The honey bee is the only insect that humans have been able to domesticate. Bees live in colonies, in which there can be up to more than 60 000 bees in the summer. These colonies consist of one reproducing queen, the non-reproducing females, i.e. the workers, and the male bees, i.e. the drones.
The bees live in beehives that are built by the beekeeper during both the summers as well as the winters. During the summer, the size of the colony is considerably bigger than during the winter season when the queen and approximately 20 000 workers hibernate in the hive. Towards springtime, the bees that have been hibernating reach the end of their life cycle, and new bees are born from the larvae that the queen has laid and, consequently, the size of the colony increases again. In the summer, the beekeeper provides the colony and the honey that it has gathered with more space in the beehive.
The queen bee’s only duty is to lay eggs and, in doing so, to keep the colony alive and strong. The queen is distinguished from the other bees by its considerably larger abdomen. The queen spends her entire life in the beehive. After it is born, however, it goes on its so-called mating flight once and is fertilised when mating with the drones. After mating, the drones’ reason for existence has been fulfilled and they die. The fertilised queen returns to her beehive and does not leave it, unless to swarm in the event that the hive gets divided. When mating, the queen stores the sperm that she has received and can use this to lay eggs for quite many years to come. The queen lays the fertilized eggs into worker-bee cells or into queen cells, whereas the unfertilized eggs are laid into the drone cells, which are larger in size.
There are approximately 200 to 500 drones in the bee colony, and only during the summer. The drone is easily distinguished from the other bees by its different body shape. Its abdomen is blunt and it does not have a sting. It enjoys full board in the colony. In other words, it is served by the workers, until it goes on its fateful mating flight. The drone’s only purpose, as such, is to fertilize a young queen bee and, consequently, to provide the workers with half of their genes. Towards late summer, the workers drive them out to stop them from consuming the winter-food supplies.
The female workers form the majority of the bees in the colony. They do all of the work in the colony, and the distribution of work is based on their age. The younger workers stay inside the beehive working as storage and hive bees. Furthermore, they ensure that the cells are cleaned out and that the incubation temperature is correct. Next, the workers feed the older larvae for a few days, and then the young larvae for a week. After this, they produce wax by secreting it from their wax glands and they also build the wax caps to go on top of the combs. Additionally, they carry nourishment to the queen and to the drones inside the hive. For another four days, they guard the opening of the hive, i.e. the flight opening, and then they move on to become foraging bees, i.e. field bees.
DID YOU KNOW: A bee can sense the humidity of the air, based on which it knows, for example, that it should stay in the hive when it is raining. It can also “measure” the moisture level of the honey so that it knows when to cover the cells at the right time.
The duty of the foraging bees is to visit flowers and, consequently, to perform the pollination that is important to plants, as well as to gather nectar, pollen, propolis and water. This foraging stage lasts for 1-2 weeks, during which the bee flies approximately 800 kilometres. Each foraging trip reaches no further than three kilometres from the hive at most, and the bee makes these trips until its wings become worn out and it dies. In the beehive, the bees make honey from the nectar that they have gathered.
DID YOU KNOW: Bees communicate with each other by dancing. So-called scout bees return to the beehive once they have found a nectar-rich location and then they communicate this location with accuracy by dancing. This dance also communicates the time when the nourishment is available, and the bees know how to visit the plant only when it is secreting nectar.
The production of honey begins as soon as the foraging bee has collected the nectar from the plant into its honey stomach. Already on its way to the beehive, the bee mixes enzymes into the nectar that is in its honey stomach. The hive bees continue this mixing process and then store the honey in cells. At the same time, they evaporate excess humidity from the nectar. Once the moisture content is at the correct level and the honey is ready, the bees cover the cells with a thin layer of wax. In other words, the enzymes that the bees add and the evaporation of humidity make nectar into honey! This produced honey now contains less than 20% of water, more than 70% of sugar and approximately 6% of various compounds, acids and minerals.