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Honey Bee Facts

Honey bees, although clearly one of the most popular bees, represent only a small percent of total bee species. Honey bees are the only surviving group of bees from the Apini tribe, which is under the Apis genus. They are well known for producing and storing honey as well as building complex large nests using wax secreted by worker bees.

Appearance / Identification

What Does a Honey Bee Look Like?

Honey bees measure about 15 mm long and are light brown in color. Honey bees are usually oval-shaped with golden-yellow colors and brown bands. Although the body color of honey bees varies between species and some honey bees have predominantly black bodies, almost all honey bees have varying dark-to-light striations. These alternating light and dark stripes serve a purpose for the survival of the honey bee: unlike other animals and insects that hide when they sense predators close by, the brightly colored bodies of the honey bee serve as a warning to predators or inadvertent visitors, of the honey bees’ ability to sting.

Anatomy

The head of the honey bee consists of the eyes, antennae and feeding structures. The eyes include the compound eye and the simple eye; the compound eye helps bees interpret color, light and directional information from the sun’s UV rays, while the function of the simple eye, also called ocelli, helps in determining the degree of light present. The antennas’ function is to smell and detect odors and to measure the bees flight speed. The mandible is the bee’s jaw, which is used in consuming pollen, cutting and shaping wax, feeding larvae and the queen, grooming, cleaning the hive, and fighting.

The body of the honey bee is segmented: stinger, legs, antenna, three segments of thorax and six visible segments of abdomen. The thorax of the honey bee consists of the wings, legs and the associated muscles that control their movement. The forewing, which is larger than the hind or rear wing, is used for flight and as a cooling mechanism, while the latter is used to fan away heat, disperse pheromones, and to cool the hive on hot days. Finally, the abdomen’s six segments include female reproductive organs in the queen, male reproductive organs in the drone and the stinger in both the queen and worker.

Behavior 

In the wild, honey bee hives are typically located in the holes of trees and inside rock crevices. The hive is produced from wax from the specialized abdominal glands of worker honey bees. Workers sweep up a few flakes of wax from their abdomens and chew these flakes until the wax becomes pliable and soft. Workers then mold the wax and use it in constructing cells to form the hive. Unlike other bee species, honey bees do not hibernate during cold weather. Instead, they remain inside the hive huddled closely together, sharing body heat and feeding on stored food supplies.

Honey bees are extremely social creatures and live in colonies. However, they do display some aggressive behavior within colonies; drones are ejected from their nests during cold weather, and a queen will sometimes sting other queens in a battle for hive supremacy and during mating fights for dominance. Although honey bees serve an important role in pollination and ecology, measures should be taken to ensure that hives do not exist in close proximity to a home or place of business, due to the possibility of getting stung. Always contact an experienced beekeeper before attempting to address a dangerously located hive.

Honey bee facts: The colony and responsibilities of each bee

In each colony, there is only one egg-laying queen, but there are thousands of worker bees. The queen honey bees mate with drones, establish colonies and lay eggs. Queen bees lay eggs in the cells of the hive, and when they hatch, they become larvae. Each colony contains only one queen, who is capable of producing up to 2,000 eggs a day. Like some other bee species, honey bees are social and live in colonies numbering in the thousands. Three types of adult honey bees reside in one colony: the queen, male drones and infertile female workers.

The first stage of development in the life cycle of a honey bee is the egg stage. Eggs are very small and have appearance of poppy seeds in shape. Every egg has an opening on the broader side that enables a sperm to penetrate in. Hatching of eggs typically occurs three days after egg laying. The next stage is called the larval stage.  Larvae are fed a substance known as royal jelly, which is secreted by the worker bees, for the initial 2-3 days. After that, larvae that will become workers are fed a mixture of nectar, honey and pollen, while a larvae destined to become a queen will continue to fed royal jelly exclusively.  On approximately the sixth day, the worker bee larvae begins to transform into the pupal stage, and on the 9th day, the cell is capped by the nurse bees.  A mature worker bee will emerge on the 21st day.  The timings of the various stages vary slightly for queens and drones.

Drones, or male bees, are the minority in a colony and serve only one purpose: to mate with virgin honey bee queens. Soon after mating, drones die.

Although infertile worker females usually do not produce their own eggs nor establish new colonies, they perform several important tasks. Young honey bee workers act as nurse bees and tend to larvae by secreting liquid from their abdominal glands. As workers mature, they become responsible for carrying and storing food gathered by foragers. As strong adults, they forage for food until they die.

Honey bee facts: Distribution

Honey bees species are found globally and can be found in many different locations, including Europe and the United States. They are most visible in summer and late spring, when new queens leave their old colonies along with thousands of workers to build new nests. At this time, large groups of bees can be seen swarming together to find a new nesting place. It takes a swarm approximately 24 hours to locate a new nesting site, but sometimes it takes longer than that. While most swarms are harmless, certain species of bees, in particular Africanized honey bees, are extremely aggressive and may attack unprovoked.

Because honey bees are found the world over, their nature and behavior can vary. For instance, while Italian honey bees are usually more docile, German and African honey bees can often display extremely defensive behavior. However, all types of honey bees can become defensive when provoked and have been known to chase humans or animals hundreds of feet.

Pollination
For millions of years honey bees have been major pollinators of flowers and, therefore, the plants producing those flowers have become reliant on the bees. The goal of the plant is to reproduce, and the honey bees help accomplish this by unwittingly transferring pollen, a plant’s male sperm cells, from one flower to another. Without pollination, many plants would not be able to procreate and eventually would die out.

Humans benefit from this relationship though crop and honey production. Many of the crops people consume are pollinated by honey bees. Likewise, many growers maintain honey bee colonies for this very reason. Without pollination, the plants would not produce fruits and vegetables. In addition to pollination, honey bees extract nectar along with the pollen from the flowers. The nectar is transported back to the hive where, through a process, it is converted into honey.


Honey Bee Dance

There are currently two major theories on how honey bee foragers communicate with other workers about a new food source: the honey bee dance and the odor plume. Although there is evidence to support each of the claims, the honey bee dance is generally more widely accepted. The dance language combines dancing and odor as a bee’s means of communication, while the odor plume theory claims that honey bee recruitment relies solely on floral odor. The honey bee dance is a mechanism for bees to communicate with one another. A honey bee that discovers a new food source will communicate to other honey bees about its location through the honey bee dance.

There are two main types of honey bee dances: the round dance and waggle dance. The round dance, as the name implies, is a movement in a circle. This is used to indicate the food source is less than 50 meters from the nest. The waggle dance is a figure eight pattern while the bee waggles its abdomen and is used for food located at a distance of more than 150 meters. Exact distance can be communicated by the duration of the dance, with a longer dance indicating a greater distance.

The dancing worker bee also can indicate direction with the waggle dance and will move in reference to the sun’s vertical position. The degrees to the right or left of the vertical indicate the direction of the food. For example, if the bee’s dance is rotated 30 degrees to the vertical then the food will be found at a 30 degree angle from the nest related to the sun’s vertical.

This language is also understandable by humans, and researchers can determine effectiveness by measuring the amount and quality of new pollen and nectar brought into the nest. However, certain features of this dance language, including the fact that honey bees understand dance patterns even in the dark, are still not completely understood.

More Information

Honey bees can produce substantial amounts of honey, as can several other bee species. As pollinators, honey bees are critical to the environment and the food supply. Unfortunately, they also can become a potential danger or nuisance if they nest near people who are allergic and if they nest inside buildings. Bees and other pollinators are protected in many states, so if bees build a hive in or near a dwelling, property owners should contact an experienced local beekeeper to relocate the hive. A beekeeper can assess the situation and determine if it is feasible to remove the colony. This can be an intensive process, especially if the nest is large. 

If you have a honey bee related situation in Northern New Jersey and would like a beekeeper to come out and potentially relocate them, please contact Eco Bee and we'll perform an assessment and give you some options.  Further information can be found on our Extractions page.