Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

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What do bees look like? All bees have a head, a thorax (middle section), and an abdomen (end section). The head has their eyes, feelers, and tongue. The thorax has six legs and two wings. The abdomen has the breathing sacs, scent gland, wax gland, poison gland, and the stinger on the very end. Honey bees are hairy. They are yellow and black in color. The back legs of the worker females have little sacs to carry pollen.

We made this picture really big so it would be easier see. A real honey bee is only 1/2 inch long!

What are workers, drones, queens, and larvae? There is only one queen per hive, and all she does is lay eggs. There may be 40,000 worker bees. The workers are all female, but they can’t have babies. There may be as many as 2000 males or drones. Drones don’t do any work. Only a few drones gets to be fathers of the babies. All the rest just hang around. The queen is the biggest, and the workers are the smallest. The queen lays her eggs in a cell of the honeycomb (hive). Each egg hatches, and a little worm-like larva crawls out. The worker bees feed pollen and honey to the baby larva. Soon, it spins a little web blanket inside the cell and becomes a pupa. After 16 to 24 days, a full grown bee climbs out of the cell. Worker bees do different things depending on how old they are. They take care of the babies, make wax, build the honeycomb, clean up the hive, store pollen, make honey, guard the hive, and collect pollen or nectar. When someone says "busy as a bee," they are definitely talking about the workers. If a worker (sterile female) is born in the spring, she probably only lives 4 or 5 weeks. If she’s born in the fall when there’s less work to do, she may survive the winter. Drones (males) are kicked out of the hive when the weather gets cold. Queens can live for several years.

What do bees eat? Bees eat nectar (sugary water) and pollen (yellow protein powder) which are made by flowers. Babies are fed lots of pollen, because they need the protein to grow. Since there are lots of flowers in the spring (and lots of pollen), most bee babies are born in the spring. Nectar is what the a worker bee uses to make honey. When she gets to a flower, she drinks as much nectar as she can hold. Then she passes the nectar to another worker bee (who holds the nectar on her tongue) so the water in it can evaporate. When most of the water has evaporated, the sweet nectar becomes honey, which is stored in the hive. During winter, when there aren’t many flowers, bees use this stored honey for food. In the spring and summer, when there are plenty of flowers, bees tell each other where to find nectar and pollen. If a worker finds a grape vine with lots of flowers, she marks it with a pheromone (scent). Then she flies back and dances in the hive. This dance tells other workers what direction to fly in and how far to go. Then they fly off to find her scent, the grape flowers, and the food.

What is pollination? Flowering plants need to get pollen (the powder in the flowers) from one plant to another one. Once the pollen is on the new plant, that new flower can make seeds (baby plants). This is called pollination. When a bee visits a flower to get nectar or pollen, it has to get really deep in the flower to reach these foods. If she is collecting nectar, the bee slurps it up with her long tongue. If she is collecting pollen, she stuffs the powdery pollen into little sacks on the back of her legs. While she’s doing this, she gets the dusty pollen all over her body. When she flies to the next flower, some of the pollen falls off. Presto, the new flower is pollinated. Because of this, flowers try to attract bees by having brightly colored petals, pretty smells, and very sweet nectar. Bees and flowers help each other. This kind of relationship in nature is called symbiosis.

How do bees see? Bees cannot see the color red. But they do see a color we can’t: ultraviolet (UV). UV is what gives us a sunburn. But to a bee, it’s a whole different color. Since bees can’t see red, red flowers are pollinated in other ways, by bats, butterflies, birds, or the wind. Flowers that want to attract bees have colors that bees can see. Often, white flowers, which look plain to us, actually reflect UV light, so they look very pretty to the bees.

What is a hive? A hive is the bees’ home. It is made mostly of wax. Worker bees can make wax from the bottom of their abdomens. They use their legs to shape this wax into the cells of their honeycomb or hive. Each cell is hexagonal or six-sided. The hive usually has several layers of cells. Some cells are just for baby bees. Near the baby bee section, there are cells for storing pollen. In other parts of the hive, there are cells just for storing honey. The queen stays in the hive for her whole life except when she flies off to mate. All the bees stay inside the hive at night to sleep. Hives are often inside hollow logs.

How does a bee sting? A bee has a poison gland in her abdomen. When she stings another insect (like a wasp), she can pull the stinger out of the wasp’s body and get away. So if a bee is fighting another insect, she can sting many times. But if a bee stings a person or a large animal (frog, raccoon, etc.) the stinger sticks in the animal’s tough skin and keeps pumping poison. The bee flies away, but she gets torn in half and dies. Bees only sting if they think they or their hive are in danger. If one bee is buzzing around you, she may smell perfume, soap, or hair spray and think the smell is nectar (food). She will check you out to see if she can find the nectar, but if you stand very still, she will realize there is no nectar and go away.

What are some dangers to bees? Right now, almost all of Florida’s honey bees live on honey farms called apiaries (ape- ee- air- ees). There aren’t many wild bee hives left because a tiny pest, called a Varroa Mite, is killing them. Bee farmers can use special chemicals to stop the varroa mite on their farm, but no one can help the bees hiding in the wild. If a new queen leaves a bee farm with her swarm of workers, the varroa mite will destroy her new hive. When a bee farmer takes honey from a hive, he always leaves enough for the bees to eat over the winter. It is important to take care of Florida’s bees. Orange trees need bees to pollinate them so they can make fruits and seeds. Without bees, many of the oranges won’t be able to grow.

What about killer bees? These are Africanized Honey Bees or AHB’s. These bees are a mix of European bees and African bees. We have European bees here. They make a lot of honey and don’t sting much, but they don’t live well in really hot areas. African bees were brought over to South America because they do like to live in the heat. When these two kinds of bees mated, the new bees (AHB’s) were smaller and very defensive. AHB’s act like normal bees while they are foraging for food, but if they feel their hive is in danger, they will defend it, attacking the people and animals for at least 100 feet around the hive. The AHB’s traveled up into Texas, but stopped and went up the Rio Grande River. It will be a few years before they get here. We already have yellow jackets, small wasps that are just as defensive as the AHB’s. So, killer bees are not so scary. Just stay away from bee hives, and tell a grown-up when you see one.

RESOURCES:

Heinrich, Bernd. Bumblebee Economics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press., 1979.

Von Frisch, Karl. The Dancing Bees. New York: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1953.

Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford , Professor and Apiculturist

University of Florida Florida Cooperative Extension Service Pamphlets

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St. Johns River Power Park, Jacksonville Electric Authority, & Florida Power and Light

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