All About Bees

Honey bees are social insects noted for providing their nests with large amounts of honey. A colony of honey bees is a highly complex cluster of individuals that function virtually as a single organism. A colony usually consists of a queen bee (a fertilised female capable of laying a thousand or more eggs per day); the worker bees (30,000 to 40,000 sexually undeveloped females); and drones (up to 1,000 male bees).

About Australian honey bees

The first honey bees arrived from England in 1822, aboard a ship called the “Isabella” and adapted to Australian conditions. Early settlers used these bees for producing honey and pollinating their crops. Later honey bees arrived from Italy, Southeast & Central Europe as well as North America.

There are three sub-species of the European honey bee in Australia and most Australian beehives have a hybridisation of these:

  • Italian bees (Apis mellifera, ligustica) are thought to originate from the continental part of Italy, south of the Alps, and north of Sicily. It said they may have survived the last Ice Age in Italy! These bees have uniform colouring and are yellow to brown in appearance. They are favoured for their large colonies and brood nest size. 
  • Caucasian bees (Apis mellifera, caucasia) originate from the high valleys of the Central Caucasus. Native to Georgia, they were common in Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan too. These bees are grey to black in colour and thrive in cool conditions.
  • Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera, carnica) are native mainly to Slovenia and southern Austria, as well as parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. They are regarded for displaying good defense against pests. 

How do honey bees develop?

Honey bees belong to the scientific order Hymenoptera, which includes other bees, wasps and ants. Most Hymenoptera have two pairs of clear wings and all have chewing mouthparts. Some, including the honey bee, can suck up liquids. These insects undergo complete metamorphosis, or change in form, during their development. There are four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

The honey bee begins life as an egg. The queen lays eggs, she is the only bee in the colony that can lay eggs to produce both female and male bees. Queen bees are not hatched as queens; they become so when consistently fed royal jelly as a larva, a substance produced by the hypopharyngeal glands of the workers.

Eggs hatch in 72 hours into larvae that are known as grubs. All the grubs are fed royal jelly at first, but only the future queens are continued on the diet. When fully grown, the grubs transform into pupae. These pupae develop through a process called metamorphosis into fully grown workers (emerge in 21 days), drones (emerge 3 days after the worker bees) and queens (emerge within 16 days). As there is only one queen for each hive, about a week before the new queen is hatched, the old queen is prepared for leaving the hive (she reduces egg laying to reduce abdomen size, making flight easier). Just before the new queen emerges, the old queen leaves, taking with her at least half the workers and drones.

A worker bee’s anatomy

The bodies of bees are divided into head, thorax and abdomen, with three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings on the thorax. The fore and hind wings on each side are linked by hooks and grooves so that they move together in flight and fold away neatly when inside the hive.

The mouth parts consist of a “tongue” or labium, which can be enclosed near the head by the labial palps, and maxillae. Nectar can be drawn up the grooved surface of the labium, partly by capillary attraction and partly by the pumping action of muscles in the head. When not in use, these elongated mouth parts are folded back under the head, leaving the shorter, stouter mandibles free in front to chew pollen, manipulate wax or attack intruders etc.

On the hind legs there are slight concavities, just like spoons, surrounded by a fringe of hairs. This area is known as the “pollen basket” and serves to carry the pollen. The underside of the bee’s abdomen is completely covered in soft hairs. The pollen sticks to these when the worker bee encounters a flower and the hairs on it’s fore and middle legs act rather like a comb, sweeping up the pollen and helping accumulate it in the pollen basket.

The ovipositor organ through which the queen lays her eggs in the wax cell is modified in the workers to form a sting.

Honey bees social structure

Honey bees enlist a caste (social class) system to accomplish the tasks that ensure survival of the colony. Each member of the community fulfils a need that serves the group.

The Worker Bee

Worker bees are female bees who do not normally lay eggs. They are 13-17mm long and they live for about six weeks (during the peak of the season) and perform many tasks throughout their lives. Their first task is that of a hive nurse who cleans and caps cells, feed the drones, queen and brood. Later they store and receive nectar from other workers, pack pollen, build honeycomb and clean the hive. Later in life they become honey ripeners and hive guards, preventing foreign insects from entering the hive.

Finally, they become foragers. Foragers search for and collect nectar, pollen and water for the colony. They have a long mouthpiece, called a proboscis, for sipping the nectar and water that nourish the bees in the hive and provide us with honey.

The Queen Bee

The queen is the largest bee and each colony has just one, whose sole purpose is to lay eggs – hence her large abdomen. The queen bee has one mating period in her life. During this time she leaves the hive and matches with seven to ten drones, usually from other colonies. Over a period of three days the queen will make approximately seven mating flights. Within a short period of time she will begin to lay her eggs. During this time, she is cleaned and fed by the worker bees so she can spend all her time laying eggs.

The Drone Bee

Drones are stingless male bees that are shorter than the queen and twice as heavy as the worker. They also have larger eyes and antennae than the females. These help it succeed in its only task – locating and mating with the queen during flight.

Drones die instantly after they have mated with a queen. Usually there are only a few hundred drones in a hive and they may be evicted at the beginning of winter when breeding ceases.

How do honey bees communicate?

Bees cannot talk to each other so they communicate through dances, vibrations and body chemical signals. The scout bees have the task of finding new pollen, nectar and water sources. Once they have sourced these they return to the hive and perform either a round or waggle dance across the honeycomb. To indicate distance exactly, the scout bee uses an audible code of buzzes on a 200 cycle per second note with a pulse rate of 35 to a second.

The round dance is performed when the food source is within a hundred meters of the hive. Wings vibrate swiftly as the bee runs in a circle and then turns and runs the other way. The waggle dance is performed if the source is further away.

The waggle looks roughly like the figure 8 with a straight centre section. When the food is in the direction of the sun the scout performs the wagtail portions of the dance while moving straight up on the comb. When the food is directly away from the sun the waggle portion is performed as she dances straight down. If the sun is due north of the hive, east and west are indicated by the scout’s dancing to the right or left respectively. The direction danced during the day changes as the sun moves across the sky but performing the waggle portion of the dance straight up always means fly in the current direction of the sun, wherever it may be.

Why are honey bees important?

The value of the honey bee to man does not end with the making of honey. Honey bees mean an abundance of fruit in orchards and vegetables in market gardens. When the forager bee gathers nectar her body becomes dusted with pollen and as she moves from flower to flower, the pollen passes from male flowers to female flowers and cross-pollination takes place.

Without the bee, the blossoms may not bear fruit and without the floral sources there could be no honey – it is a perfect partnership. Fruit growers and market gardeners are delighted when beekeepers set colonies on their properties – many invite them to do so. This pollination process is worth up to $6 billion per annum to the Australian agricultural industry.

Australia is blessed with an abundance of fine honeys, most of them found nowhere else in the world. Our long hours of sunshine and a great selection of native trees with their nectar laden blooms combine to produce honeys that are highly regarded for their unique flavours. No other honeys in the world have quite the same character and taste.

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