The Ecology of Honeybees

The complex ecology of the honeybee colony is both beautiful and fascinating. I had the rare pleasure of having apiaries while I was growing up. Honeybees are amazing!

Begin with the honeycomb. Bees build a hive that is made of the wax the workers secrete. It is formed into perfectly hexagonal cells. The cells are used for storing honey and the raising larval bees and drones. They build a royal chamber for their queen and her drones, with antechambers called nurseries. In the nurseries are where the drones and young queens are raised.

The math of the matter is: one queen, up to 20 drones at a time and thousands of workers, up to 80,000. Queens are fertile females that lay eggs. Drones, larvae from unfertilized eggs, are male. Workers are unfertile females and include the nurse bees.

Everyone has a job. The queen does only one job: lay eggs. She gathers sperm from the drones. She then fertilizes the eggs which will become either new queens or workers. She lays eggs in certain cells of the honeycomb just outside the royal chamber to become drones.

Drones have only one job: fertilize the virgin queen. Once their job is done, they die. They have no defense, no stinger. In winter, when honey production slows or stops, drones are driven from the hive to starve, in favor of the workers, larvae and the queen. The queen will lay eggs for more drones in the spring for mating.

Workers do everything else. Honeybees fly from the hive and land on flowers. The hair on their hind legs collect pollen as they repeatedly land on the flower and sip the nectar. They return to the hive and scrape the pollen from their legs into the cells. After regurgitating the nectar into the cell atop the pollen, they seal the cell with wax. The combination of the nectar, the acids of the stomach and the pollen create honey.

Nurse bees are a slightly different worker bee. These bees tend to the young larvae. They distribute the bee’s milk or royal jelly (secretions of the pharyngeal gland) to the fertilized eggs. Based on the amount of milk given to each larvae, nurse bees decide which eggs will become young queens (who get more) and which workers (who get less). The amount of royal jelly a honeybee receives determines the state to which the reproductive organs form before birth.

Young queens are only raised when the queen stops producing a pheromone, called queen substance. This pheromone is licked from the queen and is passed among the workers during sharing of food. It prohibits the maturation of worker ovaries. With the pheromone no longer present, nurse bees begin raising new queens.

A new queen will take over the existing hive only after she has stung and killed the remaining young queens. The old queen, her drones and some workers will swarm and find a new place to begin a hive.

As the most socially advanced insects, honeybees communicate through both sound of wing vibration and dance to indicate to one another the specific distance and direction to food. Different breeds of bees have different dialects, but the meaning of the tail wagging (distance) and the circling (direction) is universal.

Honeybees use the sun as a compass when they fly. Bees who do not make it back to the hive before nightfall, will roost and wait for dawn. They have the ability to detect the sun’s position even through cloud cover and the ability to recognize the ultraviolet markings on the petals of flowers. These markings denote when the flower is ready to be pollinated and harvested.

Defense is not a problem for the honeybee. Alarm pheromones can be produced by workers and the queen alike. When bees are in distress, they will defend their home by stinging the intruder. Although the sting brings death to the honeybee, it will sacrifice itself for the good of the colony.

The ecology of the bee is beneficial to many species: insect, plant and animal. They fertilize flowers to make fruit, cross-pollinate to create more hearty hybrids that will produce more flowers and make honey for themselves and others.