The fossil record shows evidence of honey bees as far back as 34 million years ago in Europe. There are eight extant honey bee species, out of a total of some 20,000 bee species. The Western or European honey bee is the most common bees, and was introduced into the United States. The honey bee has been domesticated and managed by humans for thousands of years, housed in artificial hives and used to pollinate food plants and other crops. Sometimes swarms of bees will leave box hives and go feral, taking up residence in natural cavities where they continue to harvest pollen and nectar and produce wild honey in combs they build using beeswax.
Honey bees are termed eusocial, which refers to a high level of social organization in which there is cooperation in care of young of the next generation, a division of labor in which groups come to specialize in certain behaviors needed by the colony, loss of the ability of individuals in a “caste” to perform functions of members of another specialized caste, and several generations of members living together in the colony.
In a honey bee colony a single queen bee mates with several male drones from another colony and produces all the eggs for her group, some 1,500 each day during the spring and summer. A queen is produced when the resident queen dies or a new colony is being formed. Workers select a larva and feed it an extra nutritious “royal jelly” which allows it to develop into a queen. The queen may live 5-7 years, much longer than either the drones or female workers.
Several thousand male drones live in the colony but they do not mate with their queen, and the thousands of worker bees making up the majority of a colony are all females. They perform different functions in the colony depending upon age and development. The young worker bees tend the hive, cleaning it and feeding larvae in the cells of the comb. Later, they begin collecting nectar and pollen from foragers and acting as guards of the hive from any intruders. In the final stage of its 45 day life, a worker assumes the role of a forager, flying out to flowering plants to collect nectar and pollen, and providing the essential role of pollination of those plants in the process. About a third of human foods require the pollinating services of insects.
Foraging bees who have found a good source of pollen perform a so-called “waggle” dance upon returning to the hive. Other bees gather round and learn from the orientation and intensity of the waggle both the direction to fly to reach the food source according to the sun’s position in the sky, and also the distance of the food from the hive. I used to tell my university students that more teaching and learning happens in a honey bee hive than in many college classrooms.
Honey bees also communicate through chemical pheromones.
In ambient temperatures below about 50 degrees F, honey bees stop foraging and workers congregate in the hive around the queen, shivering to produce and conserve heat. In winter they feed on stores of honey. In hot weather workers will fan with their wings to create a cooling air flow in the hive. Honey bees gain their nutrition from the pollen and nectar they collect. Pollen supplies protein and lipid requirements and nectar is their carbohydrate source.
Large-scale die-offs of honey bee colonies, affecting from 30-70% of hives in North America so far in the 21st century, termed “colony collapse disorder,” has been determined to result from a combination of factors. Widespread use of pesticides has weakened the bees’ natural resistance to disease. A plant virus has migrated from plants to bees, where it is contagious. The transport of bee hives to preferred pollination fields by beekeepers stresses bee colonies. And the natural deleterious effect of parasitic mites further reduces the resiliency of honey bees.
Honey bees have a barbed stinger and can sting in defense when disturbed, but they are not aggressive. When the barbed stinger is implanted in a foe, it remains when the bee flies away, and the bee’s abdomen is damaged as it retreats. The bee subsequently dies.
The colony photos shown here were obtained in Kansas at two natural feral hives in a mixed hardwood forest surrounding Clinton Lake. Individual bee photos are from Kansas and the Cibola National Forest south of Tijeras and shot by James Taulman.