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The Hardworking Honeybee
HONEYBEES AND THEIR WORK
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are incredibly industrious creatures. Although also going under the name European honey bee, these highly distinctive striped insects have over millennia swarmed (if not quite literally) every continent with the exception of Antarctica. While their spread is in part due to natural factors – carried across water bodies by wind and water currents – humans played a large part, both unintentionally through exploration, or deliberately, through species introduction for industrial hives.
Yet that honey bee populations not only survived but thrived across such diverse world regions is remarkable in itself. What makes them so adaptable, and with such success? The reasons vary, but a lot of it comes down to how the honey bee goes about finding sources of food. In other words, how the species sources, collects, and stores nectar (the sucrose-rich fluid secreted by flowers) and pollen (the fine powdery substance from the anthers of male flowers) – both of which the honey bee transforms into honey.
The location is important to the honey bee, and a colony will tend to establish its hive near where there is a wide variety of flowering plants. Though typically preferring flowers that are brightly-colored, the species that honey bees are capable of harvesting is tremendously diverse, and can be either native or introduced varieties. For instance, in North America honey bees are happy to zoom about milkweeds, sunflowers, and sedge, whereas in Australia, they can be found busy with their labors around spearmint, eucalypt, and lavender. For the honey bee, variety is the stuff of life.
Of the three classes of bee which comprise the rigid hierarchy of the hive – the queen, drones, and worker bees – it is the worker bee whose mission it is to forage for food. These bees are females that have yet to reach sexual maturity, and alongside gathering food, they perform a variety of other societal functions for the colony. Being the most widely-traveled, it is this class of honey bee that humans tend to see and recognize the most.
A worker bee will not always multitask by collecting nectar and pollen simultaneously. This is because a bee’s preferred pollen will not come from the same flower as their preferred nectar. Either way, it is a full day’s work – with the workers traveling anywhere between hundreds of flowers within upwards of a 2-mile range. And that’s just on one trip!
A honey bee worker will collect nectar through the use of a long straw-like appendage which extends out from the honey bee’s head. This is called a proboscis. Angling into a healthy-looking plant, the bee will settle down on the ‘landing site’ of the flower’s petals, dip her drinking straw deep into the flower and suck up the sweet, energy-rich nectar inside. This nectar is stored in a special “honey stomach”, separated from the digestive tract, and used only for storage purposes. This sac is capable of holding approximately 70 milligrams of nectar – close to the weight of the bee itself! It is the mission of each worker bee to collect enough nectar to fill her sac before returning to the hive. If she gets a little peckish in the meantime, however, she is able to help herself to a snack by releasing a special valve in the false stomach, where a portion of nectar enters her actual digestive stomach.
Once a honey bee returns to the hive with her full load, the nectar is delivered to other younger worker bees – the “house bees” – who suck it directly from the nectar sac. For about half an hour, the house bees will chew on their portion, reducing its water content and adding to it enzymes that will break down complex sugars into simple sugars. Not only will this make it easier for the bees to later digest, but it also acts as a defense against bacteria during storage in the honeycomb chambers. If there aren’t enough worker bees to help with the transferal process, they will stage a special dance known as a “tremble dance”, which will signal others within the hive that more help is needed.
The macerated nectar is finally spread throughout the honeycomb lattice. High temperatures within the hive (up to 90.5 degrees Fahrenheit) will thicken the nectar into an even more viscous, gooey substance. With the help of worker bees “fanning” the honey with fast-beating wings to remove the excess moisture, the nectar eventually transforms into what we humans know as honey. When the transformation is complete, the honeycomb cell will be sealed off with a waxy cap and stored until needed.
Harvesting pollen is another matter altogether. During this kind of foraging, pollen tends to collect all over the bee’s body in a fine dust. The bee will comb herself down with her front legs moistened by nectar, gathering the pollen into a “pollen basket” or corbicula that is situated on her hind legs in a polished cavity, and held in place by a fringe of hairs known as setae. The color of this pollen basket depends upon the pollen source and can be anything from dark blue to white to yellow. As with the nectar, this pollen is transferred to the honeycomb cells with the aid of other workers.
To us human observers, the bee’s path often seems random, as it drowsily loops and buzzes about in forests and fields. Yet here, we’d be wrong. Honey bees run an incredibly tight operation when it comes to gathering food sources, with communication critical. All worker bees returning to the hive will let their sister honey bees know through performing a “dance” where they found their source of nectar or pollen, in what direction, and approximately how plentiful is the supply. After all, a colony of bees can produce up to 60 pounds of honey per year (at a 25-pound average), yet the average worker bee only makes 1/12 teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. To keep the hive well-stocked – particularly during the non-flowering season – efficiency is everything.
By Kate Prendergast