The ABCs of bees
(Page 2 of 2)
A developing bee passes through three stages: egg, larva, and pupa. MacKimmie points out bee larvae: They look like tiny white slugs, each curled up in its own honeycomb cell. The cluster of brood cells is ringed by other cells filled with pollen and honey. "It takes one cell of honey and one cell of pollen to raise a bee," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Worker bees feed the larvae pollen and honey. Each larva gets larger and larger until it almost fills up its cell. Worker bees cap the cell when the baby bee reaches the final pupa (cocoon) stage. From egg to bee takes about 21 days.
MacKimmie spots a baby bee just coming out of its cell. The baby bee pushes off the wax cap. Two little antennae pop out and wave around. A tiny round head emerges. Two worker bees march over the struggling newborn. Finally, she slides out. Her wings are still wet. "It's easier to be born if someone isn't walking on your head," says MacKimmie, laughing. "In a beehive, it's every woman for herself."
If you see a honeybee, it is probably a "she." The thousands of worker bees in a hive are all female. They spend their first three weeks in the hive, storing honey and pollen, building cells, feeding larvae, and cleaning the hive. They also tend the drones (male bees) and the queen. Workers spend another three weeks collecting nectar and pollen. To make one pound of honey, bees fly about 24,000 miles and visit 3 million to 9 million flowers!
When a bee finds a good food source, she returns to the hive and gives other bees directions using a special "dance language." She runs in a circle on a vertical honeycomb. The top of her circle represents where the sun is. The bee cuts across her circle at the same angle each time she goes around. That angle represents where the food is in relation to the sun. A bee leaving the hive looks for the sun, then flies off at that same angle.
MacKimmie pulls out another frame. This one is covered by larger, darker bees - the male drones. A hive may have as many as 800 drones during the summer, but the worker bees kick them out of the hive in the fall, when the queen isn't laying many eggs. The drones' only job is to mate with the queen. They don't even feed themselves - that's the duty of worker bees. "The drones usually gather around the pollen cells," says MacKimmie. "Like a bunch of guys hanging out at the gym."
MacKimmie pulls out another frame. There she is - her majesty! The queen bee is larger than worker bees or drones. She has a speck of yellow painted on her back. We watch the queen race from cell to cell, sticking her head in, and pulling it out again. "She uses her head to measure the cell. That tells her what kind of egg should be laid in it," MacKimmie says. "Worker bee cells are smaller than drone cells. She lays exactly the right egg for each cell."
Worker bees live 40 or 50 days, and drones not much longer, but a queen bee can live up to five years. She doesn't lounge around, though. She spends her entire life laying eggs - up to 2,000 a day!
MacKimmie finishes his beekeeping duties and restacks his bee boxes. "Look at all the worker bees," he says. Bees are sitting on the hive with their hind ends in the air, vigorously flapping their wings.
"They have scent glands on their rear ends," explains MacKimmie. "Every queen has a unique smell, and all her worker bees have that scent. They are fanning and blowing the smell, telling everyone that this is their hive."
Even if you don't understand bee-dance language, and even if you can't smell bee messages, it's easy to imagine they are saying: "Home sweet home!"
Honeybees are gentle. They're interested only in flowers, so they rarely sting. They are not native to North America - settlers brought them in the 1600s. (Native bees do not make honey.) Honeybees have a fuzzy body and orange-and-black stripes.
Yellow jackets are responsible for most "bee" stings. They are meat-eating wasps and are often uninvited guests at picnics. They are slimmer and longer than worker bees, not fuzzy, and have brighter coloring.
Bumblebees collect nectar from flowers. They make nests and live in small groups. They are large, round, and furry. Like honeybees, they are usually gentle. They are slow and rather clumsy.
If a honeybee, yellow jacket, or bumblebee lands on you, stay calm and quiet. It will probably fly off in a moment. Swatting and jumping around may scare it into stinging. Some people have success gently blowing on the insect to shoo it away. You might try brushing it away (slowly and gently). But it's usually best just to wait. If you are stung, scientists say it's a good idea to pull out the stinger quickly.