Honey bees are an insect with a complicated life history and social organization.
The honey bee that we use in the United States, Apis mellifera, is a cavity dwelling insect that flies to flowers to collect nectar and pollen for its food. Honey bees secrete and then mold wax into comb with hexagonal cells. They use these cells to rear their young, to store their food, to physically support themselves in their hive and to communicate information about foraging sources to other bees. We humans have learned to manage these honey bees; however, they are still wild insects. They act on instincts that have been developed over millions of years and beekeepers work to exploit these natural behaviors. This article looks at some of the characteristics of the honey bee colony that allow us to manage these otherwise wild animals.
Living in a box: Why we can keep honey bees in a hive
First, let’s distinguish between a hive and a colony. A bee hive is the box or nest where the bees live. The honey bee colony is the collection of all the honey bees inside the hive along with their brood and food stores.
Honey bees are a cavity nesting insect. Bees will find hollow trees, house attics, wall cavities, and a variety of other spaces to live in. Beekeepers take advantage of this characteristic by giving them a hollow box that is easy for us to manage. The hive, the box and frames, that we give the bees is designed to meet certain instinctual needs. Bees accept the size of the box, the space between frames, and the foundation that we provide because those features are similar to the hive construction that a honey bee would make or choose on her own.
As beekeepers we try to convince the honey bees to stay in our boxes, but we can’t make them stay. We have learned how to make our boxes more attractive and acceptable to the bees by studying honey bee behavior and biology. Through study we know some of the bees’ requirements and preferences for their home. We have recreated what the bees were already doing naturally in the two most common types of hives used in the United States: Langstroth type hives and Top Bar Hives.
Fruits of labor: Why we can harvest products from the hive
Honey, pollen, wax, and propolis are all valuable products that are collected and stored by bees and that we as humans collect from bee hives. Honey bees naturally collect nectar and pollen from flowers to meet their nutritional needs. Nectar contains sugars and is their energy source. Pollen is their protein food. Bees turn nectar into honey to eat and the surplus is stored. Pollen is collected and stored in cells to ferment. After the pollen is mature it is fed to the larvae and young bees.
The ancestor of our honey bee evolved in a temperate climate where flowers were seasonal and winter was harsh. If a colony of bees did not store enough honey and pollen to last through the dearth of blooms and winter months, they would starve to death. They store honey and we steal –I mean, harvest it. Honey bees fly back from foraging with pollen in their pollen basket, the corbicula. We can collect it right off of their back legs. Bees pass through a trap at the hive entrance and the pollen is brushed off into a tray.
Bees excrete sheets of wax from glands on the underside of their abdomen and form these wax scales into cells. These cells are used to store honey and pollen and to raise new bees. Empty wax comb can be collected from the hive or wax can be collect after honey is removed from the cells during the honey extraction process.
Honey bees collect plant or tree resins or sap and bring it into the hive to treat the inner surfaces of the hive cavity. This “glue”, called propolis, waterproofs interior surfaces and is used to seal cracks and close gaps between surfaces including our woodenware. It also is antimicrobial and actually helps keep a colony healthy. Propolis may be collected on a grid that is made for that purpose.
Honey bees naturally collect nectar, pollen, and propolis and produce wax for their own benefit. We humans have simply found uses for the products that our bees create.
Pollination services: Why bees help feed the world
What about honey bees allows us to use them to pollinate crops? Three factors come into play: flight orientation, communication, and flower constancy. In the process of collecting pollen, honey bees inadvertently help pollinate plants. Beekeepers and farmers can place colonies of honey bees near plants and trees that need to be pollinated or near specific nectar sources for the bees to collect a specialty honey. The beekeeper literally points the bees in the right direction and the honey bees ‘do their thing’.
Part of the reason that beekeepers can move bees around to different areas is that honey bees can orientate themselves to their home location, even after being moved by the beekeeper. If a colony is relocated, the foragers adjust to this new location and will leave and return to the new site. When scout bees locate a floral source of pollen or nectar, she will return to her colony and advertise her find. She communicates the direction and distance of these flowers to forager bees using either the waggle dance or the round dance. The foragers will follow her memorized instructions to the flower patch and often continue to return to that flower type until blooming ceases. This is termed floral constancy. Beekeepers have found that they will have better pollination success if a colony is placed near the crop to be pollinated, just after the target bloom has started.
Beekeepers of course don’t train the bees to do these things. The honey bees are acting instinctively. Over time beekeepers have studied them and learned enough about them to use honey bees for our purposes. Still, there are many things to learn about these fascinating creatures. We can keep honey bees in a box. We can have them pollinate crops for us and make us honey but we are not their master.
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