A honeybee colony can consist of anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 bees! What makes them so special, wonderful and important? Explore below to learn all about honeybees and their almost magical wonders.
All bee species go through a complete metamorphosis which consists of four distinct stages. Read on for more information about the life cycle of a honeybee.
On average, the queen bee lays between 300-2,000 eggs per day. Some eggs are fertilized while others are not. A fertilized egg develops into a female worker bee (or sometimes a queen), while an unfertilized egg becomes a male drone bee. After 3 days, the egg hatches and the larval stage begins.
The larva is microscopic in size, without legs and eyes. For the first 2 days, larvae are fed a steady diet of royal jelly. As day 3 progresses, the larvae destined to develop into queen bees continue to feed on royal jelly, while the worker and drone larvae feed on honey, water and pollen. The larval stage lasts about 6 days.
This is the transition from the larval form to an adult bee. Initially, the pupa is white and glistening, but soon it begins to change. Compound eyes are the first feature to take shape. Next, the wings, legs and other body parts grow. This stage usually lasts 7.5 days for a queen bee, 12 days for a worker bee and 14.5 days for a drone.
The adult phase begins when bees are fully grown and ready to fulfill their roles. Adult queens lay thousands of eggs. Adult worker bees spend the first few weeks working within the hive, while in the final weeks they are busy with foraging for food and gathering pollen or nectar. Adult drones have the sole responsibility of mating with the queen.
Honeybees are social insects that live in highly organized colonies. There are three bee types (or castes) within a colony — the queen, workers and drones. Each of them has special roles that keep the colony functioning.
The largest population in the hive with ever-changing roles, worker bees are females, responsible for the care and upkeep of the colony. They’ve made an art of foraging for pollen and nectar to make honey, tending to the queen and drones, feeding larvae, cleaning the hive, controlling the temperature and defending the nest. And if that weren’t enough, some worker bees even lay drone eggs when the queen is failing. With all that work to do, it’s no wonder that worker bees only live 28 to 40 days.
The only males in a hive, drones don’t collect nectar, don’t make honey and can’t even sting. Their sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen. Drones are large, fuzzy bees with large eyes — good for spotting the queen when flying. About 8 days after emerging as adults, drones spend 4+ days on orientation flights. Then, they fly for 2 to 4 hours each afternoon in special congregation areas looking for the queen. But few drones successfully mate, and those that do die immediately after. The rest live no more than a few months. And after being tended to by workers, they’re kicked out when winter arrives.
The largest of all bees in a hive, the queen bee basically performs 3 jobs: mating with drone bees (typically in one flight), laying all the eggs (up to 2,000 in a single day) and keeping the colony stable. The queen secretes chemical scents known as pheromones, that, among other things, give the worker and drone bees cues about the health of the hive and whether the queen mated. Queens also control the gender of their offspring through the creation of fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) eggs. The queen lives between 1 and 3 years.
How Honeybees Make Honey
Honeybees turn flower nectar into honey, but have you ever wondered how? It’s an amazing process that will give you a whole new appreciation for this naturally sweet treat!
Older foraging worker bees fly from their hive in search of nectar-rich flowers. They typically fly up to 3 miles from their hive, but will travel farther if necessary.
Using their straw-like proboscis, worker bees drink the liquid nectar and store it in their special “honey stomach,” also called the crop.
Breaking It Down
The bees continue to forage, visiting hundreds of flowers, until their honey stomach is full. During this time, within the honey stomach, enzymes break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars, which are less prone to crystallization. With full bellies, the worker bees return to the hive and deliver the modified nectar to the younger hive bees.
The hive bees ingest the nectar, break it down more, then place it into a cell of the honeycomb.
The hive bees beat their wings furiously, fanning the nectar to evaporate its remaining water content. As the water evaporates, the nectar sugar thickens into honey.
Capping The Honey
Once the honey is finished, the hive bees cap each cell with a thin layer of wax, sealing the honey into the comb for later consumption (usually winter when little nectar is available). Working cooperatively, a strong colony with thousands of worker bees can produce up to 200 pounds of honey within the year!
Honeybees are very small (workers are only about ½” inch long), but their anatomy is complex and fascinating. Like all insects, they are invertebrates and have exoskeletons. Their body is made up of 3 parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. Bees are also covered in small hairs — useful for feeling and pollination.
Large brains are connected to several nerve centers that allow for complex functioning. A honeybee’s brain is actually 10 times more dense than a mammal’s brain, allowing for excellent sight and smell. They also have 5 eyes! Two large compound eyes have thousands of facets allowing them to see images and movement. Three simple eyes (called ocelli) are much smaller and arranged in a triangular pattern on the top of their head — these detect light and help with navigation.
The thorax is divided into 3 sections, with a long esophagus running through the entirety. Each section comes equipped with its own set of legs. Worker bees have a corbicula on each hind leg — this is a smooth cavity surrounded by a ring of hairs, where they pack their pollen to carry back to the hive. Bees also have 4 wings, which are attached to the thorax. The forewing and hindwing on either side of their body are connected with a row of comb-like hooks called hamuli.
While the surface of the abdomen has no obvious, distinctive features, the interior has quite a few functions. In all bees, digestion occurs there. In queens and drones, the abdomen houses the reproductive organs, and in queens and workers, the stinger. Drone (male) bees don’t have stingers! Bees breathe by taking in air through tiny holes called spiracles, which are located on their abdomen and thorax.