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Everything You Need To Know About Our Friend The Honey Bee

20 June 2020

The honey bee is responsible for huge swathes of our food production so it's about time we learnt a little bit about our furry black and yellow friends. I'll be adding to this post over time so if there's anything you think I've missed let me know in a comment below.

A Brief History Of The Honey Bee

The honey bee is without a doubt the most important player in the insect world. Responsible for pollination globally there are currently 20,000 species of bee. The honey bee makes up one of these 20,000 species of bee. The bee has been credited for encouraging diversity in flower populations that we now see in our gardens and meadows today. With pollination normally relying on wind and very unreliable flowers took their opportunity and evolved to display brilliant colours and produce sweet nectar. This encouraged a form of a symbiotic relationship between flower and bee which carries on to this day.

The next relationship to slowly form was that of man and be. Slowly but surely early man began to understand the benefit bestowed by the bees sweet and sticky produce. Both delicious and rich in calories, honey would be a gold mine for our early ancestors. The Egyptians are the first recorded civilisation to farm bees, they used primitive baskets to trap swarms and harvest their honey. The problem was they could not develop a method to extract the honey without destroying the honey bee's hive.

The Revolution Of Beekeeping 

Now fast forward to American Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth a clergyman and teacher. He had found a secret that would change beekeeping forever. While observing honey bees and their behaviour in and out of the hive something became apparent. The honey bees still needed to move around the hive. With this in mind, he set about investigating the method by which they do so. Following this train of thought, he eventually discovered the 'spazio di ape' or the bee space in English. This was a small production highway created by the honey bees no bigger than 8mm wide. This initial discovery led to the introduction of movable frames of comb to allow harvesting without hive destruction and gave beekeepers a first look inside hives. This led to methods to ensure the hive grew and developed as required and changed the face of beekeeping moving forward.

The Honey Bee's Habitat

While the honey bee's habitat ranges widely across the world there are some factors that must be present for bees to thrive. The most important of these factors is a food source. All honey bees will need a source of flowering plants nearby. This leaves orchards, meadows and gardens as common locations for hives due to their abundant food source. However, our little friends are versatile. Honey bees can often be found in urban areas such as parks and grassland areas within busy cities. The same can be said of agricultural settings with many a hive being found in livestock barns all across the world.

Honey bees also have the ability to produce hives in areas with very low yearly temperatures. They even enact a hive wide shiver to raise temperatures of all the other bees inside and keep temperatures between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius.

The Hive

The hive performs the critical task of storing and producing honey during the winter months when the honey bees can't collect food. Hives are constructed by bees chewing wax to create a soft workable substance. This is then formed into the honeycomb structures we are familiar with. This wax substance is actually created by the bees themselves. At around 10 days old worker bees will grow a gland inside their abdomen capable of producing the wax required for the hive. This process is a conversion of the sugar in honey and overtime forms small flakes of wax on the bee's abdomen.

The hexagonal structure of the honeycomb is used to house and raise larvae into bees. This packed structure is also the food processing plant for the bees inside. Returning bees will deposit pollen on to the waiting tongues of other bees at the hive. Over time as this pollen evaporates it start to form honey on the inside of the hive.

Honey Bee Characteristics 

In terms of popularity honey bees probably top the list. They are however the last surviving species in their tribe Apini categorised under the Apis genus and only one species is located in the UK.

Appearance

Generally found to be between 12mm and 16mm in length with an oval-shaped body the honey bee is very recognisable. Most honey bees are characterised with alternating yellow and brown bands stretching their abdomen. These colours can vary in severity across different bees but generally, the contrast in colour will always be apparent. This is an interesting feature of evolution by the bee opting to display clear warnings to potential predators rather than hide.

Behaviour

The main differential between honey bees and their other yellow and black relatives is their lack of hibernation. Honey bees will opt to stay together in their nests, taking advantage of shared body warmth and the supplies contained within the hive.

Honey bees are social creatures. Working together for the greater good of the hive and its occupants. In some cases, the humble honey bee can turn to violence if required. Queen honey bees will fight to the death to establish dominance and during the colder months drone bees can be ejected from the hive for the greater good.

The Queen

The matriarch of the hive and the epicentre of life in the nest. The queen bee is tasked with laying eggs to replenish the population of the hive. She also has a form of control over the whole colony. By releasing chemicals she can regulate the behaviour of the bees while in the hive.

When a queen bee dies, workers will set about selecting and nurturing a new queen. This is completed by feeding female larvae a substance called 'Royal Jelly'. This nutrient-rich substance will provide all that is needed to create a new queen bee from female larvae.

Sacrificial Tendencies

The honey bee is the only bee species to die after stinging most mammals. However, this isn't always the case and I strongly recommend having a look at 'Why Do Bees Die If They Sting You?'.

Honey Bee Populations

Currently, there are is only one species of honeybee located in the UK. It has seen a general decline in population numbers for the last 50 years. On a lighter note managed bees have seen an increase in population. In 2008 approximately 15,000 beekeepers registered 80,000 colonies. This number had risen considerably by 2013 to 29,000 and 126,000 respectively. 

There doesn't seem to be a clear single cause for the decline in bee numbers. More a number of factors that are all contributing to the greater problem. These include:

  • Mechanised Farming
  • Pesticides
  • Habitat Loss
  • Disease
  • Climate Change
  • Parasites

Thankfully awareness surrounding the plight of the bees is rising. Alongside EU legislation to limit the use of certain neonicotinoids in pesticides, The National Pollinator Strategy advises the steps the UK government are taking to protect all pollinating species. Click here if you want to find out how you can Save A Bee today.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of a honey bee is split into four distinct stages:

  1. The Egg
  2. The Larva
  3. The Pupa
  4. The Adult

The Egg

A bee is initially created when the Queen lays an egg. These eggs are minuscule at only around 1.7mm long. When the queen chooses to lay an egg she can either fertilise it or not. A fertilised egg will produce a female worker bee whereas an unfertilised egg will produce a male drone bee. Interestingly the queen will make this decision based on the size of the cell in the honeycomb. This will be constructed by the worker bees who moderate male and female population numbers by constructing different size cells.

The Larva

Once the queen has laid the egg it normally takes three days for it to develop into a larva. At this stage, they clearly resemble small grubs contained in their individual cells. Their main goal at this stage is to gain the energy required to grow. This is achieved by nurse bees tending to the larva, starting with a diet of 'Royal Jelly'. Slowly the larva is eased on to a diet of pollen and honey and after 5 days have reached 1570 times their size. At the end of the five day period, the nurse bees will seal the larva in their cells. They will create this with the same wax they use to create the honeycomb cell structure. At this stage, the larva will create a cocoon around themselves to continue their journey to the pupa stage.

The Pupa

The pupa stage is without a doubt where the most visible changes occur. The grub-like lava begins to form the characteristics you associate with our furry friends. Legs and wings begin to grow from the larva and the distinctive black eyes begin to form. As the features develop and finally the bees are ready to leave it will eat its way through the wax capping. It is now ready to join the hive and start its adult life.

The Adult

All this magic happens so quickly but unfortunately, that means our little friends aren't gifted with overly long lifespans. On average the drone bee survives the longest at 24 days followed by the worker bee at 21 days and finally the queen at 16 days.

So what are your thoughts on honey bees in the UK? Write a comment below so we can add to this page with more great knowledge about the honey bee....

 

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