The Bee Family

Guest blogger, Selene Weir brings us her second installment on bees!

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, 
One clover, and a bee, 
And revery.
The revery alone will do, 
If bees are few.” 
― Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems

Before moving on to the luscious topic of honey, it would be wise to visit the home and family of our bee brother’s and sisters.  “We are all related,” as our late friend Little Crow often reminded us.  Our bee family, since the beginning of time, has provided humans with phenomenal ideas and examples of work ethics, division of labor, responsibility, conservation, teamwork, organization, architecture, defense, and communication, just to name a few.  Communication among bees is very sophisticated.  Scientists say that they have a language that is next in line to the ape society. Bees even dance to communicate.  Is it no reason that we humans have always looked to the honeybee society as a model for our own?

The work of bees - magical and wonderful!
The work of bees – magical and wonderful!

A colony, which is the bee family, lives in a home called a hive.  It is as simple as that.  The colony, however, is an incredibly, complex society within the hive.  The bee colony, or family, has three important members, the queen, the worker bee, and the drone.

THE QUEEN

There is one queen in the colony, and when a virgin queen bee emerges from her cell, she goes on a hunt throughout the hive looking for other virgin queens.  They ferociously fight to the finish until only one queen is victorious.  A queen does not lose her stinger, so she can sting over and over again.  She can actually locate a queen bee cell that hasn’t hatched yet by emitting a noise called piping.  For those of you who are musically inclined, this noise is said have a sound like the musical note G sharp which is also an A flat.  The piping noise is heard by the unhatched queen, and if she answers back with a piping noise, she is located, her cell is destroyed, and she is stung to death by the rival queen.  Family dynamics in the hive can be pretty harsh.
The victorious queen, in a few days, is mature enough to fly outside of the hive to seek romance.  This is the one and only fling during her entire lifetime.  She makes good use of it, though.  On this mating flight, she mates with multiple fathers or males known as drones.  She returns home with millions of stored sperm that she can release over a life time.  Now home for good, she begins to lay around one to two thousand eggs a day, fertilized and unfertilized.  Believe it or not, somehow she can decide which eggs will be fertilized and become worker bees.  The unfertilized eggs will still hatch, but into males known as drones.
The “Queen Bee” has only one role, and that is to lay eggs.  Due to her larger size, smaller wings, and other anatomical differences, she is not equipped to work.  She lacks the glands to make wax and does not have the body parts to gather, pollen, nectar, and water. Unable to care for or even feed herself, worker bees are assigned to her as her attendants, and she is truly treated like queen.  After all, she is the Queen Mother, the Goddess, the colony’s link to survival.  Her attendants see to her every need.  They feed her great amounts of royal jelly, groom her, and keep her warm and protect her.  Though she is the queen, she does not actually rule or control the hive, for every bee in the hive has its own special job description.

THE WORKER BEES

We know the worker bees come from fertilized eggs and are all females.  The queen emits a special pheromone that keeps the female workers from mating and laying eggs, so no competition there.  But these bee women really do ALL the work for the hive.  Bees are a true example of a matriarchal society.

The workers have many different duties and responsibilities.  They work in harmony to keep the hive running smoothly.  Depending on their age, they have different duties.  The youngest ladies stay home and work in the hive and are called house bees.   The older workers go out of the hive to work and are called field bees.  You are either one or the other.

House Bees

They take care of regular domestic household duties.  Other rather morbid tasks are also necessary for the cleanliness and safety of the hive.  As mentioned earlier, everyone has a job. For house bees these duties include some of the following:

  • Nurses who feed and care for the baby larvae
  • Attendants to the queen
  • Housekeepers who clean the hive
  • Honeycomb builders
  • Pollen and nectar transformation
  • Maintenance workers
  • Guards
  • Executioners
  • And even undertakers who immediately remove the dead.
Each cell in the comb of a bee hive can hold honey or a single developing bee.
Each cell in the comb of a bee hive can hold honey or a single developing bee.

Field Bees   are responsible for what is done outside of the hive.  They will be one of the following:

  • Foragers, the gatherers, who collect nectar, pollen,  propolis (plant resins) and water
  • Scouts who locate food sources and new dwellings
  • Robber bees looking for a free handout (all bees steal)
  • Producers of wax and royal jelly
  • BUSY AS A BEE!  But ladies only!

THE DRONES

The drones are the males who come from unfertilized eggs.  There are about 100 females to one drone in the hive.  Their only function is to mate with a queen. Usually they fly to drone “hangouts” in the afternoons.  Maybe a queen will show up, and if they are lucky, they will mate.  But sadly, after the mating, the drone drops dead.  Short lived ecstasy!

The drones are not able to contribute as much as the workers to the hive’s well being.  They have no stinger, so they cannot protect the hive.  In their defense, however, if the hive is cold or too hot, they can generate heat by shivering or cool the hive by fanning their wings, just as the workers do.  They mate with a queen, thus perpetuating the colony and the species.  But they cannot feed themselves, so the workers feed them honey, and care for them, that is until times get tough for the hive or winter arrives.  Then, the good life is over.  The drones are seen as a burden since they consume so much honey and have little to offer the hive, so to preserve the hive and its food supply, the worker bees just throw the drones outside.  There they will starve or freeze to death, or both.  On a happier note, children love the drones because they can play with them without getting stung.  They are rather warm and fuzzy.  It is also heartwarming to know that some beekeepers love their bees so much, that they make sure there is honey for the banished drones.  This is in warm climates, obviously.

The Queen Bee, not unlike the Goddess, spends her entire life in service to the hive.  In return, the colony honors and cares for her, the children, each other, and they live and work in peace and harmony.  Treat them well, protect, love and respect them, and you, too, will be rewarded with the fruit of their labors.  Sweet, sweet, golden nectar.  The Food of the Gods.

“…The world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.” Sue Monk Kidd

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” 
― Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee

References

California State Beekeepers Association

Orange County Beekeepers Society

California Department of Food and Agriculture
(Wikipedia)

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