and to pass it on to other bees, which keeps them calm and cooperative.

The high-grade nourishment she needs comes from royal jelly, also called brood food or bee milk. This sweet, fatty, creamy-coloured substance contains whitish secretions from young workers' mandibular glands and yellowish protein-rich secretions from their hypopharyngeal glands.

Three days after being laid, the eggs hatch into larvae (grubs). These produce brood (or 'feed-me') pheromone whose scent stimulates workers to feed them. All larvae receive royal jelly at first.

Four days after hatching, workers choose a larva's food according to its cell size. Larvae in worker and drone cells stop receiving royal jelly and instead get bee bread, which is less nutritious. Larvae in queen cells continue to receive royal jelly – in fact, their cells are flooded with it – and this makes them develop into queens.

Six days after hatching, a larva spins a cocoon, and workers then seal its cell with a wax lid (capping), ready for pupation. During this stage, which lasts 10 days for a worker, 13 for a drone and five for a queen, a wondrous metamorphosis turns the larva into an adult bee. The young adult then chews through its cocoon and cell and emerges into the hive.

Worker bees

Up to 2,000 new young adult workers emerge each day from the average hive.

From one to seven days old, a worker is a 'nurse bee'. She cleans the hive. She solicits food by sticking out her proboscis ('tongue'), encouraging older bees to offer regurgitated honey. Later, she feeds herself from honey and bee-bread stores.

When pollen protein has matured her mandibular and hypopharyngeal glands, she feeds royal jelly to all young larvae and older queen larvae. She feeds older worker and drone larvae with bee bread. And she grooms and feeds young adults.

From 7–12 days, she is a 'house bee'. Her abdominal wax glands begin producing pinhead-sized scales of wax. Other bees collect her wax, soften it by chewing, then use it to build honeycomb and cap cells containing mature larvae or ripe honey. The latter is honey that has been dehydrated until its water content is about 20 per cent, so it resists fermentation. Once its cell is capped, its water content falls to about 18 per cent.

A house bee also strengthens, waterproofs and disinfects the hive, including the honeycomb, with propolis (see page 58).

From 12–14 days, a house bee converts nectar into honey. To do this, she accepts nectar from foragers, then for 30 minutes or so regurgitates a drop at a time, allowing invertase, an enzyme now produced by her hypopharyngeal glands, to break down sucrose into glucose and fructose. She holds each drop between her jaw and proboscis to encourage dehydration in the hive's warm air. She puts it down for several hours to allow further evaporation. Then she or another house bee puts it into a cell.

She also collects pollen pellets deposited by foragers, moistens them further with saliva and nectar, puts them into a cell and packs them down by head-butting. She covers pollen-filled cells with honey. Bacteria (lactobacilli) from secretions she has added to the honey ferment the pollen into bee bread. She also ejects debris from the hive.

From two weeks, a house bee dehydrates honey in uncapped cells by fanning her wings. And she guards the hive's entrance by sniffing other bees' scent. If it's foreign, she produces alarm pheromone to muster help.

At three weeks, she becomes a forager, flying out to collect nectar, pollen, propolis and water. She flies up to 1.6–3.2km/1–2 miles from the hive, sometimes three times as far, letting her scent receptors guide her to enticing scents, and her eyes to attractively coloured flowers. On a good dry day she might make 20 trips, each time visiting up to 1,000 flowers and sucking nectar through her proboscis and via her mouth into her honey sac (the expanded end of her gullet). She can feed on nectar by opening a valve in her honey sac to let some enter her stomach. She collects pollen by brushing it from her body with her middle legs, adding saliva and nectar to form tiny pellets, and packing these into hairy baskets on her back legs. She carries home 0.06g/0.002oz of nectar and 20mg/0.0007oz of pollen, equalling half her bodyweight. She collects water from ponds or other sources, or by choosing watery nectar, and carries it in her honey sac. She also collects propolis.

Once home, she lets other foragers smell and sample her nectar and pollen so they can decide whether to visit her sources. She regurgitates nectar for younger honeybees to ripen, and deposits pollen and propolis. She dances to alert other foragers to good nectar sources. A circle dance – first anti-clockwise, then clockwise – indicates nectar and/or pollen within 10m/11 yards. A waggle dance – half a circle one way, then a turn and a straight run while wagging her tail, then half a circle the other way – indicates they are more than 91m/100 yards away. The direction of the straight run indicates their location relative to the sun; the frequency of waggle runs defines their distance more precisely; her vigour communicates their quality.

Workers keep the hive at 28–35ºC/82.4–95ºF. They warm it by digesting honey and pollen, huddling together and shivering, and they cool it by distributing water and by fanning their wings near the entrance. They also wander around or rest, often breaking at midday when there is a lull in nectar production.

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