What is a honeybee?
Honeybees are flying insects, and close relatives of wasps and ants. They are found on every continent on earth, except for Antarctica.
Bees of all varieties live on nectar and pollen. Without bees, pollination would be difficult and time consuming – it is estimated that one-third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination. Bees have a long, straw-like tongue called a probiscus that allows them to drink the nectar from deep within blossoms. Bees are also equipped with two wings, two antennae, and three segmented body parts (the head, the thorax, and the abdomen). Honeybees are social insects that live in colonies. The hive population consists of a single queen, a few hundred drones, and thousands of worker bees.
The honeybees we know and love here at Honeybee Centre forage for nectar and pollen from flowering plants. They use the nectar collected to create our favourite sweet treat – honey! When carrying the nectar back to the hive, their bodies break down the complex sucrose of the nectar into two simple sugars, fructose and glucose. Tucking it neatly into a honeycomb cell, the bees will then beat their wings furiously over top of this syrupy sweet liquid to fan out the moisture and thicken the substance. When it is complete, the bees will cap that cell with beeswax, sealing the perfected honey for consumption later on.
For more information about honey, check out our About Honey page.
Worker bees are the most familiar-looking member of the honeybee hive, as they make up about 99% of each colony’s population.
Worker bees are all female, and they do almost everything for the hive. From birth to her death 45 days later, the worker bee is given different tasks to do during different stages of her life. Worker bees are responsible for everything from feeding the larvae (the baby bees), to tending to the queen, to cleaning the hive, to collecting food, to guarding the colony, to building honeycomb.
The stinger of the worker bee is barbed, so when she is forced to defend herself or the hive, her stinger will become stuck in the skin of her victim. She is unable to pull it out, and dies when she inevitably tears herself away from the stuck stinger, leaving it behind with the venom sack still pumping venom into her victim. Consequently, honeybees are very gentle – they don’t want to die any more than you want to be stung. Be nice to them, and they’ll be nice to you.
Male bees are called drones. Their job is to mate with queens from other hives. If they do get the opportunity to mate, they die immediately afterwards. If they do not mate, they can live up to 90 days (that’s twice as long as a worker bee!)
You can identify drones in the hive by their big round bodies and large eyes. Drones are incapable of stinging.
There is one queen bee per hive – she is the mom of all the other bees. She is the only fertile member of the colony, and lays about 1,500 eggs a day during spring and summer.
Queen bees are distinguished from the other members of the hive by their long abdomens and small wings. Soon after birth, queen bees will go out and have a wild weeked, where they mate with 15 or more drones over a three day period before retiring to the hive to lay eggs. The queen will not leave the hive again unless the colony swarms (looking for a new home).
When the colony needs a new queen bee, they simply choose a healthy larva, hatched from an egg of the current queen, and feed it royal jelly, a special, super-nutrious food. Royal jelly, produced in the heads of young nurse bees (worker bees whose job it is to care for the larvae), helps this larva grow into a queen. Queens can lay about 1,500 eggs per day and can live from 4 to 7 years, that’s up to 57 times longer than a worker bee – it’s no wonder humans love adding royal jelly to their diets, too!
Life in the Hive
Contrary to popular belief, honeybees do not build an external structure that contains their hive. They love to live in hollow spaces, whether that means a hollow tree, an empty fallen log, or in a traditional man-made bee hive.
They do, however, build the inside of their hive. Honeybees make their own special wax (beeswax), which they use to create perfect little hexagons inside their home. These little cubbyholes are called cells, and in them, the bees store everything from eggs, to pollen, to honey. For more information about beeswax, check out the About Beeswax page.
To seal their hive and to protect against diseases, the bees make a substance called propolis. Propolis is a combination of beeswax, honey, and tree resins, and is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral. It disinfects and protects their hive. It is also very sticky, and honeybees love to use it to seal up any cracks or holes they may encounter on a housekeeping mission. For more information about propolis, check out the About Apitherapy page.
With such a large population all working together, some great communication skills are needed. Bees do their talking in two ways – by scent and by dancing. When a honeybee is warning her sisters about an intruder, or if all the ladies in the hive are particularly happy, honeybees have the ability to release a special hormonal scent called pheromones. The bees can detect these scents and interpret their message. A happy bee pheromone smells suspiciously like lemons, and a warning-smell has a banana-like scent.
When a forager bee needs to alert her sisters as to where a nectar source is, dancing comes in handy. She does special turns and wiggles to show where she found the food – essentially drawing a map. Come check out our observation hive and watch for dancing bees!
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