HONEYBEES
Michael Ellis

While riding my bike the other day I drove through the middle of a swirling tornado of honeybees. Ever alert I quickly shut my mouth, squinted my eyes, hunched over and plunged on through. I emerged safe and unstung.

Honeybees periodically swarm. This enables the colony to divide and increase. Swarming is often associated with overcrowding coupled with warm weather. In Sonoma there are many untended wild colonies. These colonies are located in attics, in walls of abandoned buildings and in tree cavities. I have noticed several hives in the base of old bay laurel trees. These trees often have rotten centers that provide a perfect home for the bees.

A honeybee colony consists of one queen, a few drones, and thousands of workers. The queen is basically an egg-laying machine. All day long as she is fed and attended by nurse bees, she continually pumps little oval eggs into special brood cells. In her prime she may lay 2000 per day!

The queen lays two types of eggs- fertilized and unfertilized. The fertile ones develop into the worker bees. These females are the bedrock of the hive. They do all of the work—gathering pollen and nectar, raising the young, guarding the hive, scouting and tending the queen.

The infertile eggs develop into the drones. These stinger less males are useful only for mating; they lack the ability to gather pollen and nectar and don’t participate in nest maintenance. They are larger than the workers and tend to eat a lot of honey. No doubt you have had a roommate or husband like that.

As the colony grows, it becomes crowded and the workers cannot maintain the optimal hive temperature. The queen may falter in her egg-laying ability. To insure the survival of the hive, workers secrete chemicals called pheromones that transmit a colony-wide message—RAISE A NEW QUEEN NOW.

The workers construct several extra-large brood cells and the queen deposits a fertilized egg in each one. After four days the eggs hatch into white worm-like larvae. These larvae are given preferential treatment. A distinctive food called royal jelly, secreted by special glands in the workers, is fed to the developing young. This entree contains high levels of hormones that cause the larvae to evolve into sexually mature queens rather than infertile workers. The larvae then spin a cocoon and enter the pupa stage. The first queen to emerge is the winner. With her unbarbed stinger she kills all the other queens by repeatedly stinging them in their cells. If two or more queens emerge concurrently a battle will ensue.

Now there are two queens in the hive–the new one and the old one. Two females sharing a kitchen is an untenable situation. The old queen flies out of the hive with thousands of workers leaving the virgin queen with the house, the yard and half the staff.

Prior to leaving with the old queen the workers fuel up on honey. By eating honey, bees become mellow. Smoke also stimulates bees to ingest honey and become congenial. Beekeepers have exploited this trait by blowing smoke on bees, making them easier to rob. So when I rode through the swarm of honey-satiated bees I was actually in little danger of being stung. Small consolation.

The swarm will temporarily settle on a tree or branch. Special bees (girl scouts) look for the best nesting location. When the scouts return they advertise sites by means of an elaborate “dance.” This “dance” is also used to communicate sources of nectar and pollen. Discovered in the 1930’s by Karl von Frisch, it demonstrated that honeybees use a symbolic language that is second only to humans in complexity. When the majority of scouts are reporting the identical location, the entire colony led by the queen move into it.

Back at the original hive the young queen soon takes a nuptial flight. She flies out and mates with one lucky drone. From this coupling she will store enough sperm for several years of egg laying. Ob-la-dee ob-la-da hive goes on.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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November 5, 2010