Leader Resource 1: Background on Bees and Beehives
Bees start off life as eggs. The queen is the only female bee that will reproduce and she will lay all the eggs for a colony. Eggs are deposited in cells of the honeycomb. Soon they develop into larvae, which are cared for by the female worker bees. Worker bees feed the larvae a special substance called royal jelly, which they produce with their own bodies. Most larvae are fed royal jelly for only the first couple of days and then are fed pollen, nectar, and honey until they become pupae. During this stage, the worker bees close the cells with wax. Shortly, they emerge as full grown bees.
Most of the larvae will grow into female worker bees, which do all the work of the hive. The youngest worker bees clean the hive. Then they work the nursery, tending the eggs and larvae or the queen. Other bees work in other parts of the hive, producing wax to add on to the honeycomb and increase the size of the hive. Some worker bees receive the nectar brought to them by foraging bees. They mix the nectar with chemicals in their mouths until it starts to thicken into honey. The honey is stored in cells of the honeycomb and sealed with caps until it is needed. Honeybees produce much more honey than the colony could ever consume.
Older worker bees work outside the hive. The bees you frequently see buzzing in mid-air just outside the hive are flapping their wings to cool the hive or standing guard to protect the hive. Some bees forage for pollen and nectar. In this way, bees are very important to humans because they pollinate about one third of the crops we grow. They also pollinate many wildflowers and plants and are key players in local ecosystems.
Foraging bees, upon finding a good source of nectar and pollen, will report back to the hive where the will “dance” to let other worker bees know the location of the good plants. Most bee-pollinated plants reward the bees for visiting them by providing nectar. The bees store the nectar in special honey stomachs. Frequently, the source of the nectar is located deep within a flower and the bee, in reaching for the nectar, will brush pollen from previously visited flowers upon the pistil of the current flower. During the same visit, the bee will collect pollen from the current flower and put it in sacks located on its back legs.
Each hive has only one queen. They queen bee is taken care of by worker bees, which constantly touch and groom her. As they touch the queen, worker bees pick up a pheromone. This substance is passed from worker bee to worker bee. It keeps the bees loyal to the queen and the hive. Healthy queens produce this pheromone in strong amounts. As the queen ages or experiences poor health, she will produce less and less pheromone. Also, if the hive gets too large, each worker bee will receive less pheromone. As they receive less of it, the worker bees in the nursery will construct larger cells to hold queen larvae. Eggs will be deposited in these cells and fed royal jelly as they become pupae and for the rest of their lives – this is what enables them to become fertile queen bees. Upon developing into grown bees, these larger queens emerge from their cells. The first queen bee to emerge kills the other queen larvae. If the older queen has not yet died, she will also usually be killed by the new queen. However, if the new queen was produced because the hive has become too large and the old queen is still healthy, the old queen will fly off with thousands of worker bees and several drones to form a new hive.
The male bees, drones, are the product of unfertilized eggs and are only produced when needed for reproduction. If the hive has a new queen, drones will be produced to mate with her. Shortly after emerging, she will mate with several drones. After mating, the drones will die. The queen is able to keep the sperm of the drones in her body for the rest of her life. She will never need to mate again to produce the hundreds of thousands of eggs she will lay over the next several years. After mating is finished, the remaining drones will be pushed out of the hive, where they will die, or be killed by the worker bees.
New hives are formed when a queen, worker bees, and drones swarm out of their old hive and go in search of new living quarters. You might see a swarm of bees gathered on a tree limb while a new site is located. Once a site is located, worker bees busily build a new hive, while the queen mates with the drones.