A Bit About Honey Bees

Two honey bee workers (female) are shown conversing and exchanging food (trophallaxis). The honey bee on the right is carrying a load of pollen. Maple, to be precise. Picture taken on February 20th, 2014 in Pittsboro by Monica Warner.

A Bit about Honey Bees
(and beekeeping)

We have bees!

The Carolina Bee Company can supply your small-scale queen and nucleus colony replacement needs.

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Honey bees1 are amazing animals who's history, though far longer than mankind's, has been intricately woven into our own history for millenia

Firstly, we have to clarify that "honey bee" is written most correctly as two words, not one.2,3,4 You will often see it written as one word. By convention is it written both ways, but for absolute correctness honey bee, two words, is correct. This rule also applies to bumble bee, carpenter bee, and other true bees, regardless of what some of our dictionaries and 'pedias say.

Honey Bee Queen and her retinue of caretakers.

Honey Bee Queen and her retinue of caretakers.

The Queen Bee

In overly simplistic terms, a queen's purpose is to lay eggs and to unify the colony by permeating the hive with her pheromone. Her particular scent essentially becomes the hive's identifying scent and informs all bees that all is well in the hive. She never leaves the hive other than to mate shortly after she is born, or if the hive decides to split and/or find a new home. The queen only mates once in her lifetime. When she runs out of sperm from that mating, the workers will raise a new queen and dispatch the old. Ah... the circle of life.

 

Worker Bee!

The Worker Bee

A worker bee's purpose is to do all jobs within and without the hive. Workers do most of the vital work in the hive at progressively different times in their lives. Shortly after birth they become maids for a time and clean the hive, then they nurse the young for a certain period of time. Later they finally join the bulk of their sisters and collect pollen and nectar (pollen to feed the babies and nectar to make honey to feed the adults). Some become guard bees; others become undertaker bees, removing the dead; etc.

Drone (male) honey bee. Bigger, bulkier, than the infertile female Worker bees. But no stinger! Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Drone (male) honey bee. Bigger, bulkier, than the infertile female Worker bees. But no stinger! Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Drone Bee

Western Honey Bee Classification
SuperregnumEukaryota
Kingdom/RegnumAnimalia (Animals)
SuperphylumProtostomia
PhylumArthropoda (Arthropods)
SubphylumHexapoda
ClassInsecta (Insects)
SubclassPterygota (Winged Insects)
Infraclass/DivisionNeoptera
Superorder/SubdivisionEndopterygota
OrderHymenoptera
Ants, Bees, Wasps, Sawflies
SuborderApocrita
SuperfamilyApoidea
FamilyApidae
SubfamilyApinae (honey, orchid, ..., bees)
TribeApini
GenusApis
SpeciesA. mellifera

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Drones essentially do nothing but eat and attempt to mate. They can't even help defend the hive since they are stinger-less. When the weather is nice enough, they fly out of the hive at around 1pm to what is called the drone congregation area and wait for a virgin queen to fly by. When she does, they will do their best to become one of the 13 to 18 drones to mate with that queen. Unfortunately for that drone, mating is fatal. But they have served their life's purpose and their genetics carry on — quite literally survival of the fittest in action. Drones and queens mate on the wing. Since drones within a hive are the sons of that hive's queen (or brothers if there is a new queen), they don't inbreed unless by accident of fate outside of the hive.

 

Beekeeping

Here at The Carolina Bee Company we keep a number of hives of bees in wooden boxes that are a good compromise between what a beekeeper can work with and what the bees seem to like. This equipment is largely similar to the original design of the Langstroth hive designed in the late 1800s, but has a few modern twists.

At the height of summer a hive can consist of roughly 40,000 to 80,000 honey bees. In the winter, they can drift all the way down to a few thousand or even less. Each hive consists of a number of boxes that we increase or decrease dependent on the number of bees in the hive and other variables.

These boxes also make it convenient (though it's hard work) to block off the hive entrance, pack up the bees on a truck and take those bees to a farmer's field. The bees, upon finding a rich source of pollen and nectar, enthusiastically fly from flower to flower collecting these delicious bee foods. We humans gain the side benefit of significantly boosting our production of food crops in that field.

A side benefit of the pollination of our food crops is the delicious honey that the bees produce. Honey is essentially dehydrated flower nectar, but the bees do add an enzyme and some other trace materials to it. Since honey bees, have to maintain an adult population throughout the winter need to stock up on honey. We humans have taken advantage of this and collect their excess for our own use.

Humans have been managing bees in some form or fashion for many thousands of years. Some say as far back as 8000 years.

(c) Copyright HowStuffWorks - "Bee Navigation"

(c) Copyright HowStuffWorks - "Bee Navigation"

Honey bees are fascinating creatures who socially manage their hive through a complex system of smells (pheromones), actions, and most amazingly, a symbolic dance. Honey bees are one of the few animals that have developed a symbolic language.

So, the next time you see a honey bee on a flower, stop for a moment to ponder and appreciate this beautiful and amazing little creature.


  1. Here at The Carolina Bee Company we keep honey bees of mixed ancestry (mutts). The Italian honey bee breed (the most popular in the US) traits are predominant but our honey bees also contain a good helping of Carniolan genetics. The Minnesota Hygienic breed and feral genes also have been introduced.
  2. Cliff Van Eaton, New Zealand Beekeeper consultant, "And now for a moment of beeeeeeees," BoingBoing (blog), 15 September 2006.
    "A well-trained honey bee scientist wouldn't spell the name "honeybee", even though you'll find it mistakenly spelled this way in a number of dictionaries (as well as on the MS spell checker), and even in Wikipedia. The biological convention is that the name of an insect is separated into two words when the insect is what the name implies. So "honey bee" is separated into two words, since its a bee that collects honey, whereas "butterfly" is one word since it isn't a fly that produces butter."
  3. "Honey Bee, How to Spell," in The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture, ed. Dr. H. Shimanuki, Kim Flottum and Ann Harmon (Medina, OH: The A.I. Root Company, 2007), p332 — "Since the honey bee is a true bee, two words are used."
  4. Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, 1st ed., 2008.
    From the Author's Note, "Copyeditors of the world beware. The spelling of insect names in this book follows the rules of the Entomology Society of America, not Merriam-Webster's. When a species is a true example of a particular taxon, that taxon is written separately. Honey bees and bumble bees are true bees, and black flies are true flies. A yellowjacket, however is not a true jacket. Entomologists, who have to read the names of bugs a lot more than the rest of us do, would appreciate it if we all followed these rules."
  5. E.H. Ericson Jr., S.D. Carlson, and M.B. Garment, "The Natural History of Honey Bees", in A Scanning Electron Microscope Atlas of the Honey Bee.
  6. Brenda Kellar, "Honey Bees Across America," 2004.
  7. "Apis mellifera," Wikispecies.

All links last accessed on February 22nd, 2014.