Thursday, June 10, 2010

Honey Bees: Life of a worker bee

For the next article in this series on honey bees I'll be describing their life cycles.
First, each bee in a hive is not considered an individual in the way we think of, say, a human in their community. We think of each hive as the individual, or superorganism. Queens and the males- drones, have specific jobs that do not change as they age, their roles being the female and male sex organs of the hive. The rest of the bees, the female worker bees, are responsible for a step in the series of roles as they develop through the stages of their lives.
All worker bees hatch from a fertilized egg that has been laid in an empty cell of the honey comb. These cells are usually grouped in clusters located in the center of a frame of comb, with cells full of pollen and then honey surrounding them on the outside edges of the frame.
The baby bee hatches first as a grub-like larvae. She will stay in her individual cell as she grows. These babies are fed by their sisters until they are ready to pupate, at which point their older sisters cover up the end of their cell and they metamorphose into the adult while
closed away.

When the new baby bee emerges from her cell, she has her adult body like her older sisters, but is covered in a fuzzy fur that makes her easy to spot in the hive. Her first role in life is to tend to various tasks in the hive, from feeding her younger sister larvae to tending the queen or cleaning the hive. These bees do not leave the hive yet and haven't yet learned to fly, and so they tuck their new wings close to their bodies.

As the bees age they change roles again and become field bees. In the hive the bees are easy to spot, since they look like your quintessential bee- less hair and wings held out ready to fly.   You'll see these bees as they leave the hive their first time, where they fly up circles in a flight to orient themselves to the hive and their surroundings. As they become accustomed to the outside world, these bees venture further and further in search of nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive, traveling up to three miles. When they find it, they return to the hive laden with their treasures.

When a field bee has found a particularly tasty spot, she reports it to her hive mates with what we call a 'waggle dance'. This communication is not completely understood by humans, but we do know that is a representational language they use to tell other bees where the sweet spots are. I think it looks like the happy dance I do when I get a new contract for work.
When these field bees return with pollen they are met by hive bees who take the pollen and store it in comb. When they return with nectar they exchange it with the hive bees who deposit it in a different section in the comb.
As a bee ages and gets closer to the end of her life, her role changes again. She uses her flight experience to protect the hive, acting as a guard bee. When we go through the hives it is the guard bees who fly against the hoods of our bee suits. Funny thing though- the guard bees are programmed to fight off attackers such as bears, and so they don't go for our hands but our eyes. With a hood and a docile hive, I usually go gloveless so I can add touch to the experience- this way I crush fewer bees and I can feel the temperature of the hive. The hive bees will simply move out of the way of my fingers, while the guard bees buzz around in the air. A bee who stings ends her life for the sake of her hive, so it is rare that honey bees, who are accustomed to people tending their hives, will be aggressive towards humans.
 This is my hand, and I'm holding a cage with one of my queens in it, covered by her worker bees.  (No humans were harmed in the making of this photo)

Next article: the queen bee

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