Over the past four weeks I have been attending an evening class titled ‘An Introduction to Bee-keeping’, where I have been learning all about this amazing insect known as Apis Mellifera; that’s the Western Honeybee to you and me. I have not only got to grips with the biology of the creature, but also it’s home life, work life, and all of the threats that it faces… I feel like I know it quite intimately already; and I haven’t even handled any bees, nor have we set up our own Gressenhall hive yet!
In the first of four theoretical sessions I was introduced to the biology of the bee, as well as the three different types of bee present in the hive. These are Workers (female) who perform most of the work inside and outside the hive; Drones (male) whose task it is to mate with the Queen at the appropriate time of the year, and the Queen herself (naturally female of course)! I also learnt why hive structure is highly organised; with each caste of bee playing it’s part in the proper function and therefore success of the colony. Fascinating stuff!
Honey bees lead interesting (if short) lives; all begin life as eggs laid by the Queen and depending on whether they have been fertilized they will be a Drone or a Worker. The Queen is able to direct semen stored inside her by means of a valve which she opens and closes. Drones are only produced from unfertilized eggs, and should only appear in the hive during the summer. Regardless, the emergent larvae are fed by young worker bees who are known as nurse bees.
One could easily assume from this information that the Queen runs the show. After all, it is she who lays the eggs and decides which will be fertile and which will not. Or does she? The Workers construct the cells that make up the ‘comb’ structure we all recognise. They make the individual cell openings to a precise size; this determines which kind of egg is laid in the cell or rather whether it is to be fertilised or not. So in fact the Queen is following instructions from the Workers- they manipulate her decisions by the number of each cell that they produce. A sort of ‘constitutional monarchy’ then, if you will!
Depending on what type of bee the larva is will determine what it is fed and for how long, and also how long it will remain in the larval state before pupation. The larva is sealed in its cell where it begins the process of becoming an adult bee. It strikes me that precision and timing play an enormous part in securing the success of the hive and it is remarkable how well organised and socially developed these tiny insects are. From the way in which the Queen is able to determine the size of the cell opening to decide on whether to lay fertilised or unfertilized eggs; to the Workers who are able to assess the weather, food abundance and colony numbers to decide on which type of cells to make.
I have learned that one cell type in particular is to be looked for very carefully indeed. So-called ‘swarm cells’ are in fact cells made to house the larvae that will produce Queen bees. If the workers are unhappy with the productivity of the Queen (she can produce too few or too many) then they can decide to usurp her! They do this by ‘feeding up’ young Workers who then pupate in the largest cells and this is an indicator that a hive will shortly swarm! The large cells are known simply as ‘swarm cells’ and can indicate a process known as supercedure is about to occur.
Swarming is a natural activity for Honey Bees. They will do it if there are too many individuals for the colony to sustain, or for any reason if they are unhappy in their surroundings. In the wild it is a natural means of reproduction, but for domestic or commercial bee-keepers it can be a problem. Once the colony has decided to swarm, they will do it and nothing will change their mind!! Swarms are not usually aggressive however; since they have no brood (young) with them they are primarily concerned with finding a new home; for the bee-keeper that can mean tempting them out of a treetop or other similarly tricky spot and back into a suitable place!
Scout bees fly away to locate a new home for the colony and when found they will indicate to the swarm by ‘dancing’ to alert the other bees to the location of the prospective new hive. This dance is actually the bees wafting pheromones from their Nasonov glands to alert the others to the potential hive location. The Nasonov gland is another neat little feature in the Honeybee’s impressive spec. The pheromones it secretes will provide other bees with an enormous amount of information relating to food sources, danger and aid in identification of bees from the same colony.
It is critical for the Bee-keeper to understand the behaviour of bees, so that they can be properly looked after. A Bee-Keeper must therefore be able to spot the signs that a colony is about to swarm. Knowing about the different types of bee, what they do and why they do it is surely the key to success. I was surprised to learn that a new Queen can be raised in just 16 days, should the old Queen be lost, killed or simply unproductive. As with ‘swarm’, or supercedure cells, emergency cells are large ‘queen sized’ cells or cups that can appear within the comb and indicate that there is a problem with the Queen- most likely lost. Workers are take slightly longer to produce at 21 days and Drones the longest at 24 days. These bees are stingless, do not work or forage; indeed only leaving the hive to attempt mating with a Queen during July and August (typically).
I have been amazed by the organisation of the colony; the Workers are divided by age into various groups each fulfilling a vital role inside and outside the hive. When hatched, the new Worker busily begins clearing up the mess of their old pupal cell- Honeybees are clean-freaks! After three days of this, the new Worker spends up to 15 days as a Nurse bee- feeding the brood of larvae. Then they will move on to attending the queen, who cannot feed herself. Afterwards they might be involved in honey processing (storing honey as a food source for overwintering), wax production and comb-building, and finally hive ventilation whereby the worker positions herself at the entrance to the hive and beats her wings furiously to blow in fresh air and keep the hive oxygenated. By now, at a mere 20 or so days old, the seasoned worker is ready to perform Guard duty; protecting the hive against robber bees and predators. It is also at this time that workers may begin to leave the hive and forage. If this was not enough, the poor little worker bee will continue to forage for nectar, pollen, water and propolis (a sticky substance produced by plants and used by the bees to bind structures together within the hive) until they literally drop down dead! A life dedicated to one sole purpose: the survival of the colony.
I have always been interested in these amazing insects. Now, armed with a little more knowledge about how they live their lives, I hope to learn how to look after them; ensuring not only that I can enjoy delicious honey (if I’m lucky!) but also doing a little something to ensure that this industrious creature is around for many more centuries to come.