Insect art… We give you “The Glorious Bee”!!
The research for last week’s column revealed so many interesting facts, we’ve decided that the subject of bees justifies a second column. There’s so much fascinating information on these amazing little insects!
In general, we tend to think of a bee as one specific type of insect. Did you know that there are more than 25 000 different species of bees? To put that into perspective, there are only approximately 10 000 species of birds and approximately 5400 mammals. The variety within the species considered ‘bees’ is astounding! Whilst some are large and round, many are skinny and small. Some are striped and metallic; others are colourful or simply black. Some live for six weeks, others for a couple of years. Only a few bees are social, many more are solitary, nesting alone (but often next door to each other). And to top it all? There are only a few bees that make honey and live together with a queen bee, workers and male drones.
Some lick human sweat for the salt content; some are short-tongued and others are long-tongued. There are mining bees, furrow bees that nest in the ground; mason bees and leafcutter bees that live in hollow plant stems; flower bees who prefer old mortar, carpenter bees who excavate a home in tree stumps, and plasterer bees that line their nests with a waterproof substance. 25% of bee species have given up on making their own nest, instead taking over other bees’ homes (like a cuckoo). The world’s largest bee is Wallace’s Giant Bee, measuring 4cm long with a wingspan of 6.3cm, and the smallest (at barely 2mm long) are members of the Euryglossina (Quasihesma) group native to Australia. That all said, wherever there are flowering plants (from windswept mountain tops through humid jungles to arid deserts, as well as in our gardens), there will be bees to pollinate them. Let’s explore “honey bees”…
The “Carpenter Bee” is just one of the 25 000 species of bees…
Bees work all spring and summer, in order to have food to make it through the autumn and winter. Bees don’t fly when the temperatures drop below about 13°C, or in rain, or strong winds. The hive reduces from 50,000 in summer to around 10,000 or so worker bees and one queen in winter (the male drones are the first to get kicked out as they’re not doing any useful work in winter). The bees huddle together and ‘shiver’ their flight muscles to keep themselves and their home warm. They get the energy to shiver from eating their stored honey. To make this honey, they feed on and require both nectar and pollen. The nectar is for energy and the pollen provides protein and other nutrients.
When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the bee’s body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into specialized pockets on their legs, and then carry it back to their nest. There the pollen is packed into brood cells (usually around the perimeter of the frame), and when needed, the pollen is then mixed with honey to produce ‘Bee Bread’. Nurse bees consume the most bee bread as it helps them to produce Royal Jelly to feed growing larvae. Nectar is collected by sucking droplets with their proboscis (a straw-like tongue). It provides instant energy (in the form of carbohydrate sugars), and then excess nectar is stored in the bee’s stomach until it gets back to the hive. The nectar is then passed from bee to bee until the water within it diminishes. At this point, an enzyme in the bee’s stomach turns the sugar into a diluted honey, which workers store in the cells of the honeycomb. Other worker bees then fan it with their wings to evaporate the rest of the excess water until it becomes honey. When complete, the honey bees seal the honeycomb with a white wax cap, which keeps the honey fresh in an ‘airtight container’ for the winter.
In this image the ‘pollen pockets’ can clearly be seen on the bee’s hind leg.
The worker honey bees, which are all female, die when they sting, because their sting is barbed. The barb gets lodged in the skin of their enemy and rips the bee’s body as they pull apart. So, it literally takes a bee’s life to sting you. Their sting produces a smell, known as an alarm pheromone, which alerts other honey bees from the colony to attack the assailant. The survival equation says a few honey bees may die in the process of defending the nest, but the colony is saved. Mostly though, if bees are left alone, they are docile.
Another fascinating aspect of behaviour displayed by honey bees (Apis sp.), which is used for hive-based communication to provide members with information about the location of resources, is the so-called “dance language”. When a bee finds a good flower patch, she will collect resources and return to the hive, dancing to tell the others where to find the flowers. To motivate the others to find the correct flower patch, the dancing bee regurgitates a sample of the nectar that was stored in her honey stomach for them to taste. The observers also smell the scent of the flower on the dancer’s rear end. These clues help to locate the correct flower patch outside the hive.
Successful foragers perform ‘waggle dances’ for high quality food sources and, when swarming, suitable nest-sites. The little dancing bee waggles back and forth as she moves forward in a straight line, then circles around to repeat the dance. The length/distance of the middle line (called the waggle run) shows roughly how far it is to the flower patch.
The waggle run – showing further source on left, and closer source on right. (Ref: askabiologist.asu.edu).
Bees are aware of which way is up and which way is down inside their hive. They utilise this to indicate direction. They dance with the ‘waggle run’ at a specific angle away from straight up. Outside the hive, bees look at the position of the sun, and fly at the same angle away from the sun. (See the videos in the info block below).
The waggle run – showing direction. (Ref: askabiologist.asu.edu).
Some amazing statistics exist for bees. The numbers vary hugely depending on sources, so I have simply chosen those figures that appear most regularly.
- Bees pollinate one in three mouthfuls we eat. They also pollinate coffee, and fodder crops for meat and dairy cattle, and other livestock. Plant-derived medicines such as aspirin and morphine; fibres such as cotton and linen; and trees that supply timber for construction and are the lungs of the planet, are also all pollinated by bees.
- The Western honey bee can fly at 32 km/h.
- The honey bee queen will only mate once in a lifetime, and she can lay many eggs, about 2000-3000 eggs per day whilst she is establishing her colony! Through her active life she may lay a total of one and a half million eggs.
For one kilogram of honey, it has been estimated that a single bee should visit between two and four million flowers!
- 144 000 is how many kms a honey bee will fly to create one kilogram of honey ( a distance approximately equivalent to three trips around the earth).
- Average per capita honey consumption in the US is around half a kilogram per year.
- If the queen bee dies in a honey bee hive, the workers can create a new queen bee. They do this by selecting a young larva and by feeding it special food called ‘royal jelly’ so that the larva will develop into a fertile queen.
Bees swarm when the hive is too crowded, and essentially creates two hives from one. The old queen leaves with some of the bees, finding somewhere to hang in a cluster until the scout bees decide on their new home.
- Bees have four wings, six legs and five eyes (two large eyes either side of its head, and three ‘simple’ or ‘ocelli’ eyes on the top of its head. These detect light but not shapes, allowing the bee to sense if it is being approached from above by a predator).
- A bee flaps its’ wings 200-230 times per second, which is what you are hearing with the bee’s buzz.
The average foraging worker bee makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. Literally liquid gold!
So next time you enjoy the liquid gold that is honey, spare a thought for the little insect that creates it…
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team