Learning more about bees
Bees, plants & pollination
The bees’ food is provided by the plants they visit. To attract the bees to the plant, and reward them for their pollination service, plants provide bees with nectar and pollen. Nectar forms the basis of honey, the energy rich food that honey bees need to sustain the life of the colony while pollen provides the protein, vitamins and other nutrients needed for the developing larvae. Storing food allows honey bees to survive in times of scarcity and across a wide range of habitats and climatic conditions, making the honey bee one of the earth’s most adaptable species.
While honey bees and other insects are visiting flowers to feed, they spread pollen from one plant to another. This enables flowers to be fertilised and for seeds and fruit to form.
People benefit greatly from the natural relationship between bees and plants. Insect pollination is the mechanism that allows us to harvest crops and seeds throughout the world and people harvest surplus honey stored by bees.
Worldwide, about 40,000 plant species are of value to bees while about 4,000 are the source of most of the worlds’ honey. Beekeepers who have acquired a good knowledge of the floral sources in their locality will be able to maintain their colonies in the best places for getting honey. Part of the skill of beekeeping is to enable the maximum population of foraging bees at the time when there is the maximum number of flowers.
Forests and trees offer vital habitat and food for honey bees, especially in tropical regions. Beekeepers can protect their honey harvest by protecting the trees and plants that give the bees both food and shelter. Other wildlife is also sustained, maintaining the world’s biodiversity while we get to enjoy the beauty of the flowers that plants use to attract pollinators.
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Honey bee species & races
The Aculeate group of the order Hymenoptera includes bees, ants and wasps. Bees, with few exceptions, feed on food of plant origin. They are biologically diverse with 1200 genera, and around 30,000 species, around half of them named by science. They include social, semi-social and solitary bees all with their own ecological importance. The diversity of species worldwide offers fascinating insights into the evolution of social behaviour and of plants.
Only social bees are exploited by humans for direct gain. There are a number of species of stingless bees, whose honey and propolis is particularly valued for its special medicinal properties. A small number of bumble bee species are bred intensively to provide pollination services in commercial fruit farming. The most widely exploited group of bees are the honey bees. Honey bees are classified into the family Apidae and the genus Apis. They characteristically control their brood nest temperature, keep their brood separate from their food, and when given the opportunity store a surplus of pollen and honey.
There are four accepted groupings of honey bee species with three of these species groups further subdivided into additional species. Apis mellifera, Apis cerana and Apis koschevnikovi are cavity-nesting, while Apis florea, Apis dorsata, Apis laboriosa and Apis andreniformis nest in the open. Further, within the species groupings of the honey bees, separate subspecies or races are also recognised. The behavioural and biological characteristics of each race can be distinctive and each race will have their own value and disadvantages for the beekeepers wishing to keep them.
There are significant differences between tropical and subtropical and European races of honey bees. This is an evolutionary consequence of adaptation to different habitats. The difference between races is so marked that it affects the management of these differing bees. However, even within races, there can be tremendous genetic variation. Bee breeders use this variation to enhance desired characteristics and reduce those that are less desirable.
Superorganism: living in a colony
Social bees live in a colony where overlapping generations of sterile workers and reproductive members cooperate to raise brood. In evolutionary terms, the colony is the unit of selection, wherein the genes inherited from the queen and the drones she has mated with are expressed. The complex and fascinating ways in which bee colonies thrive and multiply, or fail to do so, have led many authors to describe them as ‘superorganisms’.
Honey bees have 6 legs, 4 wings, compound eyes and sophisticated sensory and communication systems, essential in highly socially adapted creatures. Each colony has a single queen that is the mother of the colony. There are between 10,000 and 50,000 worker bees that carry out essential tasks imposed by social living; including collecting, processing and storing food for times of shortage. Their numbers fluctuate following an annual cycle dictated by the seasons, climate and plants around them. Drones are male bees whose sole function is to fertilise the queen. They are expelled from the hive and die during periods of dearth, so they will only be seen during periods of plenty. As such, they are a measure of the strength of a colony. Each type of bee is essential for the functioning of the colony.
Honey bees undergo a four stage process of metamorphosis – egg, larva, pupa and adult. The young stages are known as brood and the development of the brood takes place in the honeycomb. Honeycomb is made of wax secreted by worker bees and then formed into the familiar hexagonal cells that fit snugly together in an efficient, space saving design. Honeycombs hang vertically and side by side. The space between the combs is fixed by the bees. It allows two bees to pass each other precisely, back to back, when they are walking up the face of the honeycomb. This space is known as the bee space and is the cornerstone of our understanding of moveable comb beekeeping.
Honey is placed at the top of the comb, with a ring of pollen below it, close to the brood so it can easily be made into food for the young bees. The brood is in the centre forming a ball effect with the honeycombs cutting through it. This is where it is well protected and warm, insulated by the honey stores and covered by adult worker bees who are able to maintain the brood nest at the perfect temperature for brood development (35 degrees C). The queen lays one egg in each cell, and after hatching the larvae are fed by the worker bees. When the young larvae are ready to pupate they are sealed inside the cell with a wax capping until they hatch into adults. When they emerge they are ready to join in all the activities required for the smooth running of the colony.
Food sharing spreads certain types of information very rapidly through the colony, such as what types of nectar are most in demand and whether more water is needed. While sharing food, bees are also touching and sharing pheromones. The unique odour of each colony means all members of the know where they belong, and recognise each other. Pheromones tell the workers that the queen is safe and laying eggs, whether the colony is under attack and are used to help lost or swarming bees find the nest. Dances and vibrations can tell the bees where food is located and how abundant it is. They can encourage bees to swarm and direct them to the new nest site, while different types of vibrations may help to protect a virgin queen or give it away to its rivals.
Reproduction by swarming is one of the most spectacular and sophisticated events in the life of a honey bee colony. It begins with the construction of queen cups along the bottom of the brood combs. The queen lays in these cups and the workers feed the emerging larvae lavishly with royal jelly. The development of these cells is extremely fast; depending on the race of the bee after 6-8 days the cells are sealed and in 14-16 days an adult queen will emerge. Meanwhile the old queen has been fed less and less by the workers. This slimming down is so that the queen will be better able to fly. As soon as the first queen cells are sealed the first swarm will take to the air. When a new swarm issues the air is full of the thousands of excited, flying bees searching for a place to cluster and trying to keep track of the queen. About half the worker bees in the colony will leave together with the old, mated queen. After flying a short distance the swarm clusters together temporarily in a suitable place while the scout bees find and eventually select a new nest cavity.
It takes several days before the first new, virgin queen emerges from the queen cell. If the colony is still strong enough it may issue afterswarms, which are smaller swarms headed by young, unmated queens. If the colony does not split any more, then the workers allow the emerging queen to kill all the other virgin queens. After a few days the queen will be ready for mating. She will leave the hive only once to become mated before settling down to head up the new colony and to replenish its stores and workers.
Keeping bees in hives
Honey bees such as Apis mellifera build a nest containing multiple combs inside a cavity, which may be a hollow tree, a cave, or a cavity in a wall or in the ground. They can also be kept inside a human-made container, otherwise known as a hive. The first bee hives were hollow logs or simple cylinders made of natural materials and after thousands of years these types of hives are still used. The hive enables bee colonies to be owned, sited in and moved to particular places. It allows interventions by people and has ultimately led to the craft known as beekeeping.
Honey bee nests are built using a series of parallel combs made of beeswax and, depending on the types of hives used, combs containing honey can be removed without harming combs containing brood. It was by studying the precise arrangement and measurements of honeycombs that led the Rev. Langstroth, working in the 1850s, to understand the idea of the bee space which led to the development of hive management techniques using movable frame hives.
Other cavity nesting honey bee species, such as Apis cerana can also be kept in hives. In Asia, there are other species of honey bees that nest in the open and cannot be kept in man-made hives. Honey hunting and rafter beekeeping techniques have been developed to obtain honey and beeswax from these species. Several species of stingless bees are also kept in simple hives.
Honey and beeswax offer the best business opportunities for small scale beekeepers in developing countries. However, other bee products such as propolis, pollen, bee venom and royal jelly are also harvested in some countries. With an increasing interest in natural ingredients and a growing understanding of the medicinal value and uses of bee products, the demand for these products is expanding. There is new interest worldwide in the therapeutic values of honey and propolis.
There are many ways to add greater value to bee products, such as producing candles or cosmetics, so it is possible to develop opportunities for small business enterprises. Adding value to bee products also leads to diversified incomes and more sustainable livelihoods for vulnerable people in developing countries, while increasing the availability of natural, healthy and medicinal products for local and international consumers. Value added items can be made by people who are not beekeepers, and may create a special opportunity for women to profit from their traditional skills.
Beekeeping can also generate associated industries such as the manufacture of beekeeping equipment, including bee hives, smokers and protective clothing. Bees and/or pollination services are also traded and may be very valuable.
It is mainly bees of the genus Apis that produce significant quantities of honey and beeswax. Some stingless bees are also exploited for honey and propolis.
Threats to bee health
Bees can suffer from diseases, pests or other problems that can either kill them or make them unproductive. Animals can only be productive when they are healthy and in good condition so it is important for beekeepers to be able to recognise the various threats to bees and to know how to overcome different problems if they are to collect a good crop of honey.
Bee diseases have been around as long as the bees themselves. A bee colony has many features which make it an ideal place for bacteria and fungi to breed. There are many thousands of individuals crowded together and the centre of a honey bees’ nest is kept at a warm, constant temperature even when outside temperatures are very high or low, while the practice of food sharing that helps the bees to communicate, can also, quickly spread infection. It is a tribute to the sophistication of the honey bees’ behavioural, immune and chemical systems that they are sick so rarely.
Beekeepers can help by planning apiary layouts to minimise robbing and drifting bees, as well as selecting strains of bees less susceptible to disease. As well as diseases, other parasites and predators affect the survival of bees. Beekeepers can take measures to prevent predation and invasion of the hives by pests. Observant husbandry, vigorous queens and plenty of diverse forage will also aid the welfare of bees. On the other hand: intensive manipulation of colonies, reliance on artificial feeding, lack of hygiene and importing exotic strains can harm bee health.