I’m writing this post for those people who have bought my honey (I steal it fair and square) or who are curious about how bees actually operate. I have only two hives. Tami wanted to do something to help the bees of the world, so I got a couple of hives, we painted them up, named them Stark and Targaryan, mail ordered some bees, and were in business. Bees are fascinating little buggers. They are colonial, and not at all like the Borg, trekkies. They operate on consensus, which is a step up from Congress already.
In a quick summary, here’s how a bee colony operates. When a bee is hatched, it first cleans up its own mess (human kids, not so much) then cleans the rest of the hive for a while. Other jobs, often doled out by seniority, include queen’s attendants (who will also attend to drone development) guards at the door, and the ones you see the most, foragers. They can go in a three mile radius to find resources, so the bees you see in your garden might not even come from your part of town. They gather water and nectar and pollen. The water they all drink. The nectar gets put into wax cells where it dehydrates into honey, with a little help from the bees themselves, of course. The pollen is food, and it makes up an important part of porphyry, which is fed to drone larvae as well as next-generation queens.
Drones are males. They do nothing for the hive into which they are born. What they do is fly out until they meet a newly hatched queen, mate with her, and die. More about that new queen directly below. Drones are bigger than most bees, except the queen, but they have no stingers.
If the queen dies, or leads a swarm to a new home (see below) the workers pick a few egg cells and start feeding the growing bees inside with royal jelly, porphyry, and extra honey. The first queen to hatch kills the others still in their cells. (If two hatched they’d have to fight to the death anyway.) Then she (the only true female in the hive, although the workers are genetically female) flies out every day for ten days to two weeks, mating with every drone she meets, leaving a trail of dead male bees in her wake. It could be a male she laid the egg for, she is not picky. After she collects a lifetime supply of sperm, she never leaves the hive again, except as noted below. Male bees are, yeah, males. Queen bees are, for a few days, entirely sexually promiscuous, then they’re all business.
The queen does not rule the hive. Every bee knows what it needs to do. If you watch them, they are actually completely mindless as individuals. It’s appalling, actually. But the hive taken together is highly intelligent, adaptable, and even clever. That’s why some biologists think that the organism is the hive, and the individual bees are simply equivalent to cells in a body. Could be.
Should the hive succeed, sooner or later it will get too crowded in there. This is a big reason to harvest regularly. If it gets too crowded, they hive will decide to divide. (Mitosis? You decide.) Those at the proper stage of life will follow the queen out of the hive, and this is when you see swarms settling in trees or eaves of houses. Bees are at their least dangerous when they swarm, unless something disturbs them. They won’t live in eaves, or on a tree branch. They want an enclosed space. While huddled in the swarm, scouts go out in all directions looking for a suitable new home. When they return, they tell the hive all about the place they’ve found. Over the course of possibly a few days, each scout tells her tale, and eventually every individual agrees with one of them as being the best place to relocate. And they do.
Tells? Really? What? Morse code buzzes? Oh, it’s better than that. Bees are one of two species in the world to use symbolic language. The other species types out blog posts on the Internet. The symbolic language of bees is interpretive dance. In normal foraging, a bee who finds a good source of water or food will do a dance indicating which direction to travel from the sun, how far to travel, and how much of the resource there is. Other bees will dance along and, one by one, take off to gather whatever it is. The same thing happens with finding a new home. The scout which gets the entire colony dancing along then leads them to their new digs. Told you bees were fascinating. You can learn the dance patterns, should you wish to, by googling it.
Anyway, got another crop of honey the other day. Yummy times are back!