Honeybees
Queen bear center lower right. The larger solid color bee.

The Honey Bee

Honey Bee, the common name for any of several species of highly social bees known for their honey-hoarding behavior and their use as a domesticated species. The European honey bee is important in modern agriculture and in nature, providing pollination for many valuable crops and wild plants. It is native to Asia and the Middle East and was introduced to North America by early European colonists. By the mid-1800s honey bees had become widespread. Today, they are naturalized on every continent except Antarctica. Honey bees can be easily reared, are adaptable to many climates and to laboratory conditions, and have a complex social life. They are among the most studied and best known insects.

Diversity

In addition to the familiar European honey bee, there are six other recognized species of honey bees, including the Indian honey bee, Koschevnikov’s honey bee, the dwarf honey bee, the andreniform dwarf honey bee, the giant honey bee, and the mountain giant honey bee. The European, the Indian, and to some extent the dwarf honey bees are the species that have been domesticated, although the European honey bee is by far the most widespread domesticated bee and the only species kept in North America. There are many races of the European honey bee. The ones most popular in modern beekeeping are the Italian, Carniolan, and Caucasian. Most honey bees used in hives today are mixtures of these and sometimes other races. Africanized honey bees, also known as killer bees, are a hybrid of African and European races naturalized in the western hemisphere.

Social Organization

The honey bee is a social insect that can survive only as a member of a community, or colony. The colony inhabits an enclosed cavity, its nest. Domesticated colonies are kept in artificial containers, usually wooden boxes, known as hives.

Castes

The honey bee community consists of three structurally different forms-the queen (reproductive female), the drone (male), and the worker (nonreproductive female). These castes are associated with different functions in the colony; each caste possesses its own special instincts geared to the needs of the colony.

The Queen

The queen is the only sexually productive female in the colony and thus is the mother of all drones, workers, and future queens. Her capacity for laying eggs is outstanding; her daily output often exceeds 1500 eggs, the weight of which is equivalent to that of her own body. Anatomically, the queen is strikingly different from the drones and workers. Her body is long, with a much larger abdomen than a worker bee. Her mandibles, or jaws, contain sharp cutting teeth, whereas her offspring have toothless jaws. The queen has a curved, smooth stinger that she can use repeatedly without endangering her own life. In contrast, the worker honey bees are armed with straight, barbed stingers, so that when a worker stings, the barbed, needlesharp organ remains firmly anchored in the flesh of its victim. In trying to withdraw the stinger, the bee tears its internal organs and dies shortly thereafter. The queen bee lacks the working tools possessed by worker bees, such as pollen baskets, beeswax-secreting glands, and a well-developed honey sac. Her larval food consists almost entirely of a secretion called royal jelly that is produced by worker bees. The average lifespan of the queen is one to three years.

The Worker Bee

Worker bees are the most numerous members of the colony. A healthy colony may contain 80,000 worker bees or more at its peak growth in early summer. Workers build and maintain the nest and care for the brood. They build the nest from wax secreted from glands in their abdomen. The hexagonal cells, or compartments, constructed by the workers are arranged in a latticework known as the comb. The cells of the comb provide the internal structure of the nest and are used for storage of the developing young bees and all the provisions used by the colony. Comb used for storage of honey is called honeycomb. Workers leave the hive to gather nectar, pollen, water, and propolis, a gummy substance used to seal and caulk the exterior of the nest. They convert the nectar to honey, clean the comb, and feed the larvae, drones, and the queen. They also ventilate the nest and when necessary, defend the colony with their stings. Workers do not mate and therefore can not produce fertile eggs. They occasionally lay infertile eggs, which give rise to drones. As with all bees, pollen is the principal source of protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins, the food elements essential for the growth and development of larvae of all three castes. Adult bees can subsist on honey or sugar, a pure carbohydrate diet. Besides gathering and storing food for all the members of the colony, the workers are responsible for maintaining the brood at 33.9? C (93? F), the optimum temperature required for hatching the eggs and rearing the young. When the nest or hive becomes too hot the workers collectively ventilate it by fanning their wings. During cool weather, they cluster tightly about the nursery and generate heat. The eggs, which are laid one per cell, hatch in three days. The larvae are fed royal jelly for at least two days and then pollen and nectar or honey. Each of the hundreds of larvae in a nest or hive must be fed many times a day. For the first three weeks of their adult lives, the workers confine their labors to building the honeycomb, cleaning and polishing the cells, feeding the young and the queen, controlling the temperature, evaporating the water from the nectar until it thickens as honey, and many other miscellaneous tasks. At the end of this period, they function as field bees and defenders of the colony. The workers that develop early in the season live extremely busy lives, which, from egg to death, last about six weeks. Worker bees reared late in the fall usually live until spring, since they have little to do in the winter except eat and keep warm. Unlike other species of bees, honey bees do not hibernate; the colony survives the winter as a group of active adult bees.

The Drone Bee

Drones are male honey bees. They are stingless, defenseless, and unable to feed themselves-they are fed by worker bees. Drones have no pollen baskets or wax glands and cannot secrete royal jelly. Their one function is to mate with new queens. After mating, which always takes place on the wing in the open air, a drone dies immediately. Early investigators of the mating habits of the honey bee concluded that a queen mates only once in her life. Recent scientific studies, however, have established that she usually mates with six or more drones in the course of a few days. The motile sperm of the drones find their way into a small, saclike organ, called the spermatheca, in the queen’s abdomen. The sperm remain viable in this sac throughout the life of the queen. Drones are prevalent in colonies of bees in the spring and summer months. As fall approaches, they are driven out of the nests or hives by the workers and left to perish.

The Importance of Honey Bees

Honey bees have become the primary source of pollination for approximately one-fourth of all crops produced in the United States and some other countries. The value of the crops that rely on such pollination has been estimated as high as $10 billion annually in the United States. Examples of fruit crops that rely on honey bees are almonds, apples, apricots, avocados, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, pears, raspberries, strawberries and watermelons. The seeds of many vegetables are also produced with honey bee pollination; examples include alfalfa, asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, clover, cotton, cucumbers, onions, radishes, squash, sweet clover, and turnips. Many species of wild pollinators have disappeared from the land as their habitats have been destroyed or altered by humans. The honey bee has taken over as pollinator of many of the wild plants that remain; its ecological value in this regard is tremendous. Honey bees are the sole source of honey and beeswax, a fine wax with unusual qualities. Honey bees also produce propolis, a gummy substance made from tree sap that has antibacterial properties, and royal jelly and pollen for human consumption. Honey bee venom is extracted for the production of antivenom therapy and is being investigated as a treatment for several serious diseases of the muscles, connective tissue, and immune system, including multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

Scientific classification

Honey bees comprise the genus Apis in the family Apidae, order Hymenoptera. The European honey bee is classified as Apis mellifera, the Indian honey bee is A. cerana, Koschevnikov’s honey bee is A. koschevnikovi, the dwarf honey bee is A. florea, the andreniform dwarf honey bee is A. andreniformis, the giant honey bee is A. dorsata, and the mountain giant honey bee is A. laboriosa. The Italian race of the European honey bee is A. m. ligustica, the Carniolan race is A. m. carnica, and the Caucasian race is A. m. causcasia.