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Published on March 24th, 2010 | by Yellow Magpie

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Bees: Collectors Of Honey And Providers Of And For Life

It is a beautiful warm sunny day and you are sitting on a park bench. The sky is blue, there are multi-coloured flowers gently swaying in the balmy breeze. The birds are singing sweetly in the trees, and all around, people are relaxing in the sun.

Suddenly, you hear a scream, you look over where a group of young people had been sitting quietly chatting and laughing earlier, but now the scene has completely changed. Hands and arms are flaying all over the place, swiping at something, someone has a book and they are now frantically swatting the air. What has caused this frenzy of activity and fear? Then you hear the unmistakably low drone of a bee.

That same bee can be a provider of honey and more importantly is nearly single-handily responsible for our survival.

The humble bee can strike such terror into us humans. We fear their sting so much and for those who have ever had the misfortune to be stung by a bee this fear would seem justified. But bees will only ever use their sting as a last resort. Afterall, for the satisfaction of stinging, many of the species are paying the ultimate price with their lives. Yet, despite all its negative connotations, the bee is one of the most important insects on the planet. Without it, people would probably cease to exist.

There are 20,000 types of bees, which include the most familiar to us, the honey bee and the bumble bee. Bees can be found on every continent except Antartica.

The Honey Bee

Honey Bees live in colonies and consist of the Queen Bee, the Worker Bee and the Drones.

The honey bee is brown or black in colour with yellow stripes. All  honey bees have a three-part body made up of a head, thorax and abdomen. The thorax has six legs and two pairs of  wings. Their antenna is comprised of 13 segments in males and 12 in females. The honey bee’s sting is located at the end of its abdomen. The bee has a long complex tongue which allows it to gather nectar from flowers.

Unusual Eyes And Mnemonic Memory

Their eyes are known as compound eyes. The compound eye is made up of thousands of tiny  lenses called facets. Each  facet is thought to  take in a small image, the brain then takes these images  to compose a larger picture. Bees can only see six major categories of colours including yellow, blue-green, blue, ultraviolet, violet, and bees purple, which is a mixture of  ultraviolet and yellow. Because bees see ultraviolet light the colours and textures of flowers are more pronounced. This makes them more attractive and consequently bees are drawn towards them.

Despite having tiny brains, bees have an amazing ability to differentiate different types of plants and flowers. They can even recognise different human faces. In fact, a test on bees revealed that they can identify up to 50 unique human faces.


A Deadly Egg-Laying Machine

The queen bee is the largest of the bees at around 20 mm (almost one inch). She is sexually mature just days after hatching. Once she comes out of her pupa, she will kill her mother and any other queens in the hive.

The queen can lay between one and two thousand eggs per day. They can lay over two million eggs during their lifetime. If the queen dies the whole colony collapses. However, even if all the other bees died in the hive, the queen bee could start another colony.


The Workhorse Worker Bee

The worker, or forager bees, are all-female and can travel distances of up to one and a half miles for nectar. When it finds flowers, the bee will return to the hive to inform the other bees of the whereabouts of the goodies.

Competent Dancing Communicators

It does this by first allowing the other bees to taste a small portion of the nectar it has collected. This gives the other bees a sense of the quality of the nectar. Then it performs a dance. During the dance, which is called a waggle, the bee will point its body in the direction of the food source. The duration of the dance indicates the distance of the food from the hive. The bee uses the position of the sun to explain the whereabouts of the food.

However, every four minutes the sun moves one degree towards the West. Remarkably, the bee adjusts and it too moves its body one degree to the West every four minutes. So therefore, the other bees are left in no doubt as to where the food source is. Of course this also means that they have a sense of time and can take into account future events. The epitome of efficiency, they will store just enough nutrients to last the journey there and back.

The discovery of the ‘Waggle’ gained Karl von Frisch a Nobel Prize in 1945. To date, it is the only Nobel Prize to be awarded for animal behaviour.

Other worker bees in the hive are also sterile young females. They tend to the hive by constructing the combs, taking care of the brood, tending to the queen and drones, and defending the hive. It takes 21 days for a worker bee to mature from egg to adult. Because they work so hard, workers may only live approximately 30 days.

The Dutiful Drone

The only function of the male drone is to mate with the queen. Being a male, the drone has no sting but it has larger eyes than the workers allowing it to spot the queen on her nuptial flight. Compared to the thousands of worker bees, there are normally only a couple of hundred drones in the hive. They live for about eight weeks and if they are still alive at the end of the season they are mercilessly driven out of the hive to die.


The Honeycomb Hive

The Honeycomb is a masterpiece of insect engineering comprising of thousands of hexagonal cells. The cells are made from beeswax in which the queen lays her eggs. They are also used to store honey.

A hive has its own scent which comes from the pheromones of the queen, and the Nassanoff gland located at the end of the worker bees abdomen. The worker bees stay at the entrance of the hive and fan their wings to spread the hive’s unique scent allowing the forager-bees to return to the correct hive at the end of  a long day.


The Importance Of The Bee

Of all the myriads of insects to propagate the animal kingdom, the bee is unquestionably the most important.
Without the humble honeybee life as we know it would not exist. They are critical for the pollination of trees, plants and crops. Without the Honeybee a third of our food supply could disappear.

Bees are truly a unique insect, the only other animal that is comparable to them is the ant.

The careful insect ‘midst his works I view, Now from the flowers exhaust the fragrant dew, With golden treasures load his little thighs, And steer his distant journey through the skies.’ – John Gray

Vital Statistics

  • Bees are massively varied in size according to the different species. Typically, they can be as small as 5mm (less than a quarter of an inch) right up to 40 mm or more (one and a half inches) in length.
  • The average honey bee weighs between 80 and 100 milligrams (1/300 of an ounce).
  • Worker bees live for between 28 and 35 days. Queen bees can live up to five years.
  • Bees flourish in nearly every environment. The only continent they are not found in is Antarctica.


Further Reading

The Buzz About Bees: Biology Of A Superorganism is a wonderful book that certainly will satisfy both those who are casually interested in perusing the subject and serious apiarists.

You may also like to check out Yellow Magpie’s post on the ant.

Amazon.co.uk
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access The Buzz About Bees: Biology Of A Superorganism.

Amazon.ca
For those who live in Canada, you can obtain The Buzz About Bees: Biology Of A Superorganism from here.

Amazon.de
For Germany: The Buzz About Bees: Biology Of A Superorganism.

Amazon.fr
For France: The Buzz About Bees: Biology Of A Superorganism.


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