Busy, busy, busy bees. We see them in our yards and in our gardens.. quietly and efficiently pollinating the beautiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables that we enjoy during these long summer days. Just as importantly, honey bees are also working to make wild plants more productive and more nutritious; many birds, insects, and rodents enjoy the benefits of a hard-working honey bee colony near by. These bee colonies and their working ladies have been quietly doing their part to help feed the world since the beginning of time, so what is that makes them so interesting all of a sudden?
Humans, and many animals alike, have always had a sweet love of honey. Initially, the only way to get this sweet bounty was to rob it from the bees that had nested in caves or trees. Robbing honey in this environment was hard on the bees and the people, as you can imagine being chased out of a dark cave by a few serious ladies tasked with protecting their bounty for the next generation. Eventually, this evolved into people keeping bees in baskets. But again, harvesting the honey was hard on the bee colonies as many off the bees were killed in the process. Then came the gums, large sections of trees that the bees would live in. The honey could be harvested without killing bees with this method, but it was still destructive and the bees would need to rebuild much of their nest every year. Finally boxes were introduced to keep the bees in, and though they were easier to move and more functional, they were still just as destructive to the nest.
It is said that the modern way we keep bees can be traced back to a minister, L.L. Langstroth, who kept bees to ease the discomfort of a nervous condition. He studied bees and how they were kept in other parts of the world. His studies led to experimenting with his own bees, looking for ways to keep them from gluing all sides of their box together with propolis.. a resinous material collected from plants, then mixed with enzymes and used to strengthen comb, seal cracks, and smooth rough spots in the hive (a bee’s version of the ever useful caulk). The story goes that Langstroth had a vision of a modern frame -a square that could contain the beeswax by it’s four sides- and this frame would “hang” in the box that the bees lived in. This kept the comb separate from the box, with just enough space for the bee to move and work in, therefore the bees would have no need to close off space by gluing the box with their propolis. This space became known as the bee space and the design has remained unchanged since Langstroth’s discovery. This space is not random; it is not less than 1/4 of an inch, nor is it more than 3/8 of an inch. If the space becomes bigger than 3/8 the bees will fill it in with beeswax. If the space is smaller than ¼ of an inch, it is filled with propolis. Langstroth’s idea revolutionized beekeeping by being an example of how to work with bees and their natural instincts, instead of working against them.
While it took us thousands of years to arrive at the understanding of bee space and it’s working function, it didn’t take long to figure out that someone with a large, burning torch would have an easier time taking on the colony for their bounty. What we learned in the process was that the smoke from a large, burning torch actually quieted and calmed the bees. The thick smoke would take out their main source or communication, odor, and that would break the chain of command. This organizational breakdown would allow the beekeeper the opportunity to examine and evaluate the hive.
For a beekeeper to know what to look for in a hive examination, they must first know what should be in there. The presence of healthy brood ensures the hive’s survival, so we should begin there. All bees begin as eggs laid by the queen of the colony. The colony’s queen will fertilize these eggs with sperm stored in her spermatheca. The eggs destined to become queens or workers are identical at this stage. The eggs will develop for 3 days. On the 3rd day, the egg releases a tiny larva. Worker bees (or the ladies as I like to refer to them) immediately begin providing food for the larvae. This nanny service entails visiting them a thousand or more times a day for feedings. The food is a mix of protein-rich pollen, honey, and enzymes the worker bee produces from special glands. Larvae destined to become royalty are allowed to continue this nutritious diet of royal jelly after the 3 days while the larvae of worker bees see a reduction in their rations, downgraded in quantity and protein, which will keep them from developing into queens. This is called Progressive Provisioning and allows the “royal” larvae to develop reproductive organs, hormones, and pheromone-producing glands necessary to be queen. You will be able to discern a queen cell by the larger size and peanut shell shape.
In an active season, a honey bee colony will house thousands of female workers. They will build their house, clean their house, raise their young, care for the queen, guard other bees, ventilate the hive, remove their dead, and gather food for the colony. What makes these ladies so interesting is that their tasks change with age, as opposed to the specific role of the queen or her drones. She will spend 3 days as an egg, six days as larvae, 12 days pupating, and then emerge as an adult female workhorse. She spends the first few days seeking food and building strength. She will stay close to the center of her brood nest, where it is warm and safe. She will then join the labor force by working to remove debri from the nursery. Within a few days her glands are mature enough to feed the older larvae and to produce the royal jelly that will feed the hatchlings. She is now mature enough to feed the queen, while also helping to groom her.
After spending several days eating, feeding, and cleaning, the worker bee will begin to explore the rest of the nest and the other possibilities it has to offer. She will venture to the hive’s entrance where she will be tasked with taking the nectar loads from the returning forager bees. After 2-3 weeks of this work, the worker bee’s muscles are developed enough to fly. She has now been promoted to a guard. She will station herself at the colony entrance and inspect any incoming bee, challenge any unwelcome insects, and protect her colony from any robbers such as skunk, bear, raccoon, and mice. This guard will do this work as she continues to mature and until she ventures even further outside her colony. Around her fourth week of life, she becomes the forager. She may be a scout bee, seeking new sources of pollen, or she could be recruited to a team of foragers who have just found a large patch of flowers to work. Though the forager will enjoy the freedom to leave the hive to work, it is also the most dangerous assignment. She can fall prey to many things. She must face birds, spiders, or even a sudden change in weather. Upon the forager’s return, she is followed around the hive as she is smelled by the other workers. To alert them of her findings, she begins the waggle dance. The value of her findings is communicated by the intensity and duration of her dance. While many “dancers” may be on the floor communicating their find at the same time, the unemployed worker bees will pick one bee and follow her. They do not take the time to evaluate or compare the other dancing; they choose their girl and follow her lead.
The queen bee will also lay unfertilized eggs in the cells. These are the males of the colony and are called Drones. They spend about 6.5 days as larva and are fed a diet a bit more nutritious than the workers, but not as nutritious as the royal larvae. You can distinguish a drone from a worker by their blunt bodies, larger eyes, and lack of a stinger (the stinger is actually a part of the worker bee’s underdeveloped reproductive system). They are fed by the ladies for a week or so and then they begin flights to learn landmarks and to gain muscle. They begin their mating flights as soon as the weather permits. They do not mate with the queen from their own hives, therefore they must fly to a drone congregation area (DCA’s), located in open fields or near the edge of woody areas, in search of mates. Their main purpose is to ensure their queen’s genes are passed on.
All of this must be in working order for a hive to flourish and for it to produce the surplus of honey that you and I love in our yogurt and on our toast. Hive health has faced many challenges over the years and we will next look at why these extraordinary ladies have recently become the talk of the town.
Guest author Laura Hatton lives in Indiana where she and her family keep many traditional homesteading practices alive. Her article on maple sugaring can be found HERE.
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