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ABOUT BEES

Your honey bee colony follows a predictable cycle over the course of an entire season. To successfully manage it, you need a mental picture of what should be happening throughout the year to help you time your visits, have the right equipment ready, and prevent problems.

You should also be familiar with the individuals in the colony: the queen, the workers, and the drones. We’ll explore their development and what each one does during the season. As we do this, we’ll also examine the colony as a unit, as well as the bees’ environment—including where they live, how seasonal changes affect them, and your interactions with them.

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Shown here are the drone (left); queen (center); and worker (right).

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Worker Anatomy: This illustration shows the basic body parts of a honey bee.

THE QUEEN

All bees begin as identical eggs laid by the queen of their colony.

Because a queen bee mates for only a short time, but with many drones over several days, she stores sperm that she acquired during mating in her spermatheca. As a developing egg passes through her system, sperm is released, the egg is fertilized, and she places it in the cell. The egg develops for three days, at which point the eggshell, or chorion, dissolves, releasing a tiny grublike larva.

Worker “house” bees immediately provide food for these tiny larvae, making a thousand or more visits each day. For the first three days, this food is identical for both workers and queens. It’s a rich, nutritious mixture called royal jelly that the house bees produce from protein-rich pollen, carbohydrate-laden honey, and enzymes they produce in special food glands. The house bees add the royal jelly to the cells, and one larva floats in a pool of liquid food.

Larvae destined to be royalty see little change in this diet—it just becomes richer. However, on day three, the rations for workers-to-be are downgraded in quantity, sugar, and protein content, which keeps them from developing into queens. Queens also mature faster than other bees, completing the egg-to-larva-to-pupa-to-adult cycle in only sixteen days, compared with the twenty-one days required for workers and twenty-four for drones. (See chart below.)

Because of the enriched diet, queen larvae are much larger than worker larvae and require more room. Their cells either extend downward, filling the space between two adjacent combs, or hang below a frame. A queen cell is about the size and texture of a peanut shell with an opening at the bottom. The smaller worker larvae fit into the horizontal cells of the broodnest.

 

EGG

LARVA (OPEN BROOD)

PUPA (SEALED BROOD)

TOTAL DEVELOPMENT TIME

Queen

3 days

51/2 days

71/2 days

16 days

Worker

3 days

6 days

12 days

21 days

Drone

3 days

61/2 days

141/2 days

24 days

The diagram illustrates development time, in days, for queens, workers, and drones. Note that fluctuations in ambient temperature, colony population, nutritional needs, and other environmental events can alter these time frames. These are estimates for planning colony management and are not exact.

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Queen honey bees have long, tapered abdomens and are larger than workers. They can vary in color.

When a new queen is needed to replace an injured or failing queen, colonies almost never produce only one queen cell; they make as many as they can, depending on available resources. The process of producing multiple queen cells occurs over two to three days, so not all of the queen larvae are the same age. The first queen to emerge destroys as many of the still-developing queens as she can, chewing through the side of the queen cell and stinging the developing queen pupa inside. Sometimes, several queens emerge simultaneously and eventually meet, fighting to the death, often with help from the workers, some of which share the same mother and father as the new queen.

MATING FLIGHT

The victorious, virginal queen continues to mature, feeding herself or being fed by house bees. Orientation flights near the colony begin after a week or so. The young, unmated monarch needs to learn the landmarks near the hive so that she can find her way back after a mating flight. Queens hardly ever mate with the drones from their own colony (inbreeding could cause genetic problems in offspring). Drones from other colonies and queens gather in neutral locations, called drone congregation areas (DCAs), mating 30' to 300' (9.1 to 91.4 m) in the air above open fields or forest clearings. Interestingly, drone congregational areas are in the same places every year, as long as the landscape and topography remain basically undisturbed. Drones from as far away as a couple of miles are attracted to these DCAs, so there may be drones from dozens of colonies in the same place at the same time.

As a virgin queen approaches a DCA, she emits an alluring come-hither pheromone. The fastest drone catches her from behind, inspects her with his legs and antennae, and, if he deems her to be a potential mate, inserts his reproductive apparatus. The act stuns and seems to paralyze the drone. His body flips backward violently, leaving his mating organs still inside the queen. He falls and dies. These organs, called the mating sign, are removed by another drone if one catches the queen during this flight. She may mate with multiple drones on each flight over several days, totaling up to thirty-something. Generally, the more drones she mates with, the better, because it increases the amount of sperm available and the genetic diversity of the bees this queen will produce. The workers remove the last drone’s mating sign when the queen returns to her hive. You may see this on a landing board.

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Because of their large size, queen cells are attached to the bottoms of frames, or fit between frames, and are easily visible.

Occasionally the queen will not mate because of an extended period of bad weather. After five or six days, she will be past mating age, so the colony will raise more queens, if eggs or very young larvae are available. If not, the colony may go queenless. This situation requires the attention of a beekeeper or the colony will perish.

LIFE AS A QUEEN

When the queen’s spermatheca is full, her mating days are over, and she begins life as a queen. Prior to mating and during her mating flights, queens are not treated like queens in the hive. They don’t begin producing the colony-uniting pheromones until after mating. They do, however, have some pheromone control before mating. These pheromones inhibit further queen-cell production and the ovary development in workers, even though the egg-producing organs in her own abdomen—the ovaries and ovarioles—aren’t completely matured until her mating begins. The queen appears to grow even larger now as these internal organs expand and her abdomen stretches to accommodate them.

Queens produce several complex pheromones, which are perceived by workers. As the worker bees feed and groom the queen, they pick up minute amounts of these chemicals. Then, as they go about their other duties, they spread the chemicals throughout the hive, passing along scent cues that inhibit certain behaviors and strengthen the frequency and intensity of others. The most important message relayed by these chemicals is that there is a queen present, she is healthy and productive, and all is well.

In an unmanaged colony, barring injury or disease, a typical queen will remain productive for several growing seasons. As she ages, her sperm supply is reduced, and her ability to produce all of the necessary pheromones for colony unity diminishes.

THE WORKERS

During the active season, a typical honey bee colony contains a single female queen, a few hundred drones, and thousands of female workers.

Workers raise the young, build the house, take care of the queen, guard the inhabitants, remove the dead, provide metabolic heat when it’s cold and air-conditioning when it’s hot, gather food and water, and accumulate the reserves needed to survive the inactive season. When all goes well, workers also provide a surplus of honey.

A worker starts as a fertilized egg. She emerges from the egg as a larva, and for the following three days she is fed a diet identical to that of a queen larva. After that, her rations are cut and her reproductive and some glandular organs do not fully develop. After twenty-one days, she finally emerges as a fully formed female adult worker honey bee.

Initially, the newborn worker begs food from other bees in the broodnest area, but soon she begins to seek and find stored pollen. This high-protein diet allows her glands to mature for future duties. She stays close to the center of the broodnest—the warmest and safest part of the colony—which is also where most of the pollen is stored. Within a day or so, she joins the labor force, learning increasingly complicated tasks. She begins in the broodnest, removing debris from vacated pupa cells, pulling out the cocoon and frass (waste) that can be removed. Others follow her, polishing the sides and bottom of the cells with propolis in preparation for another egg.

After a few days, the hypopharangeal and mandibular glands in her head are nearly mature, and the worker begins feeding older worker larvae a mixture of pollen and honey, saliva, and enzymes. She is also able to feed the existing queen this glandular food. At the same time, she can groom the queen, help remove her waste, and pick up after her. As she works, she picks up and distributes tiny amounts of queen pheromone throughout the colony, assuring inhabitants that all is right in the world—or informing them that all is not right.

After a few days of cleaning, feeding, and eating, this worker begins to explore the rest of the nest, traveling farther and farther from the center. Soon she ventures near the hive’s entrance and begins taking nectar loads from returning foragers—the first step in turning nectar into honey.

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The worker bee that appears in the top center of this picture has her head in a cell, feeding the larva inside. Note the two bees in the bottom center of the photo. They are transferring nectar from a forager to a food-storing bee. This is part of the nectar-ripening process, which occurs in the broodnest on what is often referred to as the dance floor.

GUARDS

After about three weeks, a worker’s flight muscles are completely developed and she begins orientation flights around the colony. Even before this, however, the glands and muscles of her sting mechanisms have matured, and she is fully capable of defending the nest. Therefore, she becomes a guard. In a large colony in midseason, the number of dedicated guards at any one time is relatively small—maybe 100 or so. However, if there is a large threat, thousands of bees can be recruited almost instantly. These new guards are temporarily unemployed foragers, older house bees, and resting guards.

Guards perform multiple tasks. They station themselves at the colony entrances and inspect any incoming bees based on odor, which is distinct and recognizable for each colony. If a forager returns to a colony that’s not hers, she will be challenged at the door. Other insects are also challenged if they try to enter too. Guards will bite and sting the intruder attempting to kill or drive it off.

Animals that try to steal from a colony are also rebuked. Skunks, bears, raccoons, mice, opossums, and even beekeepers will be challenged, threatened, and eventually attacked. When confronted by a large intruder, such as a beekeeper, some guards will engage in intimidating behavior before stinging.

They will fly at the intruder’s face (they are attracted to the face because of the eyes and especially expelled breath containing carbon dioxide) without stinging. This action can be annoying but—if the beekeeper wears a secure beekeeping veil—inconsequential. If such warnings fail to drive off the intruder, more guards will be attracted to the intruder. If the intruder’s attack on the hive continues, the bees will sting.

You can often confuse these followers by walking into a stand of tall shrubs or brush, or stepping out of the line of sight of the colony for a moment—behind a building or into a shed or garage. The guards should quickly lose interest.

If you are still being harassed, keep your veil on until they head back home. Smoking these bees does little or no good in deterring their behavior because they are following you visually as well as by odor. If this behavior is common in your hive, it is a good idea to replace the queen that is producing these defensive bees with one that produces offspring that are less troublesome.

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You will see guard bees on the landing board in this defensive position, challenging any bee or beekeeper that dares to enter. Front legs up, head lowered, mandibles spread, wings extended, making her look as fierce and large as possible.

Guard bees make sure they are successful in thwarting your intrusion by continuing the attack as you leave the colony or even the apiary. This behavior is variable, however. If there is a nectar flow occurring, with many bees coming and going, and the weather is cooperative, guards will seldom follow you farther than 12' (3.7 m) or so. However, the same guards may follow you much farther if there is a dearth of nectar or if the weather is cool and cloudy.

When a Honey Bee Stings

When a honey bee stings, her sting pierces the skin of the intruder. The sting is a three-part apparatus, made of two barbed, moveable lancets and a grooved shaft. The lancets are manipulated by involuntary muscles and once released, continue to push downward into the wound. The shaft is connected to the organs that produce the venom and acid that are injected into the skin.

After the sting is embedded, these muscles alternately contract and relax continuously, pushing the lancets deeper into the skin of the victim as the barbs hold the lancet and keep it from being removed, all the while the venom is flowing from the grooved shaft into the now-open wound. Each contraction pushes a barbed lancet farther into the skin with the venom gushing down the shaft going deeper and deeper.

Because the lancets are barbed, the bee cannot extract them. When she makes her escape and flies away, the sting apparatus and even some of her internal organs are torn away, remaining in the victim’s skin. This is seldom a slow, methodical process. Guards approach an intruder, land, sting, and escape in usually less than a couple of seconds, often even less than that. You seldom see the bee that leaves her mark. The end result, though, is that when she leaves much of her internal organs behind, she is mortally wounded. She may, however, continue to harass the intruder. You may see one or more of these bees when you are working a colony, with entrails hanging from the end of their abdomens. They eventually perish, having died in defense of their home.

During a bee sting, the sting mechanism releases alarm pheromone while the muscles are pushing the lancets deeper into the skin. Alarm pheromone is extremely volatile, spreading rapidly in the air around you and throughout the colony, and it alerts the whole colony that an intruder dangerous enough to sting is threatening it and serves as a call to arms. It marks the intruder, enabling other guards to home in on the sting site and further the attack. If the intrusion continues, the number of guards recruited increases until many, many reinforcements are in the air. This increase in guards usually drives off the intruder.

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Anatomy of the sting: The two lancets of a bee’s stinger are barbed and work independently, but in unison, as they push deeper and deeper into the skin of the intruder. The shaft behind the lancets funnels venom and acid into the wound that the lancets are producing.

FORAGERS

When a worker matures and ventures outside the colony on a routine basis, she becomes a forager. This period of her life starts when she is about three to four weeks old. She may be a scout bee, seeking new sources of nectar, pollen, water, or propolis; then collecting some and returning to the hive to share her newly found information. Or, she may be recruited by another scout bee or forager to visit a productive patch of flowers.

If food is dispersed evenly, foragers exploit nearby areas, circling the colony. This is seldom the case, however, because flowering trees, shrubs, and weeds grow where they can, rather than where bees would prefer them. And as the season progresses, nectar and pollen sources come and go. Therefore, the forage area changes from day to day.

Some foragers gather nectar only and continue in that work for as long as the nectar is received back home. Some collect only pollen. Others, however, collect both during the same trip.

Finding food is the job of scout bees. Experienced scouts seek food using the color, shape, markings, and aroma of flowers. They learned that particular flower shapes, colors, or aromas signaled a reward and return often, or look for similar signs elsewhere. Beginners may recognize a familiar aroma, learned when they were in the hive receiving nectar from previous foragers, and investigate.

When a scout locates a promising source, she investigates its value. She lands on a flower, if it is large enough, or on a nearby stem or leaf so that she can reach the flower. She extends her tongue, called a proboscis, folding its three sections together to form a tube, and sucks in the nectar. She may scrabble in the center of the flower or brush against anthers in her pursuit of nectar, gathering pollen on her body hairs.

When full, she leaves the flower, circles the patch a few times—to get her bearings by noting landmarks and the position of the sun—then heads for home.

Because the forager has found a new patch, she usually tries to recruit other foragers to visit the patch. She initiates the dancing behavior on the comb in the lower part of the broodnest where other foragers gather, either waiting to be recruited or offloading pollen and nectar from a recent trip.

When pollen foragers return, they back into an empty or only partially filled cell in the broodnest region and slowly remove the pollen load they gathered. Once removed, they turn around and pack the pollen in, using their heads as the packing tool. They leave a shallow space at the top of the cell to be filled with honey, which acts as a preservative for long-term storage.

A DANGEROUS LIFE

As hazardous as being a guard bee may seem, it doesn’t hold a candle to the dangers encountered by a forager. When out in the field, a lone honey bee can fall prey to birds, spiders, mantids, and an array of other predators. The weather, too, works against her, with sudden showers, rapid temperature changes, or high winds making flying difficult or returning home impossible. Other dangers include rapid automobile traffic when crossing roads and even flyswatters.

A significant danger that can threaten nest mates as well as our forager is contact with agricultural or homeowner pesticides. The forager can contact these poisonous chemicals in any manner of ways. She may be sprayed directly while in the field foraging on blooming plants. She may visit plants that have been sprayed some time ago and make contact with the residue. Or she may collect pollen or nectar from plants sprayed with systemic pesticides long ago, but still active and deadly, within the plant’s stems, leaves, blossoms, nectar, and pollen.

Many pesticides applied to crop plants now are systemic. That means the chemical may be sprayed directly, but more often it is applied to the seed when the crop is planted. It is absorbed by the plant as it grows and remains active for the entire life of the plant, killing anything daring to try to consume it. Of course, the nectar and pollen are compromised with these chemicals and are brought back to the hive to be eaten or stored for later. The amounts of the chemicals in the nectar and pollen are not enough to kill outright, but rather deliver a sublethal dose again and again. Ultimately, they reduce the ability of the colony to ward off other troubles, pests, and diseases, and enhance the damage caused by some of these other issues.

And what happens when honey bees come in contact with fungicides? When these chemicals are returned to the colony in contaminated pollen and fed to larvae at a late time, they cause damage, even death, as they affect the digestive organisms used by bees. Other types of insect-controlling chemicals, such as growth regulators, can cause similar problems.

Mosquito sprays are becoming more common, too. Be aware of what chemicals are used, and when they will be applied. You can protect your bees from these chemicals, but you need to know what and when. This information is usually readily available from pest control agencies charged with these actions, so find out. Local beekeepers, too, can help. Do not ignore these actions.

If the forager avoids these dangers, old age will finally claim this five- or six-week-old bee. Foraging is the most personally expensive (excluding stinging) behavior of honey bees. The muscles deteriorate, body hairs are pulled out, and wing edges become frayed. One day, too tired or slow to make the flight back to the hive or to escape a predator’s attack, her short, purposeful life ends.

DRONES

Drones are the males in a honey bee colony. As such, they are different from workers and the queen in their physical makeup, their activities, and their contributions to the colony.

A normal colony will produce and support a small number of drones during the growing season. In a full-sized colony at midseason, as many as 1,000 drones, in all the stages of development, may be present. Drones produce their own pheromones that are recognized as part of the general aroma of the colony.

Drones are vastly different in appearance and function from their worker half-sisters. Drones have no sting apparatus. (A sting is part of a worker’s underdeveloped reproductive system.) They are larger than workers, have comparatively huge eyes that reach to the tops of their heads, and have a stout, blunt abdomen. They have no food-collection body parts—a honey stomach or pollen basket—and are barely able to feed themselves.

LIFECYCLE OF A DRONE

Drone honey bees are produced from an unfertilized egg laid by the queen. The cells in which drones are raised are a bit larger than worker cells and, like worker cells, are part of the comb on a frame rather than hanging below it or butting between combs, where queen cells are constructed. Drone cells are almost always located along the edge of the broodnest area, often in the corners of a frame, and the cooler part of the broodnest.

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An adult drone can be identified by its large size and fuzzy, blunt-tipped, stocky abdomen. Note the large eyes extending all the way to the top of the head. The wings are about as long as the abdomen, unlike the queen’s wings, which are only half as long as the abdomen.

Drones spend six and a half days, plus or minus, as a larva, and are fed a diet that is a bit more nutritious than a worker’s diet but not nearly as rich as a queen’s. A drone larva sheds its skin as it grows (as do worker and queen larvae). When the process is complete, the workers cap the cell with a mix of old and new wax, propolis, and other material. Because of the drone’s large size, these cappings are not nearly flat, like a worker’s, but domed to provide additional room, and are often referred to as bullet-shaped caps.

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A cross-section cut in drone comb showing the dome-shaped cappings, as opposed to the flat cappings on worker comb. These will be found on the bottom and edges of frames near the outside of the broodnest, the coolest area of the broodnest.

After about twenty-four days (depending on the broodnest temperature), an adult drone emerges. For the first two days or so, they are fed by workers; then, while they learn to feed themselves, they beg enriched food from workers and may begin to eat stored honey. After a week or so, they start orientation flights near the colony, learning landmarks and developing flight muscles.

When weather permits, drones begin mating flights. They do not mate with queens from their own hive. They fly to drone congregation areas (DCAs) over open fields, open spots in woody areas, or at the edges of large woody areas. DCAs tend to have some particular geographic or landscape attribute that drones and queens readily find every year. Undisturbed areas serve as DCAs year after year for future generations. Drones tend to be indiscriminate when looking for queens in the DCA. They will chase nearly anything in the air above of the mating area, such as a stone thrown into the air. Generally, drones and queens flying in the DCA will meet and mate from 25 to 100 feet (7.6 to 30.5 m) in the air, flying at nearly full speed.

Because drones cannot produce wax, cannot forage, and cannot clean house or guard the hive entrance, they are expensive for a colony to support. There comes a time, however, when that price is too high for the hive to pay. If, during the season, a dearth occurs and food income is limited or nonexistent, the colony will, in a sense, downsize its population. They preserve worker larvae the longest and remove the oldest drone larvae from the nest first. They simply pull them out and literally eat them outright, conserving the protein, or carry them outside. If the shortage continues, they remove younger and younger drone larvae. At the same time, the queen stops producing drones to reduce the population even further, and eventually, if the shortage becomes desperate, they will eliminate any remaining adult drones, forcing them out of the nest and refusing them re-entry.

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