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Honeybees And Their Habitat

4 June 2021

Honeybee History

Honeybee species first appeared during the Cretaceous period, which began approximately 450 million years ago and ended 60 million years ago. At that time, the layout of the world was vastly different, as were honeybees and their habitat.

Australia, India, Antarctica, Africa and South America were one large supercontinent called Gondwana. The climate here was tropical and honeybees included both open-nesting and cavity-nesting species.

Eventually, Gondwana began to break apart, forming separate smaller continents. Honeybees did not start to move north or east until around 6 million years ago and their arrival across Europe and Africa was as late as 2 million years ago.

Honeybee Lifestyle

Today, most honeybee species live in similar climates and share a highly social lifestyle. In the UK, the climate is temperate. The weather is generally cool and cloudy, but summers can see extremes of warm temperatures.

The ideal temperature range for a honeybee nest is 32-35°C to support optimal brood development. Honeybees and their habitat are not always stable, so bees need a way to maintain a suitable temperature.

Bees have evolved a natural climate control for their nest using water and wing fanning. During the cold winter months, honeybee colonies will hibernate, forming clusters inside the nest to maintain the temperature.

Honeybees are social creatures, with a highly structured hierarchy. Each bee caste has their own role within the colony, which maintains the health of the individuals bees and ensure food is always available.

The queen is the only bee to lay eggs. She takes a mating flight when she first emerges, storing all the sperm she will ever need in her spermatheca. Eggs she fertilising will be female workers or future queens and unfertilised eggs will be male drones.

The males have one role: to mate with new queens. The average lifespan of drones is around 6 weeks.

Female workers have several jobs depending on their age. Newly hatched workers clean the nest and carry food to the growing larvae. Other essential jobs include:

  • food storage
  • food production
  • nest maintenance
  • nest protection
  • removal of the dead
  • climate control

The nature of honeybees to nest in cavities is what led them to being domesticated around 5000 years ago. Humans discovered that honeybees were perfectly suited to being kept in wooden boxes as they replicated their natural nesting behaviours.

Honeybees have such an efficient reproductive system, that nests can occasionally become overcrowded. When this happens, the queen and a small number of workers will leave the nest to find a new location.

Several female larvae will be nurtured by the remaining workers so they may develop into a mature queen. Once they hatch, the new queens will fight amongst themselves until their is a victor and this bee becomes the new queen.

She will begin releasing pheromones which keep the colony in order and performing all their usual jobs. The queen's pheromones also prevent workers from laying eggs. Since these eggs would be unfertilised, they would produce male drones which would leech precious resources.

Location, Location, Location

When it comes to choosing the right place for a new nest, location is everything. Bees will not just nest in any available space. There are several factors to consider, such as:

  • food sources
  • other bee colonies (competition)
  • predators

The decision making process for a new nest site not made by a single bee. Hundreds of worker bees will scout an area to determine if there are any good locations. They will return to their colony and perform an intricate dance to show the other bees what they have found.

If other bees like a chosen spot, they will also begin dancing. Where two similar sites are chosen, bees will stop their own dance to disrupt another scout from their chosen nest site.

The location that the most bees indicate to is the one that is chosen as the new nest site.

Honeybees prefer confined quarters with a small entrance, such as a tree hollow or rock crevice.

The chosen site should not be close to another colony as this means they would be competing for resources. These could be favourable areas with lots of flowering plants, a nearby water source or access to propolis, which is used for food production and nest construction.

Bees also need to be wary of potential predators. While no area is ever free of predators, certain nest locations are easier to protect.

Common predators of the honeybee include:

  • wasps
  • hornets
  • skunks
  • birds
  • spiders

The location of a nest site must be one that the bees can protect from any potential predator. There is often a sizeable swarm of worker bees around the entrance to a nest, keeping an eye out for danger.

Building A Nest

Honeybees are an above-ground species, meaning they build their nests in places such as tree hollows, fallen logs or even on residential properties. It is quite common to find a bee nest in your garden shed or a gap in the wall of your home.

Honeybees and their habitat are a mutual construct. Their habitat provides everything they need to survive, but in the same way, a honeybee habitat would not survive without honeybees.

They choose a location with a small opening and begin producing wax, which is used to construct honeycomb cells. This is what gives a honeybee nest that classic hexagonal pattern. Bees have 8 pairs of wax producing glands, located under their abdomen.

They will chew on the wax to make it soft and pliable. To increase the temperature of the wax, more bees will cluster together.

Bees produce propolis from saliva, wax and tree sap. This sticky substance is used like glue to strengthen the structure around each hexagonal cell. Workers regularly inspect the nest and perform maintenance on any loose cells or the structure of the outer walls.

The cells within a nest are used for a variety of things such as storing food, developing larvae and as sleeping quarters.

It can take a new colony as little as one month to have a complete nest, with a solid outer structure and all the required internal cells for food storage and egg laying. They will continue to add to the cells as needed and a nest will be complete by the end of one season.

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