Spinning tales about honeybees


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Honeybees are essential commercial crop pollinators. They are worth billions of dollars to the global economy.

These insects develop an organized social colony accommodating a queen (elongated body), worker bees (multi-tasking females) and drones (males). 

A beehive with an internal honeycomb provides nesting for some species. It is sometimes located in a rock crevice or hollow tree. The honeycomb consists of hexagonal cells constructed from beeswax from the stomachs of worker bees. These cells contain the ongoing brood: eggs, larvae and pupae. During summer, possibly 80,000 bees complete the colony.  Honeybees can build nests in a variety of places. <i>Photo by Brett Pigon</i>

Other shelters are exposed aerial nests. Also, a beekeeper might provide an artificial hive. Beekeeping is even depicted in stone-age cave paintings.

From a larva selected by worker bees, the queen bee matures. This larva is fed exclusively on royal jelly from worker bees — otherwise, the queen develops as a worker. A virgin queen may fly more than once to a drone congregation area to mate for life with multiple drones from other colonies; drones have huge eyes to perceive her. She stores millions of sperms. During her lifetime, she may lay one million eggs. She controls the sex of offspring. Obviously busy reproducing, the queen bee is maintained by worker bees. Her scent — pheromone — regulates hive behavior. 

During winter, for warmth, worker bees cluster around the queen while drones are ejected. Usually, in springtime, especially when overcrowding occurs, the current queen prime swarms with many bees to establish a new colony. After swarms may follow. The former colony sustains with a new queen. Queens survive two to eight years. Worker bees and drones survive weeks or months.

Pollination occurs when worker bees seek nectar — later processed into honey — and pollen, nourishment stored in honeycomb cells. 

Dance communicates food sources. A single worker bee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey per lifetime. When foraging, bees intoxicated by ingesting fermented nectar or ripe fruit become aggressive, have flying accidents or cannot find their hives — similar to humans.

What about stings? Queens may sting, especially rival queens, without dying. Worker bees sting and die. Drones have no stingers but die after mating. 

The sensationalized Africanized honeybees — killer bees — do not deliver a more potent sting, but they defend relentlessly in greater numbers.

Wild or kept, honeybees are in alarming decline with colony collapse disorder. Bees never return home, possibly disoriented. Plausible causes are pesticides, breeders causing lack of genetic diversity, radiation from cell phones and communication towers, and genetically modified crops (less nutritious pollen). Are honeybees canaries in the coal mine?

Undeniably, honeybees are indispensable. For example, bone wax, made of beeswax, controls bleeding during surgery. Ninety percent of our cherries depend on honeybee pollination. And honey, besides potential health benefits, is savory. Ask any bear.