The honeybee on a flower
A honeybee on my flowers

Introduction

In this article about honeybees, we are going to talk about the description of the honeybee, types of honey bees, habitat and distribution of the honey bee, pollination, lifecycle, diet, beekeeping, bee products, honey, beehives, drones, workers, queens, defence, venom, and communication.

The honey bee is a fascinating insect responsible for pollinating many of the crops we enjoy today. Yet, most people know very little about these tiny creatures and their importance to our ecosystem. This blog post will look at some interesting facts about honey bees, and how they impact our lives in ways you might not have thought!

Honey bees are members of the class Insecta and make up two distinct types: Apis mellifera (the western honey bee) and Apis cerana (the eastern or Asian honeybee). Most people in North America only know about one type. However – this is important to note as they have several different behaviours.

Honey bees have many roles in their hive, but perhaps one of the most important is that they are responsible for pollinating all kinds of plants and flowers. The pollen sticks to the hair on a worker bee’s body, and when it lands on another flower while collecting nectar, this process repeats itself. As you can imagine, honey bee pollination is responsible for a large part of our agriculture industry, and many countries rely on it to produce much-needed food.

Honeybee

Honey bees have also been used to produce products like wax, propolis (a sticky resin collected from trees) and royal jelly – these are all-natural substances that help the honey bee in its life cycle.

The lifecycle of the honey bee is important to note as it helps explain their unique role in our ecosystem and how humans use them for products like beeswax, honey and royal jelly. The adult female worker (a fertilised or unfertilised queen – this is important to note for beekeeping) lives around six weeks during the active season.

The male honey bees (called drones) only have one job – mating with virgin queens and then dying shortly after.

The unfertilised queen, sometimes called a ‘drone layer’ because she will lay drone eggs, is raised in early spring by feeding specially selected pollen to young workers. Once the queen is raised, she spends her time laying eggs and producing pheromones that entice all-male honey bees in the hive to mate with her – once this happens, they die shortly after mating.

The fertilised queen will take up to two weeks before starting egg production (and then around 2000 eggs per day) and spends her time laying eggs that will become female worker bees. Worker honey bee larvae are fed a mixture of pollen, nectar, royal jelly and secretions from the heads of young workers called ‘worker’s milk’.

The queen also lays unfertilised eggs, which produce male drones (a single one is produced every two days).

Honeybee

The honey bee spends the middle of summer making lots of honey and taking care of larvae – this is when they are building up their numbers for winter. Then, as fall approaches, all worker bees die while the queen continues to live (and lay eggs) to prepare for next year’s cycle. The last task that remains until spring is that the queen makes a new batch of honey and store it to feed her young when they are born in spring.

So as you can see, honey bees have many roles within their hive – all with essential purposes for humans! The next time you look at a bee, remember just how vital this tiny creature is for our food industry and ecosystem.

An interesting fact about honey bees, and something important to note (especially for beekeepers), is the lifespan of each individual. The adult female worker can live around six weeks during the active season: this includes building up their numbers in preparation for winter and producing a new batch of honey before they die. Meanwhile, male drones only have one job – mating with virgin queens and then dying shortly after.

The queen can live up to five years (and sometimes even longer) by feeding on the honey she produces during the summer months, but will only lay eggs for part of that time due to a lack of sperm from male drones; it takes around two weeks before starting egg production and continues to lay eggs for approximately seven months.

The honey bee spends the middle of summer making lots of honey and taking care of larvae – this is when they are building up their numbers for winter. Then, as fall approaches, all worker bees die while the queen continues to live (and lay eggs) to prepare for next year’s cycle.

The last task that remains until spring is that the queen makes a new batch of honey and store it to feed her young when they are born in spring.

So as you can see, honey bees have many roles within their hive – all with important purposes for humans! The next time you look at a bee, remember just how vital this tiny creature is for our food industry and ecosystem.

Honeybee
Honeybee with pollen attached to legs

What does a honeybee look like?

Honeybees are very small, slim insects that serve the vital job of pollinating flowers – thus aiding in plant reproduction and growth. On average, honeybees measure around 12mm (0.5 inches) long.

Their eyesight is poor for detecting distant objects; they instead rely on vibrations to distinguish between flowers or other objects close by. Honeybees come in various colours, with worker bees usually having a reddish-brown/orange colour while queens are gold or yellowish beige.

The 3 main types of honeybees

There are over 22,000 species of honeybees. The most common type of honeybee is the European honeybee.

European honeybee

European honeybee on red flowering currant
European honeybee on red flowering currant

European honeybees are the most common type of honeybee globally, making up about 6% of all species. European honeybees are also called Western honeybees. The queen is typically very aggressive and will sting if their territories are threatened. By contrast, worker honeybees may only sting when their nest is being harmed or destroyed.

Eastern honey bee

Honeybee

The Eastern honey bee, Apis mellifera, is a social insect of the order Hymenoptera and pollinates extensively in North America. It also produces honey from plants from parts of the world that have been cultivated for honey production for centuries. They have been cultivated specifically to make honey.

The Bumblebee

Bumblebee
The bumblebee

Bumblebees are scientifically known as Bombus. They can be found throughout the world and in a wide variety of habitats and climates. Bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies and often build honeycombs with the wax they produce.

These bees buzz around flowers and plants to collect pollen, nectar, and honeydew from honeydew-producing insects such as aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, or ants that they then carry back to their colony. In some species of bumblebees, the queen only mates once to create fertilised eggs for the whole hive, while other species of bees have more than one queen.

There are thousands of other types of bees throughout the planet, and many are very small such as the Australian native bee.

Honeybee habitat and distribution

Honeybee habitat and distribution map
Honeybee habitat and distribution map

The honeybees are found in the following places: North & South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and any part of the world. The honeybee is often found in rural environments with plenty of flowers for forage. They are also found around human settlements and in the mountain, forests and bushland.

Honeybee lifecycle and diet

The honey bee has a fascinating life cycle. The queen lays eggs in the beehive, which are cared for by worker bees until they become drones or workers themselves. When not receiving nutrients from their mother, who is called a reigning Queen, young larvae receive food from nurse bees that produce royal jelly. The honey bee is a social insect and has one queen, drones and workers.

The queen bee

Queen bee
Queen bee

The queen can live up to seven years but usually dies after two or three years as she starts losing her fertility with age. When the old queen dies in autumn, worker bees select some young virgin queens who have been reared throughout summer. They then feed them with specially stored food and nurture them until they are sexually mature.

At this point, the old queen’s hive will swarm to a new location, where they can find shelter in hollow trees or other man-made structures such as sheds. After mating outside of their original hives, young queens then return to establish their own colonies within empty beehives or in some natural hollow structures such as tree trunks.

The worker bee

The worker bee’s main purpose is to collect food for the hive and care for any new eggs that are laid by the queen, they also clean cells in which larvae will be fed food and keep them free from disease-causing bacteria. They do this with a special stinger organ at their rear end but unlike other types of bees, the honeybee cannot sting more than once.

Honeybee
Worker bee

The worker bees are female and have a stinger which they use to defend their hive but it is barbed like that of other types of bee, so when used it gets stuck in the skin and rips away from its body inside out killing them soon after – this means only the queen bee has the ability to sting multiple times.

The drone

The drone is a male honeybee, its purpose isn’t as important as that of workers or egg-laying queens but they do contribute in an indirect way by transferring sperm from their body into another during mating with virgin queens. They then die soon after doing this task and so they are not often found in hives.

Our facebook pageDiet

The honey bee’s diet is very specific. The primary food source for the adult worker is the nectar that they collect from flowers which they process into honey. Much research has been put into this to ensure the bees are well cared for and can produce high-quality honey products.

How important is the honeybee?

The honey bee is one of the most efficient pollinators on earth. It has a powerful sense of smell and can detect nectar from a distance which helps them locate rich food sources for their hive. They also have an acute ability to communicate through dancing to share information about where good food sources are.

If honeybees were to die out, it would have catastrophic consequences on the planet, such as primary food supplies such as wheat, rice and other essential crops around the world would die off and become extinct over time. So protecting this vital insect is of most importance to the world’s natural ecosystem.

Honeybee

Honey bees are essential pollinators for many types of plants and crops. A third of our food supply depends on pollination by honey bees. Without them, we would not produce certain fruits and vegetables in their current quantities or quality.

Beehives

Beekeepers offer the honeybee a place to live. They provide beehives so that bees can produce honey from nectar collected by them in exchange for bee products such as pollen, propolis (a plant resin), royal jelly and honey itself, which is often used to sweeten food or create drinks or simply eaten by itself.

Beehive

Naturally occurring and man-assisted beehives are a series of hexagon-shaped honeycombs created in organised arrays within a beehive nest. The specific shape of these individual hexagons has many benefits, including efficiency and heating and cooling. Inside these honeycombs are bee larvae and honey. The larvae eat the honey. Beehives can be found on trees, stumps, caves and just about anywhere in the natural habitat.

Natural beehive
Natural beehive

They can also be inconveniently located under and around manmade structures such as balconies and eaves, much like the common wasp. They are also manmade and produced by humankind for our insatiable love of the product honey and other products such as wax.

Honey

Honey is a sweet food produced by honey bees from nectar and plant saps. The worker bee collects the raw material, which is primarily flowers and nectar but also may be made of water, tree sap or juices extracted from other parts of plants.

Honey comb

Beekeepers remove honey from a hive in two ways:

  • A frame system where frames are taken out of the beehive and honey is removed from them.
  • In the crushing system where a machine crushes a part of the beehive, this product has to be filtered several times before it can be consumed.

Beekeepers extract raw honey using centrifugal force or by removing combs containing bee larvae and pupae. Filtering and cooling of the honey are done to prevent it from crystallising.

Other more modern methods allow a mechanism to extract honey without disturbing or destroying the beehive these days.

Beekeepers take the combs from inside hives filled with worker bee larvae, these cells are kept warm until they become mature pupae, and once they do beekeepers, the bees will be removed to ensure no larvae are killed. After this process has been completed, royal jelly is harvested from young worker queen cells, which have been kept warm since their development.

Honeybee stingers

All honey bees live in colonies where the workers sting invaders as a method of defence, and alarmed bees issue a pheromone that arouses the attack response in other bees. The various species of honey bees are separated from all other bee species (and essentially all other Hymenoptera) by the possession of tiny barbs on the sting. Still, these barbs are located only in the worker bees.

Honey bee stinger
Honey bee stinger

The sting apparatus, including the barbs, may have developed especially in response to predation by vertebrates, as the barbs do not ordinarily function (and the sting apparatus does not separate) unless the sting is embedded in fleshy tissue.

While the sting can also enter the membranes between joints in the exoskeleton of different insects (and is utilised in fights between queens), in the case of Apis cerana japonica, defence against larger insects such as marauding wasps (e.g. Asian giant hornet) is usually performed by enveloping the intruder with a mass of defending worker bees, which vibrate their muscles quickly to raise the temperature of the invader to a lethal level (also known as “balling”).

Previously, heat alone was thought to be reliable for killing intruding wasps. Still, recent experiments have illustrated that increased temperature coupled with increased carbon dioxide levels within the ball create the lethal effect. This phenomenon is also used to kill a queen regarded as intruding or defective, an effort known to beekeepers as ‘balling the queen’, named for the ball of bees produced.

Defence can vary based on the environment of the bee. In the case of those honey bee species with open combs (e.g., A. dorsata), would-be predators are given a warning signal that uses the form of a “wave” that spreads like a ripple over a layer of bees densely arranged on the surface of the comb when a threat is recognised.

It consists of bees momentarily arching their bodies and flicking their wings. In cavity-dwelling species such as Apis cerana, Apis mellifera, and Apis nigrocincta, access to these cavities is guarded and monitored for intruders in incoming traffic. Another act of defence against nest invaders, especially wasps, is “body shaking,” a violent and pendulum-like swaying of the abdomen produced by worker bees.

Bumblebee
The bumblebee

Honeybee Venom

The stingers of honey bees are barbed and consequently embed themselves into the sting site. The sting device has its own musculature and ganglion, which keep passing venom even after detachment. The gland which creates the alarm pheromone is also correlated with the sting apparatus.

After being torn loose, the embedded stinger emits additional alarm pheromone; other defensive workers are drawn to the sting site. The worker dies after the sting becomes lodged and is consequently torn loose from the bee’s abdomen. The honey bee’s venom, known as apitoxin, carries numerous active components, the most abundant of which is melittin, and the most biologically active are enzymes, especially phospholipase A2.

Honeybee Venom Medicine

Honey bee venom is under laboratory and clinical research for its possible properties and uses in decreasing risks for adverse events from bee venom therapy, rheumatoid arthritis, and use as immunotherapy for protection against allergies from insect stings. Bee venom commodities are marketed in many countries, but, as of 2018, there are no recognised clinical uses for these products, which carry several warnings for potential allergic reactions.

Bee venom can be used by scientists in medicine for research purposes or as an alternative treatment for people living with arthritis who would otherwise rely on anti-inflammatory drugs.

Some beekeepers use bee venom to treat arthritis sufferers. It can be given as an injection or through a patch and has been proven to reduce pain caused by the condition in many patients. However, scientists are unsure of how this works, which makes them reluctant to prescribe honeybee venom treatments until they know more about how it works.

Beehive

How does the honeybee communicate?

The honeybee communicates by dancing, making music, and performing complex rituals that convey information on the location of food sources, dangers in the environment, or how well they are treated.

The worker honeybees communicate with each other about their foraging discoveries while dancing outside the hive. When a bee finds a new nectar source, she will perform an orientation dance that indicates familiarity with its direction and distance from the hive.

Different combinations of twirls

  • the number representing approximate numbers of steps taken according to one study up to 250 meters (820 ft).
  • and the number of times she dances around in a circle or waggles her abdomen
    the direction representing compass bearing relative to sun position.
  • The round dance tells her colleagues that she has found water or nectar, while waggle dances tell them where it is located relative to landmarks and nearness to the sun.

Are honey bees aggressive?

Honey bees are not aggressive, but they naturally tend to defend themselves if their honey stores are threatened. This is why honey bees often sting humans when a person accidentally comes into contact with a beehive.

Further reading

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here
Captcha verification failed!
CAPTCHA user score failed. Please contact us!