Hot biscuits wouldn’t be nearly as tasty without a liberal layer of honey, and this is the time of year when the local bees get back to work creating more of that magical syrup. After breakfast this morning we did a quick calculation. We just ate the equivalent of the lifetime production of several dozen worker bees.
Honey production is a very bee-intensive process. In order to produce the pound of honey eaten by the typical American each year, it takes bees about 55,000 miles of flight with visits to as many as 2 million flowers. Little by little, blossom by blossom, each worker bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoonful of honey.
Honey bees are ready for the early emergence of spring blossoms because, unlike bumble bees, they don’t hibernate through the winter. Instead they form a pulsating ball of constantly moving bodies, existing on the stores of honey and pollen they put away for cold weather. Their constant wing movement produces heat, with the interior of the bee ball remaining above ninety degrees even as the exterior of the mass may be forty degrees cooler.
The warm center contains the hive nursery and protects the queen bee from the cold. Over time the outer bees move toward the center, the center bees move toward the edges, and except in years of extreme cold everyone stays warm enough to survive the winter.
The honey bee colony is made up of a single queen bee, a small number of drones (males), and a much larger number of worker bees (females). A young queen mates with multiple drones during a mating flight and stores masses of sperm in her body to use for the rest of her three or more years of life. The queen is the only bee that lays eggs – as many as one per minute (almost 1,500 a day). If she doesn’t keep up a rapid pace of egg-laying, worker bees will start the process of making larger brood cells and use special food to create new queens, who will then fight to the death for the right to take over the hive.
If the queen lays an unfertilized egg it becomes a male drone, whose only purpose in life is to mate with future queen bees. Drones are given special care, and don’t work in the hive or take part in gathering nectar or pollen. This might sound like an ideal situation until you learn drones will be expelled from the hive to die if food resources become low. Evidently males are easily replaced.
Fertilized eggs become female workers, and make up about 85% of the colony. These workers, during their average lifespan of about a month, go through three life stages. Each stage is responsible for various basic functions of the hive.
The youngest workers (up to about 12 days old) keep the hive clean, act as nurses to the developing young, feed the drones, and care for the queen. Between the ages of 12 and 20 days they build additions to the beeswax comb and store the nectar and pollen brought into the hive by older bees. These middle-stage bees are also responsible for temperature control when it gets too warm, using their wings as fans and spreading water to cool the hive by evaporation.
The bees you see flying around are the ones over 20 days old. These are the foragers and scouts, constantly searching for and retrieving nectar, pollen, and water to help the colony survive. A working bee flaps its wings over 11,000 times a minute, can fly as fast as 15 miles per hour, and visits between 50 and 100 blossoms on each of its trips. By the time the bee returns to the hive it may be carrying up to half its body weight in nectar and pollen. At ten trips a day, you now know the origin of the saying “Busy as a bee.”
When a worker bee returns with news of a substantial new source of nectar, it performs an information-filled dance to describe the direction and distance to the food. The longer the dance, the further away the nectar is from the hive. The more vigorous the dance, the more nectar there is available. The direction the bee faces during portions of the dance gives the other foragers the angle they must travel from the sun’s present location to reach the new flower field.
A typical beehive contains between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals. Some of the nectar and pollen brought in by the foragers is used immediately for food, but the excess pollen is stored for later use while the extra nectar is converted into honey. A productive hive can create as much as two pounds of honey a day during the spring and summer, in preparation for the cold days of winter. Or for use by humans.
Most honey bees live in artificial hives provided by human bee-keepers. Honey bees are not even native to the Americas – they arrived with the first colonists, and Native Americans called them “white-man’s fly.” The few “wild” honey bees that you find in hollow trees or stumps are actually escapees.
When a bee hive becomes overcrowded, worker bees will prepare the special cells and foods that are designed for new queens. Only one queen will survive the competition for supremacy, but the old queen will leave the hive accompanied by about half of the colony.
Bee scouts will search for an enclosure that is large enough to support a new colony, high enough to keep out predators, has a very small entrance, and faces south for warmth in the winter. If they can find an appropriate location before dying of exposure, this bee “swarm” will establish a new home. Perhaps they will be re-captured by a bee-keeper, but sometimes they become “wild” bees.
Bees are, of course, also pollinators, and perhaps as much as one-third of our commercial crops owe their existence to honey bees. But that’s just a by-product of their search for pollen and nectar. The bees know which is more important. And at breakfast time, so do we.