Who lives in your Beehive?

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Once you set yourself out to become an apiarist, a whole new world of learning endeavors begins. As you are likely to find out, bees are very interesting creatures and have a lot to teach us. It is good to spare a few minutes a day to get to learn about them and there are many books out there but I recommend you start with a practical manual of Beekeeping by David Cramp.

Since bees maintain a very close relationship with humans, their behavior has been well researched over the years. They have a very spectacular socially cooperative community. For any species to maintain such a large community that requires intricate communication and teamwork, their level of intelligence must be very high. They engage in a variety of complex tasks like construction, defense, and environmental control by embracing a meticulous division of labor in the colony called caste polymorphism according to the museum of Earth.

The survival of the bees is a group effort, not an individual effort. A colony usually consists of three types of adult bees: the queen, workers, and drones. All three types pass through three developmental stages before emerging as adults: egg, larva, and pupa. The stages differ in duration based on the type of bees present. Thousands of worker bees collaborate in food collection, nest building, and brood rearing. Based on their age, each of the members of the colony has assigned tasks to perform. Individual bees (The queen workers and drones) cannot survive without the support of the entire colony.

The Queen Bee

The bees have a single queen per colony in most cases (except during swarming preparations or supersedure) and she is responsible for the survival of the colony. Her primary role is reproduction because she is the only fertilized member of the colony. She lays fertilized eggs that become the worker bees and unfertilized eggs that become the drone bees. One queen has the capacity to lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. This ensures that the dying bees are replaced effectively and the colony remains vibrant and active. The queen's genetic makeup and that of the drones she mated with contribute significantly to the temperament, quality, and size of the colony.

The size of the queen bee is 2.5 times the size of a worker bee. She does not have a stinger, has a long tapering abdomen, a well-proportioned body, and short golden-colored wings. The queen takes a mating flight in the air with several drones and the copulation takes place. She then receives the spermatophores from the drone, its genital parts are forced out and it dies immediately. Once fertilized, the fertile queen can lay eggs for up to five years but the average productive life span is two to three years. She secretes a pheromone or queen substance from the mandibular glands which suppress the growth of ovaries of worker bees and controls the activities of all the bees within the hive. When the pheromone secreted by the queen is declining, the worker bees prepare to replace (supersede) her. The old queen and her new daughter may both be present in the hive for some time following the supersedure.

The Worker Bees

The worker bee is precisely that - a bee that works. Based on her age, she has several different duties in the hive. The worker bee is the smallest of them all. She is a tamped-down version of the drone and the queen. She has a head, thorax, and abdomen like the other bees. The hypopharyngeal gland is the most prolific part of her body which she uses to feed the larvae, queen, and drones. Without it, the whole hive would be in trouble. Another important part of her body is the proboscis that she uses to suck the nectar from flowers. When she is young, she will be a nurse bee that nurtures and feeds bee larvae. They then take to feeding the queen, processing incoming nectar, and making and capping the honey. Older worker bees collect the necessary resources that are required from the hive and will leave the hive to work from sunrise to sunset. The main difference between the worker bee and the queen is that she is not able to fertilize eggs but can lay unfertilized eggs that become drones. Their different roles are detailed below:

The Nurse and House Bee: Upon hatching, each hatchling bee immediately cleans out its cell to prepare it for the next egg. The first duty assigned as a member of the colony is to care for the young bees: They feed the brood (the young larva and pupae) found in the hive.

The Undertaker Honey bees are extremely clean. With so many living bees coming and going out of the hive, there will definitely be some deaths as well. They also have a lifespan of 21 to 35 days. Undertaker bees are responsible for disposing of dead hives, cleaning bee parts, and removing other debris.

The Architect: A variety of tasks fall into this category. The wax glands of a bee mature as they age. When it can secrete wax, it can build a comb. Wax-producing bees also have the role of ripening honey cells and capping pupae. The other role for the bees in this category is to repair damaged comb and fill cracks in the hive with a sticky substance collected from tree resin called propolis.

The Cleaners, Organizers and Honey Makers: Some worker bees have the duty of tending to the bees that return from foraging and keeping their sisters in the hive clean. Raw nectar is normally mixed with digestive enzymes to make honey; it is the role of the honey makers to do this after collecting it from the returning bees. Others collect pollen and pack it into cells for later consumption.

The Queen’s Attendants: This is a prestigious role that not so many bees get to achieve. The queen has many duties and she is not able to groom or feed herself. For this, she enlists a number of attendant bees. The workers, who are her daughters, care for the queen as she goes about the hive.

The Guard: This role requires the worker to develop a mature stinger. The bee watches over the hive’s entrances to keep intruders at bay. They allow the foragers who go out of the hive to get in, but keep everyone else out: humans, wasps, bees from other hives and bumblebees. If you are ever stung near a beehive it’s likely a guard giving you a warning.

The Forager: You may have seen them jumping from flower to flower. These are the bees that feed the entire hive. They receive the most press and the most prestige because as they visit flowers, they provide pollination which is beneficial to all farmers and improves the quality of plants, fruits and flowers as well as ensuring the continuation of different species. The foragers work from morning to evening and this eventually leaves their wings worn out. This is the last duty that the worker bees perform before they die.

The Drones

The drones or the male bees are the biggest bees in the colony. They are the male bees and have only one function: to mate with the queen. Once this is done, they leave their reproductive organs in the queen and die. Drones do not have stingers nor food-collecting organs and they totally dependent on worker bees for food. On most occasions, they are seen begging for food outside the comb. The drone’s head is larger than that of either the worker or the queen and its compound eyes meet at the peak of its head. Drones have no wax glands, no stinger or pollen baskets.

Their sole function is to fertilize the virgin queen when she takes her mating flight. Drones attain sexual maturity about a week after hatching and die instantly upon mating. Their presence is important for normal colony functioning although they perform no useful work for the hive. From the time they are four days old, drones can feed themselves inside the hive though they normally rely on workers for food. An excessive number of drones can place undue pressure on the colony's food supply because they feed three times as much as workers. Drones take orientation flights from the time they are eight days old, these occur between noon and 4:00 p.m.

So your beehive is literally a beehive of activities judging by the different roles assigned, it is very rare to see a bee that is not busy working away. Every single bee plays an important role in the colony that is essential for the development of the entire colony. The more active the queen is at laying eggs, the more productive the colony becomes.

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