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Juba on Honey Bees

I got an up close and personal greeting from a bee the other day and the little guy stung me. My first response was to catch it between my teeth, but it was gone in an instant. Juba the thinking dog here, and this time I’m taking a specific observation of the insect Apis millifera, or the honey bee. Joyfully, the flying critter survived and could continue with his job of pollination and family maintenance. Each one of those little fellows matters, and here’s why.

Social structure is rarely seen in insects, but the honey bee forms what is known as a caste, or social order that consists of a single reproducing female, numerous fertile males called drones, and thousands of non-reproducing females. These insects undergo complete holometabolism, or metamorphosis, that encompasses four life stages. The honey bee goes from an egg, to larva, to pupa and on to adulthood. Life begins within the nest that is built by several thousand worker bees that cooperate to get the job done, gather food, and rear the young, or brood. The worker bee caste take care of the young until they are old enough to leave the nest and fly away.

But before this happens, let’s take an in depth look at the inside of the wax honeycomb where eggs are laid in a single cell produced and shaped by the worker bees. Using spermatheca, an organ of the female reproductive tract in insects used to receive and store sperm, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg she is laying. Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid, meaning one set of chromosomes. Females, queens and worker bees develop from fertile eggs and are diploid with two sets of chromosomes. Larvae are first fed with what is known as royal jelly, a honey bee secretion that serves as nutrition. Worker bees are responsible for this and for switching off to honey and pollen after that. In response, the larvae undergoes several moultings before spinning a cocoon within the cell of the honeycomb.

The hive is cleaned regularly when the larvae is fed by young worker bees, sometimes called “nurse bees.” That’s not all they do, for when these females begin to lose their royal jelly-producing glands to atrophy they take on the job of building comb cells. As they age they take on other in-hive duties, such as receiving nectar and pollen from foragers, plus protecting the hive. When such bees reach total maturity they typically leave the hive, remaining a forager throughout the rest of their life. Virgin queens are known for their mating flights, where they fly away from their home colony to a drone congregation area, and mate with multiple drones before returning. The drones die in the act of mating and the queen bee never mates outside her own home colony.

Taking a deeper examination of the hive, the brood, or immature forms of the bees remains responsible for maintenance of the hive. Young adult honey bees convert excess food energy in their bodies to wax production rather than fat production. The wax glands are located on the underside of the abdominal segment, and the bee uses its legs to scrape off the produced wax and use it in honey comb production. Propolis or bee glue…a mixture of saliva, bees wax, and exudate gathered from tree buds, is accessed as a sealant for unwanted open spaces within the hive.

During hot summer months, the colony temperature must be reduced or the wax will melt and the bees will suffer. As a remedy, water is collected and spread on the interior of the nest and fanning of wings creates evaporative cooling. As the adult bees age, they perform the hive tasks by first cleaning, then circulating air with their wings, feed larvae, practice flying, receive pollen and nectar from foragers, and guard the nest. Whew! Big job for such small critters.

Conditions within the hive change according to what is going on in the environment. During spring when the days are longer and sources of pollen and nectar appear and increase, egg laying by the queen is stimulated. At the same time, the colony population increases, the worker force increases, and the number of foragers increases. This turns into a surplus within the hive of pollen and nectar, which enhances brood rearing. In summer, with day length being the longest, bees can forage for extended periods of time. In contrast, hive populations diminish in the fall as pollen and nectar decrease. In addition, the proportion of old bees in the colony decreases and is dependent on the age, health and fecundity of the queen. In winter bees cluster around the eggs, larvae, and pupae in effort to keep them warm. However, under subtropical, tropical, and mild winter conditions, egg laying and brood rearing are usually about the same.

But where are these nests and how do we go about not disturbing the bees and their fine crafted honey production? Well, as it turns out, a tree cavity is a common nest site in most temperate areas. Maple, oak, and ash trees are common, but bees will select virtually any tree if a suitable cavity is available. Knotholes are the most common types of opening, but cracks or other gaps are also used. Bees prefer openings high in a tree, but will nest next to the ground, too. Most tree nests are in live trees where the cavities are the result of fungal action of the inner wood.

In the sheltered, darkened cavity of the tree the bees separate the area where they store food and areas where they rear their young. And, by that I mean egg, larval and pupal stages of life. This brood is brought up in the lower portion of the beeswax comb in a compact, spherical-shaped section due to temperature requirements of the growing young. Immature larvae need a temperature of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. Honey that is stored as food is above and to the sides of this central brood-rearing area. Pollen, used to feed the larvae, is stored in empty cells in the brood area and immediately to the outside of the active brood-rearing area.

So that’s the skinny on bees. Most of all, let us make note that the honey bee is endangered. If you see a bee do all you can not to kill it. Remember this: a drone is a male honey bee that, unlike the female bee, has no stingers and gathers neither nectar or pollen. A drone’s primary purpose is to mate with an unfertilized queen. In other words, you could be killing a perfectly safe critter that has responsibilities back at home.

I’ll write another column next month. In the meantime, take care and watch out for the holes in trees where the bees have manufactured a nest.

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