Honey Bees – A Quick Guide

Honeybees are well known for being laborious pollinators, as well as creating a variety of wonderful products such as honey and wax. Despite the wide use of these goods, the lives and behaviors of honey bees are not as commonly known. For instance, you may have heard that honey bees will “dance”. But what for? How does this dance work? Do honey bees see well?

Questions like these are common, but the answers are just as intriguing as every other aspect of honey bees. 

Honey bee
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) – janroz@123rf.com

Do honey bees attack people?

Honey bee stings are painful, and can cause swelling and tenderness for long after the initial sting. It’s understandable to want to avoid such encounters, which is why beekeepers usually suit up before getting to work on their hives. Luckily, honey bees generally only sting when provoked. A bee passing by to pollinate flowers in the garden is preoccupied with her work, but crack open a hive without personal protection and you might receive the business end of a bee. The hive is their home, and if there are eggs in the cells they may be particularly more defensive. 

That being said, when honey bees sting they release a pheromone (source) that signals to other bees that there is danger nearby, and that can provoke more to attack. They may even try to target the same area!  Fear not though, the danger for this is low and usually only occurs when a hive is threatened with a real attack, such as by a bear. 

Do honey bees communicate with pheromones?

Pheromones are complex chemicals that play an important part in communication. The inside of a hive is dark and cramped, so getting a message across is best done through chemical means. Some pheromones are only produced by the queen; they allow her to control maintenance of the hive, signal when she is leaving the hive to mate, and even inhibits the ovaries of worker bees. As she ages or falls ill, her pheromones become weaker and the hive prepares to replace her. 

Two types of pheromones exist among insects: primer and releaser. Primer pheromones are long term and can impact the development of bees, while releaser types are weak and temporary. The aforementioned queen pheromones are primer and will last throughout her reign. The releaser types include defense hormones; when a worker recognizes a threat, she will release a pheromone to provoke aggressiveness, and the other honey bees will follow suit to defend the hive. 

The use of smoke masks these pheromones and keeps a hive calm while the beekeeper works. Honey bees will clean the smoke smell off themselves and the hive, so the effects of a few puffs of smoke will be effective for about fifteen minutes. 

Where do honey bees nest?

Manmade hives are the most convenient for managing bees, but honey bees may make a home wherever they find convenient. If unbothered, honey bees can build hives in attics, under porches, in trees, logs caves, or anywhere they deem fit. Sheltered areas tend to be preferred as they are easier for the bees to protect. These hives aren’t destined to be permanent, however. A colony of bees making their home in a barn wall can be carefully moved and relocated to a box hive by a beekeeper. So if you ever find a colony of bees invading your property, call a beekeeper, and not an exterminator. You’ll be saving the colony and the beekeeper will be happy to take the additional hive.

Are honey bees active at night?

During the day, certain honey bee workers will leave the hive to forage, while others, mostly the younger bees, will stay to manage the hive and care for the brood. Like all insects, honey bees are cold-blooded, so when the temperature drops after the sun sets, foragers return to the hive and stop or slow down their movement to prevent using energy (source). Failing to do so could mean death, especially since cooler temperatures strips honey bees of the energy required to fly. 

Do honey bees die in winter?

The process of collecting nectar and pollen, making honey, and storing it in wax cells is mostly for the purpose of having food to last the winter. This sets them aside from many solitary bee species, which will lay eggs and then die soon after, hoping that their brood will survive until spring. The only true honey bees that will assuredly die in winter are drones; the males are a drain on resources and their only purpose is to mate with the queen. The workers will drive the drones out of the hive, and the queen will lay drone eggs in the spring to replace them. That being said, overwintering bees can be a challenge, and many beekeepers may face substantial colony losses. 

Why do honey bees dance?

The honey bee dance is complex and is used by foraging bees to indicate nearby sources of food. In a figure-of-eight pattern, the bee will vibrate and move in a specific way, informing other foragers where to go in correlation with the sun, and how far to travel. 

The spatial awareness of honey bees is incredible. In one study researchers in a controlled environment put out a food source and tracked the movements of a forager bee. She found the food, returned to the hive, and witnessed a dance indicating the location of another foraging source. During this time, the researchers removed the food source the worker had originally visited. Upon returning to this location and failing to find food, the honey bee immediately went to the location suggested by the other forager’s dance. The researchers had expected the bee to return to the hive in order to orientate herself before going to the second location but were surprised to find that she could map out the second food source from her starting point. 

What do honey bees eat?

Much like humans, bees eat different foods throughout their development. Larvae are fed a combination of honey, pollen, and royal jelly; a substance that boosts their growth. After a few days, they no longer fed royal jelly and instead have “bee bread”, which is the honey and pollen mixture. For some larvae, they are exclusively fed royal jelly which will, in turn, rear a queen bee, hence the name (source).

Honey bees have two stomachs, one tied to their digestive system, and the other known simply as “honey stomach”. The latter is more of an internal pouch designed to hold and then regurgitate nectar. 

The pollen that bees consume is important to the health of bees. Imagine eating the same food for every meal, every day of your entire life. Not only would it become incredibly boring, but you would likely be missing out on key nutrients. Pollen is the same way, with different types of plants providing nutritionally balanced food for honey bees. Growing operations such as almond orchards lack a variety of sustenance, and the farmers may even cut away weeds, forcing the bees to focus only on pollinating almond blooms. Ironically, having a variety of blooming plants in a growing operation promotes the health of a hive, and thus improves productivity. 

Can honey bees fly in rain?

Spending a rainy day inside may be more comfortable than going out and getting soaked, but for bees, it could mean death. Light rain may not be too detrimental, but large and heavy raindrops are strong enough to break their wings (source. As well, cold water chills honey bees and makes it hard to retain energy, which along with water on their wings, could stop them from flying. 

It is also important to know that honey bees are very reliant on the sun for navigation. On rainy days, ambient light is obscured and could make it difficult to find their way home if they left the hive.

Do honey bees reproduce asexually?

When the queen bee leaves the hive for what is usually the only time in her life, it is to perform a nuptial flight where she will mate with several drones and store enough genetic material to lay thousands of eggs over her lifetime. Interestingly, the queen determines the sex of the egg she is laying based on whether it is a fertilized or unfertilized egg (source). Drones will stem from unfertilized eggs while workers are fertilized. In this sense, the drones are produced asexually. 

As mentioned previously, the queen produces pheromones that inhibit the ovaries of worker bees. If the queen dies, those pheromones disappear, and if there is no replacement for the queen a worker may begin to lay eggs in an attempt to rear bees. Unfortunately, she cannot mate and will only produce drones. The solution for beekeepers is to introduce a new queen to organize the hive and start laying worker eggs, but for a wild hive, this is usually a death sentence for the colony. 

Do honey bees go through metamorphosis?

As with almost all insects, honey bees start out life as an egg. They grow into a larva, and then their cell is capped off with wax during the pupal stage. When they are ready to emerge as an adult, they will chew their way out. Other bees will assist by using their mandibles to pull away bits of the wax cap to release their new sibling. This form of metamorphosis involves all four stages of development, and as such is known as “complete” metamorphosis. 

Do honey bees have a favorite flower?

When you picture bees buzzing around the garden and visiting every flower along the way, you might be surprised to find out that they actually cannot pollinate every plant. Flowers are specialized to attract certain creatures, such as butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, and even bats. Some flowers are nonspecialized and will provide pollen and nectar to most passing pollinators, but others are particular about their visitors. Bumblebees, for instance, pollinate in a method known as ‘buzz pollination‘, in which they grip the flower and vibrate to dislodge pollen. Certain plants, such as tomatoes, can only be pollinated in this manner and thus are of no use to the honey bee.  

A variety of pollen provides the required nutrition for honey bees so a single type of flower could never suffice to offer the proper nourishment (source). That being said, certain flowers that are heavy in pollen and nectar are guaranteed to attract honey bees, such as dandelions, thistles, and alfalfa. The mass amount of food they can produce also means they tend to create a lot of seeds. For the average gardener, these plants can be considered weeds as they quickly spread throughout the yard. 

Do honey bees swarm?

Imagine all the movies and old cartoons where a person is being chased by an angry swarm of bees. Usually, in the instance of these films, it’s because they have angered a hive. However, a true “swarm” is actually when a colony abandons the hive. They will do this for many reasons and is actually a survival trait. If disease weakens the colony, the queen will release pheromones signaling to leave and any bees too weak with an illness will stay behind to die. This will filter out the healthy from the sick and hopefully result in a new hive clear from disease. This complete abandonment is known as absconding and may also take place if there is too little food in the area or an ant invasion (source).

If the hive becomes too crowded, it will split into two separate hives. The queen will lay eggs for the new hive and then take half her workers and leave. In order to keep the queen in the hive under normal circumstances, the workers feed her to keep her plump so she cannot fly. When the queen sends out the pheromones signalling to swarm, her attendees will starve her until she is thin enough to fly again. 

Swarms typically look like a massive clump of honey bees stuck to a fence post, tree, side of a building, or wherever they deem a good spot to gather. Despite what you may think, these swarms are generally not aggressive; they don’t have a hive to protect. A challenge for beekeepers is to ensure their hives are kept clean from disease, there’s plenty of food, and the colony isn’t too crowded in order to prevent swarming. 

Do honey bees have predators?

If you’ve ever seen an apiary you’ve probably noticed that the hives are safely surrounded by a fence, usually electric. The precious honey inside the hives is an ideal treat for skunks and raccoons. Bears are infamous for their love of honey as well and can be particularly destructive to hives. Fences and blinking lights help to keep these animals at bay, but a stubborn predator will most certainly have a few thousand stingers to deal with should it pass through. certain species of birds will also target individual worker bees out foraging, but certainly would not be foolish enough to go near a hive.

Another predator that has gained a lot of popularity has been the Giant Asian Hornet, colloquially known as “murder hornets”. They are the biggest hornet and a small number of them can quickly enter and decimate an entire colony. They have gained much exposure when a few nests suddenly popped up in North America. Japanese honey bees have maintained an effective evolutionary defense mechanism against these hornets. Simply put, when a hornet enters the hive they will immediately swarm it and vibrate to produce heat. The hornet is quickly cooked to death under the intense vibrations caused by the swarm. (source)

Honey bees outside of Asia sadly do not have this advantage against this new predator, leaving them highly susceptible to attack. 

Do honey bees have good eyesight?

A broad range of vision allows bees to see far away landmarks such as mountains, notice predators such as birds, and target flowers. Their compound eyes also allow them to take in as much ambient light as possible, which is important to determine the location of the sun for navigation, especially in overcast weather. 

Humans can see more colours than bees, but they get bragging rights; honey bees can see ultraviolet light. Red looks like black and colours such as green and yellow appear the same to a honey bee, but when viewing flowers under UV, they appear far different and much more extraordinary than what we see as humans. A simply yellow flower to us may appear a bright white with a dark centre to bees. By having bright and flashy appearances under UV, flowers are able to easily attract pollinators to their blooms, even if to our vision they may appear to have boring white petals.

Can honey bees hear?

Since they lack ears, honey bees do not “hear” in the same way that humans do, but they certainly pick up on vibrations (source). Certain pitches and tones are carried out during a dance to attract the attention of other foragers and are used in combination with pheromones to communicate with one another. Vibrations can be sent through the honeycomb to send messages to nearby bees, but they are able to pick up vibrations in the air as well. Their antennas and legs contain organs specific for these purposes, and their fine body hair is sensitive to vibrations as well. 

Can honey bees swim?

When a bee’s wings get wet, they are unable to fly. Freshwater is important to bees though, so they will find a water source and crawl to the edge to drink their fill. A bee in water is usually a death sentence if it is too far from shore, but they do “swim” in a sense. By floating on the water and manipulating their wings, they are able to use them to paddle and create ripples that will slowly propel them forward (source). Unfortunately, a combination of hard work and cold water very quickly drains the honey bees of energy. Too far from the safety of land and the exhausted bee will drown. 

Where are honey bees native to?

The genus Apis, which encompasses all honey bee species, is native to Eurasia and Africa. Introduced to the Americas around the 1700s, honey bees have widely been used to pollinate orchards and large growing operations. Wild hives in North and South America come only from escaped colonies but are not considered invasive. Some argue that honey bees take food sources from native bee species, but this does not seem to be prevalent enough to be a cause for concern. The largest threat to native bees is likely habitat destruction. 

Why are honey bees important?

In their native habitat, honey bees are an important part of the ecosystem. Their pollination efforts contribute to the overall biodiversity and spread of native plants, as well as being a food source for birds and other animals in the food chain. For food crops, pollination is vital for fruit setting and producing seeds for growers. Native bees contribute a huge amount to the pollination process, but having even just a single colony containing thousands of bees can be a real boost to the crops. 

The economic impact of pollination is worth billions of dollars worldwide and is the main source of income for commercial beekeepers. The honey that is produced is an added bonus, but for many beekeepers, it is not the primary cash crop. 

Honey bees can also be the surprising solution for several other issues. Their ability to identify chemical smells through their use of pheromones meant they were able to be trained to detect the biomarkers from cancer. In short, they can “smell” certain types of cancer in humans (source). They have also been trained to seek out explosives conditioning them to seek out the smells associated with certain explosive chemicals (source). Additionally, farmers in countries such as Ghana have long been struggling with hungry elephants invading the farms and consuming crops. Keeping wildlife out usually involves the death of the elephant. Charities such as Bees for Babar utilize a simple approach; using the elephant’s natural fee of bees (source). Despite the fact that honey bee stingers cannot penetrate their thick skin, the elephants will actively avoid beehives. By surrounding the perimeter of the farm with beehives, the crops inside are protected from being eaten or trampled, and the farmers have the added benefit of collecting honey and comb from the hives to add to their income. 

The honey bee is a wealth of potential, but pollination lies at the center of it all. When roughly 35% of all food crops and almost 80% of flowering plants rely on insects for pollination, bees determine the fate of food security and biodiverse environments (source).