Beneficial Insect Spotlight: European Honey Bee
The European Honey Bee, also called the Western Honey Bee, is a species of honey bee that originated in Asia and Europe and was subsequently introduced to the Americas by European colonists. The Latin name, Apis mellifera, meaning “honey-bearing bee”, is actually a misnomer as honey bees do not bear honey, but pollen. Collected pollen and nectar is used to make honey back at the nest. Honey bees are highly adaptable to different climates and have benefited as a species from their domestication by man.* Since its introduction to North America in the mid-1800’s, the European Honey Bee has become the most important pollinator of cultivated crops in the United States. Additionally, the honey bee is now naturalized on six of the seven continents (excluding Antarctica).
The honey bee is one of the most studied insects on the planet and one of three insects to have its entire genome mapped (also fruit fly and mosquito). They are a highly social insect, surviving not in isolation, but as a member of a structured and complex community or colony, which live together in a nest or domesticated hive. Although there are several different types of honey bee, only the European species has been domesticated for use by man for agriculture in the United States. The other species include: the dwarf honey bee, the Indian honey bee, the giant honey bee, the mountain giant honey bee and the African/European hybrid honey bee, more notoriously known as “the Killer bee”. There are even different races of the European species, including Italian, Carniolan and Caucasian, all of which are used in modern beekeeping.
The honey bee colony is comprised of three very distinct classes of bees: the queen, the drones, and the workers. Each has a specific function to the community, its own biological structure, and even specialized instincts. The queen is the only female in the colony that is capable of sexual reproduction; therefore, she is the mother of the other two classes as well as to any future queens. A queen bee is able to lay over 1,500 eggs per day, an amount equal to her own body weight. She is structurally different than the other bees in that she possesses a larger abdomen, her mandibles have sharp teeth, and her stinger is curved and smooth, allowing her to use it multiple times for defense. She lives one to three years before the need to replace her arises, while other bees in the community live as short as six weeks (highly-labored worker bees during warm months).
Drone bees are the males of the community. They lack stingers and are completely defenseless. They are also entirely unable to feed themselves without help from worker bees. Anatomically, drones are different from worker bees in that they do not have pollen baskets or wax glands; therefore, they cannot collect pollen, nectar, or produce royal jelly. Their sole function is to mate with new queens. Once doing so, drones die immediately. The release of sperm by the drones requires a final, lethal convulsion. The new queen then stores the sperm in an organ known as the spermatheca, located in her abdomen. Amazingly, the sperm is viable as long as the queen lives. As if dying in the act of reproduction isn’t enough, all drones that have not fulfilled that purpose when fall arrives are exiled from the nest by workers and soon perish because they lack the ability to eat autonomously.
Workers make up the majority of the colony of bees, with large colonies comprised by as many as 80,000 of them at their peak. These bees aren’t called workers for nothing. They alone are responsible for building and maintaining the nest, caring for young, raising new queens, producing and storing honey, producing royal jelly (the exclusive food of queen larvae), as well as gathering nectar, water and pollen from the environment. Wax glands secrete a waxy substance, which is then used to build hexagonal cells, arranged together in what is called a comb. Mixing collected nectar with their own saliva, workers produce honey as food. Royal jelly, a highly nutritious food source for larvae, is excreted from glands on the worker bees’ heads. Each cell they build is used to store these foods or to act as incubators for developing bees.
Workers are also responsible for maintaining ventilation and temperature of the hive. They have the ability to rapidly vibrate their flight muscles, which generates body heat. Using their wings, they are able to fan this warm air to incubate the colony in cold months, or they simply use their wings to cool the colony during the summer. Workers use this same process to kill weak, old or dying queens. Surrounding the queen, they generate enough body heat that the queen is eventually killed.
In addition to all of these tasks, workers also have the task of defending the colony. Each is equipped with a barbed stinger, which is designed to remain intact in the victim after the sting is delivered. As workers sting, their stinger is literally ripped out of their bodies and they soon perish from the wound. Upon doing so, they release a pheromone which attracts other bees in the area and rallies them for attack.
Larvae emerge a couple of days after the queen lays eggs. The workers keep the larvae in individual cells where they are fed royal jelly for at least the first couple of days before their diet is switched to nectar and honey. When a new queen is desired, worker bees construct a different sort of cell and feed the developing larvae an exclusive diet of royal jelly, which contains a variety of proteins, amino acids and carbohydrates. This substance initiates a biological change in the developing larvae, and the larvae begins to grow into a queen instead of a worker. Although it’s busy work maintaining a queen, the workers are busy raising their own kind most of the time. Developing larvae (and there are several hundred in a colony) need to be fed many times a day!
After larvae mature into adult worker bees, they are, at first, confined to work in the hive. For the first few weeks, their time is spent building and cleaning cells, feeding drones, developing larvae and the queen, as well as maintaining the colony temperature. After this period of time, they are allowed to venture out into the field to secure provisions and provide for the common defense.
The most important benefits of the presence of honey bees is that of pollination of cultivated crops as well as reproduction of many flowering plants. Many varieties of cultivated plants rely almost exclusively on the work done by bees to produce the fruits and veggies we consume. Without bees, many plants would be unable to reproduce. Pollination is itself a byproduct of a bee’s nectar and pollen collecting, but it is, nevertheless, an important symbiotic relationship upon which a lot depends.
Bees also produce beeswax, which man has found many great uses for (Burt’s Bees comes to mind!). They also produce honey, an internationally-prized sweetener that never spoils. Vials discovered in tombs in Egypt this past century contained preserved honey that was still unspoiled (albeit crystallized). Local honey is also gaining a reputation for helping reduce allergies to local flowers and vegetation. By consuming honey, the body slowly familiarizes itself to the proteins found in pollen from a number of local sources and ceases producing the allergic, auto-immune response experienced by allergy sufferers.
The importance of honey bees has been gaining popular attention in the past several years, especially since the mysterious disappearances of huge populations of bees worldwide since 1972. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a term coined in 2006 to describe this phenomena. That year, some countries reported up to 50% disappearance of bee populations. Some blame modern agriculture’s use of synthetic chemicals, while others speculate that genetically modified foods, climate change or even cell phone waves might be partly to blame. Nevertheless, any threat to the worldwide population of honey bee is also a threat to us because we rely upon bees in the cultivation of our crops.
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Did you know that almond pollination in California each year marks the largest use of pollinating bees anywhere in the world? One-third of the total number of domesticated pollinating bees in the U.S. is put to work for this event!
Did you know that one-third of all cultivated crops in the United States rely upon the work of pollinators like honey bees?
** This entry is one of many highlighting the importance of beneficial insects in our environment. Please see the B.I.F. page.