Monday, February 7, 2011

We Three Bees

Honey bees are social insects, which means that instead of living alone, large numbers of them live together in a big group called a colony or hive. In fact, there can be between 40,000 to 80,000 of them in one hive! Believe it or not, nearly all the bees in the hive are siblings - can you imagine having 40,000 to 80,000 brothers and sisters? Even though all the bees in the hive are honey bees, they're not all the same. There are three different kinds (or "castes") of honey bees, each with a different but equally important job to do. Let's begin with...

The Queen

The queen bee is known as the "mother of the hive" because her one and only job in life is laying eggs. She's very good at performing this duty and can lay up to 3,000 eggs in one day! Here is what she looks like:

Here she is, surrounded by her "court", 
the group of worker bees that tend to her.
Photo courtesy
As you can imagine, it can be 
quite a challenge to find her among the many thousands of other bees (all her children) in the hive! However, beekeepers have a few tricks they use to find her. 1) They look for a bee with a long, slender body (she has to be long to hold all those eggs inside her!). 2) The queen's thorax (the second body segment right behind her eyes) looks shiny and black; not fuzzy like the other bees'. 3) She is usually found in the brood chamber (the area where the baby bees are raised), as that's where she does her work. The queen can live for 2-5 years.

Let's look at another kind of honey bee:                                                                                The Drones 

There he is on the left, with two worker bees on the right
Photo: Flickr/Max xx
The drones are the male bees in the hive, and make up about 2% of the colony. They can be distinguished from the other bees by their large, stocky body, big eyes, and loud buzz. They use their large eyes to perform their single job: mating with the queen. They don't do any work inside the hive. Because of this, when the supply of honey and pollen in the hive begins to run low in the fall and winter, the worker bees (see below) shove the drones out into the cold and don't let them come back in. So, the drones may have an easy life at first, but it's kind of rough at the end! Their average lifespan is 90 days. And guess what - drones have no stingers!

And now for the last of the honey bee castes:

Worker bees on the beeswax comb
they built themselves
Photo by Stephen Buchman
The Workers

The workers make up the rest of the honey bee colony (about 98%), and are the ones we see outside among the flowers. They are females whose job is to,! They perform a number of duties to support the hive, including tending the queen, caring for the baby bees (called "brood"), building beeswax comb, cleaning the hive, regulating the hive temperature (yes, that's right - honey bees have heating and air-conditioning, too!), guarding the hive, gathering pollen, and making honey. It's no wonder they're called "worker bees"! Worker bees live for about 30 days in the summertime, but can live for several months in the winter because they're not expending so much energy flying around outside.These three honey bees - queen, drones, and workers - couldn't survive without each other. They all work together using their unique talents and abilities to help each other to accomplish some amazing things for themselves and for us - what a sweet cooperation! That's a great lesson for us all, isn't it?

 "Bee in the Know" : You can see the three different kinds of bees up close in an observation hive. This is a special type of beehive with clear glass sides that allows you to see inside - try to find one at your local zoo or nature museum! 

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