How do bees make honey?
First, they land on a flower, suck the nectar up and store it in their stomachs. Back at the hive, they convert this nectar into honey, once the worker bees have ripened it. They do this by taking a drop into their stomachs where enzymes turn the nectar into watery honey. Then the bees fan the watery honey with their wings until it becomes thick and golden and ready to eat. The bees store the honey in a honeycomb cell and seal the top with wax. The wax comes from the bees too, from four pairs of wax glands on the underside of their abdomens.
In every hive there are thousands of worker bees and drone bees. But there is only one bee – who isn’t a worker or a drone – who is very very special… the Queen bee. The queen’s only task is to lay eggs, which will grow to become worker bees, drones and more queens. The worker bees feed and clean the Queen, so she can spend as much of her time as possible laying the eggs. She lays up to 2,000 eggs per day! She looks different to the workers and drones; her abdomen is bigger, her tail and wings are longer, her legs are brighter and she usually looks smoother and shiner than the other bees. The beekeeper often puts a little dab of paint on her back, to spot her easily amongst the thousands of other bees in the hive.
There are two other types of bees aside from the Queen: workers and drones.
Worker bees are very busy indeed. They’re always female, and have a lot to do in the different stages of their life. When a young worker bee comes out of her cell, she spends the first three days cleaning the honeycomb cells in which the queen will lay her eggs. From the fourth to the ninth day, the worker is a nurse bee, producing food from glands in her head to feed the younger larvae. She also makes a mixture of honey and pollen, called ‘bee bread’, to feed the older larvae. Then she has a variety of tasks to do, like: building the honeycomb, storing the pollen and nectar collected by the field bees and helping to ripen the nectar. After the twentieth day some worker bees act as guards, standing at the door to keep out stranger bees from other colonies. And after that, the worker flies around the fields looking for and bringing home pollen and nectar until she dies.
Drones, on the other hand, are male, and their main job is to be ready to fertilise the queen. Drone bees are all male and get their name from the low noise they make when they’re flying, which makes them sound sleepy. Drones don’t do much around the hive and get all their food from the worker bees. A lucky few will get the chance to mate with the queen, but for most drones, you could say life is a bit dull!
One of the most interesting and wonderful things about honeybees is just how sociable they are. Bee colonies (at their largest) can grow to 40,000 members in the busy season. Just imagine living with 40,000 other people in a small living space. You’d quickly have to learn how to get along!
Honeybees have a variety of ways in which they make friends with each other. For example, they split up the work they do to keep their nest running smoothly. Some look for nectar, some take care of the hive and others make sure the brood (the honey bee eggs) are safe. Everyone has a clear job, which is what makes the hive so very efficient.
The ‘waggle dance’ might not sound like the most scientific name in the world. But it’s the primary way bees talk to one another. The dance that a bee performs can lets other bees know where the best flowers are, new water sources to drink from or even a new home.
Karl Von Frisch, the pioneering scientist who first discovered the waggle dance, was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work and research. The waggle dance is made up of a circuit, comprising of a figure of eight and a straight line. Bees can repeat this circuit once, twice – or even one hundred times!
Different movements in the dance mean different things. The longer the waggle, the further away the item of interest (such as nectar) is. Different angles mean different things and even the speed of the waggle can change the meaning.
Bees also release pheromones – special hormones with a distinct smell – to help pass on the information to their friends.
Another type of dance is the ‘tremble dance’. If you think of the waggle dance as a way to tell other bees where things are, the tremble dance is a form of bee recruitment. Forager bees will perform the tremble dance to their friends to get them involved with collecting nectar for the colony. Karl Von Frisch observed that when a bee did a tremble dance for his friends, they all stopped what they were doing and went to help!
Honey bees, like humans, need carbohydrates and protein to survive, and they get both of these from flowers. The carbohydrates come from flowers’ nectar and the protein comes from pollen. Nectar is the base of all honey – it contains about 80% water, along with complex sugars. If left in its natural state, nectar would ferment, so in order to store the sugars to use during the winter, bees convert the nectar into honey. The hive bee takes the converted honey and caps it off in a beeswax cell, sealing the honey into the honeycomb so they can eat it later.
Bees stay in their hive in winter and form a cluster around the queen. A cluster is basically a ball of bees that means the bees on the inside of the cluster always stay warm. The bees on the outside will switch places with bees on the inside, so they take turns at being warm. In this way, the bees can survive the cold. There are no flowers around in the winter months and therefore no nectar for the bees to eat in the winter. This is why they make honey, so they have something to keep them going through the colder months.
Many people are afraid of bees but there is no need to fear these friendly, flying creatures. Bees are more interested in your flowers than in ruining your good time. It’s wasps you have to be wary of. So here are some hints to help you tell them apart…
Bees have robust, hairy bodies with flat rear legs, while wasps’ bodies are slender with a narrow waist. Wasps also appear smooth and shiny and have slender legs.
Wild honey bee nests are very rare, but you’ll know it’s a bee hive if you can see the wax cells the bees stack on top of one another.
A wasp’s nest looks like a large rounded comb made of a grey, papery pulp, and they’re usually found in out of the way places, like under roof overhangs, or in dark crevices. If you spy one of these nests it’s probably best to get a professional in!