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Family life of bees and beekeeping

You probably already know our friends the bees, but have you ever wondered how they live in family? How they produce their food? Or what is the beekeeping? In this article you will find answers to all these questions and more.

First of all, it must be said that this article will be focused on the honey bee, which is the only one truly social bee capable to form well organized beehives led just by a single queen. But if you want to know more about different social types of bees, you can read The secret life of bees.

Apis mellifera
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) (Photo in Public Domain).

NEST IN THE BEEHIVE

Among the honey bees there are different breeds and each one has its primary function. The queen lays eggs and therefore is responsible for maintenance of the population, the drone bees must ventilate the colony and mate with the queen, and worker bees are capable to perform different tasks.

The functions of drone bees are really important, they must ventilate the beehive to keep the perfect temperature and also must mate with the queen. Drone bees are born from non-fertilized eggs (they are haploid, n); in the cells where are the eggs, the queen can choose whether to deposit sperm or not from the spermatheca (organ of the female reproductive tract specialized in store sperm). It has been seen that drone bees are born from big cells (bigger than the cells where the worker bees are born).

The worker bees perform different functions during the first weeks of life; they can clean the cells, be the attendants (nurse bees), guardian bees or honeycomb builders. After 2-3 weeks they become foraging bees.

  • Cell cleaning: they clean different wastes and remove dead bees from the cells.
  • Nurse bees: elaborate royal jelly, a high-quality honey, to feed young larvae and the queen.
  • Guardians: stand at the beehive’s entrance, controlling everything that is trying to enter, and defending it from any invader. This kind of bee are those that bite more.
  • Honeycomb building: produce cells with their wax glands and, due this, they can build the beehive.
  • Foraging bees: are responsible for visiting the flowers and then, with dances, indicate to the other bees where they found food-rich areas (flowering areas). The most important is that they collect nectar from flowers and bring it to the hive.
bee hive
Beehive (Photo in Public Domain).

TRANSFORMATION OF NECTAR TO HONEY

The bees perform trophallaxis to produce honey, i.e., they transfer the food among them mouth-to-mouth transforming the nectar into honey, and also changing its consistency through enzymes. Nurse bees put honey in the cells where they let it evaporate between 15-20% of water for a few hours, then, they close the cells with a special wax, propolis, avoiding that honey can continue evaporating and storing it as a food for the beehive.

Trophallaxis
Bees performing trophallaxis (Author: Jonathan D, CC, Flickr)

POPULATION EXPLOSION

When there is an overproduction of food in a colony (too much honey production) and also a population excess, a population explosion arises because the proximity to collapse is detected. Therefore, dozens of eggs are laid and some of the new larvae will be fed with royal jelly for a long time (not only at the beginning) to turn them in future queens. During this period the regent queen is marginalized, so she will turn weak and the other emergent queens will be able to compete. There is then a dispute between queens and the dethroned queen, usually the old one, must leave the hive. But she won’t be alone in the exile, a group of worker bees will be with her, helping to find a new place to build a new colony. This process is called swarming and is very interesting for beekeepers, as they can simulate it for create new beehives.

BEEKEEPING

Beekeeping is the bee breeding and their maintenance in order to obtain and use these products produced and collected by them. Mainly honey, pollen and royal jelly.

20110831_BeeKeeping_OA07L
Beekeeper with honeycombs of bees (Author: IMCBerea College, CC, Flickr)

This activity can be performed with different species of the genus Apis (Apis dorsata, Apis florea, Apis indica y Apis mellifera), being Apis mellifera the most famous. And among its different races, the black bee is the most important as it’s the number one in therms of productivity and offers a honey of high quality.

For the beekeeping is essential to know in detail how the demographic explisión works to increase performance and create new panels. Therefore, in the spring, when beekeepers want more beehives, they provide a highly-nutritious syrup (basically water with sugar) to stimulate population growth and the queen to lay eggs, which will be new queens; leading this to a population explosion. Thus, new swarms must be monitored by the beekeeper to fill empty hives. In any case, competition and fighting between colonies should be avoided, and this can be done by restricting liquid syrup.

Once the hives are established, cells will be filled by honey. So the beekeeper must keep track of the flowering plants around where beehives are placed. If honey is made from the nectar of a vegetation predominated by a single type of plant, it will be a single-flower honey (rosemary, thyme, eucalyptus, etc.), but if the hive is located in places where there is not a clear predominance of the vegetation by a type of plant, this kind of honey is usually called wildflower. Therefore, we see that the fact of placing the hives in one place or another determines the variety of honey that is obtained.

Honey
Different types of honey (Author: Sergei Vavinov, CC, Flickr).

During the summer, the beekeeper must provide constantly water enough to thermoregulate the colony, making sure that is not too hot; and in winter they must place the beehives into protected areas, more temperate to avoid deaths.

Beekeeping2
Beekeepers with different beehives (Author: Thien Gretchen, CC, Flickr).

On the other hand, there are beekeepers who are dedicated exclusively to breeding queens. So, they force the beehive to collapse into a population explosions to select interesting varieties; this way they can duplicate the colonies that produce a honey of better quality or more quantity, thus optimizing production time.

As we can see, the bee world is very large, and although we have only seen a little bit, there are many more things that are known and many more that must be discovered about the wonderful life of these insects.

Difusió-anglès

*Cover photo: A public domain image by Alex Wild, part of the University of Texas at Austin’s “Insects Unlocked” project.

REFERENCES

  • Notes of Animal Resources Management and Pest Control, Degree in Environmental Biology, UAB.
  • Flores, J.M., Ruíz, J.A., Ruz, J.M., Puerta, F., Campano, F., Padilla, F. & Bustos, M. (1998) Queen rearing of Apis mellifera iberica. Arch. Zootec. 47: 347-350
  • INPE-4016. Capitulo II. Abejas melíferas utilizadas en la apicultura.
  • Dadant (1979) La colmena y la abeja melífera. Ed. Hemisferio Sur.

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