Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Bee Workforce

In last week's bee post I started with the basics of bees and now we start to get into the nitty gritty stuff. Today we'll look at the bee workforce and the beautiful and sometimes annoying Queen Bee (I say that with recent annoyance).

The precious Queen Bee

There is only one Queen bee in your hive and her mood reflects on all the other bees. If you have a grumpy queen then the others will become aggressive so a nice happy Queen bee is what you need. She is larger than the other bees with a distinctively longer abdomen than a worker or drone bee. 

She will hardly ever leave the hive, only a brief mating flight will see her leave and of course if she chooses to find a new nest. On the mating flight she will mate with several drone bees which provide her with enough sperm for 3-5 years!!!! The Queen bee is responsible for laying hundreds of eggs every day to ensure the hive survives. Once she is back in the hive she is closely guarded by the other bees and fed on demand.

Once the Queen's egg laying slows down when she is no longer in her prime, the hive will notice this. One or two Queen cells will appear and the nurse bees will start to feed the larvae with creamy royal jelly (this decides that the bees will become a Queen rather than a worker or a drone) and once the new Queen is ready, it takes about two weeks, she will chew her way through. The now old Queen bee will sense the arrival of a new Queen and will leave the hive taking hundreds of bees with her. 

The Queen bee in my community hive swarmed out we think sometime late last week, we had noticed she seemed somewhat aggressive and grumpy. She took lots of bees with her and the hive looked pretty empty over the weekend. But we have seen a new Queen emerging through which is exciting and means that our hive should stay constant for at least three years now. Yay!

The worker bee

A worker bee is an unfertilized female and she is the smallest bee in the colony. Although the smallest bee they carry out an enormous amount of duties to maintain the hive. Jobs allocated depend on the age of the worker bee.

During it's first two or three weeks after emerging their first duties will be to clean the brood cells and keep the hive clean. Other duties include;

Tending and feeding the larvae and any developing Queens
Attend to the Queen and feed her and the drone bees
Produce wax so that they can draw new combs into the hive ready to store the nectar
Once combs are full the worker bees will work to seal the stores
They will fan at the doorway to ventilate the hive and regulate the temperature
Guard the entrance to the hive

Once a worker bee is about 18 days old it's duties will change and they will be required to scout for nectar, pollen and propolis, bringing back water too. If the hive is planning to swarm the worker bees will have already found a suitable site to swarm.

Some worker bees only last 5 weeks during honey flow due to the tireless work that they do. They might survive longer should they make it through the winter months. Weather is a factor as are the state of it's wings. Some fly out foraging and are simply unable to fly back due to exhaustion. 

If a worker bee finds a good supply of nectar it will fly back to the hive and perform a "waggle dance" to communicate to the other bees. The bee will waggle its abdomen and run in circles. Before the other bees go out to forage they will feed on honey to make sure they can last the journey.

If a flower has a good supply of nectar the worker bee will extract the watery solution by inserting it's tongue into the flower and store it into its honey stomach. Once back at the hive the bee will regurgitate the thickening nectar and the other workers will manipulate it by adding an enzyme (fruit sugar). The honey becomes thicker and all excess water is evaporated. The bees will help this process by fanning air around the hive which makes a hum noise. Once it's reached fermentation the workers bees will seal it off.

Bees do not really hibernate during the winter, they remain in the hive close together and barely moving preserving their energy. During the winter the Queen bee and the workers live off the honey and pollen collected during the Summer. Which is why you must remember to replace any honey stores with syrup, candy or baker's fondant to keep your hive happy.

The drone bee

The drone or male bee, is bigger than a worker bee but not as big as a Queen bee. The drone bee has no sting and their own task in the hive is to mate with the Queen. They will be fed by the workers and will never have to forage out of the hive. During the summer periods a hive will have several hundred drones but this number will sharply decrease when it gets into winter as the worker bees will drive out the drones so that they can preserve the honey supplies.

Next week I'll carry on this bee series with a look into the beehive itself.


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