When I was twelve, my grandparents had a tourist home on the main highway going into Milford, Delaware. My granddad fixed lawnmowers, wagons, whatever – there wasn’t much he couldn’t fix. The garage backed up to a block-long chicken house, where he raised 20,000 or more fryers for the fried chicken industry. I spent every summer helping to feed the chickens, pick tomatoes and strawberries, and shuck corn. Right next to the chicken house, granddad had four beehives.
The honey attracted two older kids who lived across the highway. One tilted the top of a hive and the other kid shoved me into it. Face, hair, shirt, mouth, pants, arms, legs – there were bees all over me! I learned about bees that day; I learned more than that, actually.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera)
Honeybees are primarily known for the production and storage of honey, and the construction of nests made of beeswax. They are not native American bees. They were transported by Mormon pioneers to Utah in the late 1840s, and by ship to California in the 1850s.
Bees talk to each other. Honeybees are known to communicate through different chemicals and by using specific behaviours that convey information about the quality and type of resources and where the resources are located. The details of their signals vary among bee species; for example, some worker bees “dance” on the upper surface of their comb, orienting the dance in the actual compass direction of the resource they are collecting.
Males or drones are produced by the queen when she chooses not to fertilize an egg; or by an unfertilized worker. The drones have large eyes, which are used to locate queens during mating flights.
Worker bees of a certain age produce beeswax from glands on their abdomens. They use the wax to form the walls and caps of the comb. Workers are female and are produced from an egg that the queen has selectively fertilized from stored sperm. A typical colony may contain as many as 60,000 worker bees. Their work changes with the age of the bee: beginning with cleaning out their brood cell, receiving nectar, cleaning the hive, guard duty, and foraging. Some engage in “undertaking” – removing corpses of their nest mates from inside the hive.
Queen honeybees, like workers, are female. They are created at the decision of the worker bees by feeding a larva only royal jelly throughout its development, rather than switching from royal jelly to pollen once the larva grows past a certain size. Queens are produced in oversized cells and develop in only 16 days. Queens have a different morphology and behavior from worker bees. In addition to the greater size of the queen, she has a functional set of ovaries, and a spermatheca, which stores and maintains sperm after she has mated. The sting of queens is not barbed like a worker’s sting, and queens lack the glands that produce beeswax. Once mated, queens may lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. They produce a variety of pheromones that regulate behavior of workers, and helps swarms track the queen’s location during the migratory phase.
All honeybees live in colonies where the workers sting intruders as a form of defense, and alarmed bees release apheromone that stimulates the attack response in other bees. The different species of honeybees are distinguished from all other bee species by the possession of small barbs on the sting, but these barbs are found only in the worker bees. The sting and associated venom sac of honeybees are also modified so as to pull free of the body once lodged, and the sting apparatus has its own musculature and ganglion, which allow it to keep delivering venom once detached. The worker dies after the sting becomes lodged and is subsequently torn loose from the bee’s abdomen.
Defense against larger insects such as predatory wasps is usually performed by surrounding the intruder with a mass of defending worker bees, which vibrate their muscles vigorously to raise the temperature of the intruder, in combination with increased carbon dioxide levels within the ball that produce the lethal effect. This phenomenon is also used to kill a queen perceived as intruding or defective, an action known to beekeepers as “balling the queen,” named for the ball of bees formed.
Honeybees signify immortality and resurrection. They were royal emblems of the Merovingians, and the personal emblem of my favorite character in history – Napoleon.
I learned that Honeybees sting like hell! Their combined venom can be lethal. My Granddad suggested I explain that to the kids who pushed me into the hive. He was watching as I crossed the highway and knocked on their backdoor. It wasn’t a long explanation, but I got in the first punch!
I learned more than they did.