Honeybees are responsible for pollinating around 80% of the flowering crops we consume, but, unfortunately, the number of these insects is in decline and this is causing concern from various environmental and agricultural groups. Without pollination, plants will not bear the fruits or vegetables usually harvested from them and many plants will not be able to reproduce. The effects of this could be devastating to the human race.

These intelligent animals are brilliantly evolved and produce a range of substances which are useful for human consumption and for use in cosmetics, including honey, royal jelly, beeswax, and propolis.

To learn more about these fascinating insects, here are some interesting facts about honeybees:

The life of a honeybee

The colony
A colony of bees is comprised of one queen, a maximum of 60,000 worker bees (which are all female), and several hundred drones (which are all male).

The queen is responsible for producing 1,500-2,000 eggs a day, as well as releasing a pheromone (known as "queen substance") which gives the colony an individual identity and regulates worker bee behaviour. 

Worker bees are tasked with feeding larvae, producing wax from special glands on their abdomen, building comb, and protecting the hive entrance. As well as this, they also collect food sources, water, plant resins, make honey, royal jelly, and propolis.

The drones are responsible for breeding with the queen during her mating flight, which she undertakes about one week after emerging from her special brood cell (where she was kept as a larva), and they die immediately afterwards. Their only function is to fertilize the queen.

How is the queen created?

If the queen is suddenly killed, worker bees will notice the absence of the pheromone and will identify around 10-20 female larvae which could potentially become queens. They build queen-size rearing chambers for the larvae and start feeding them royal jelly. 

When an aging queen begins to produce less of the queen substance pheromone, worker bees will detect this create up to 20 brood cells in which eggs that could become the new queen can be laid. These compartments are called queen cells. The current queen will lay a fertilized egg in each one.

Only larvae that are fully fed on royal jelly – a rich, creamy, milky substance produced by worker bees – can become queens. This jelly is produced by a gland on the top of a worker bee's head and usually contains 60-70% water, 12-15% proteins, 10-16% sugar, 3-6% fats, and 2-3% vitamins, salts, and amino acids.

When the new queens emerge from their cells, they will do one of two things; they will either choose to kill the sister queens, by stinging them while they are still in their cells, so they can remain in the colony, or they will take a small swarm and settle elsewhere to begin a new colony. Eventually, one of the emerging queens will decide to stay in the hive and the colony will be complete again.

How are worker and drone bees created?
Worker bees are females produced from fertilized eggs and are the same as the queen bee at the larval stage. However, instead of being fed royal jelly, they eat a lesser version of this substance, which results in their reproductive organs being under-developed. This means that a queen bee is the only sexually mature female bee in a colony.

Drones are male and produced from unfertilized eggs. Their sole purpose is to fertilize the queen, after which they die due to leaving their barbed sexual organs inside her when they uncouple.

Specifications of a honeybee

  • Average weight: one tenth of a gram (about the same as a raindrop or a large grain of sand);
  • Average size of a queen: 20-25 mm;
  • Average size of a worker: 5-15 mm;
  • Average size of a drone: 15-17 mm;
  • Wing beats: In the region of 200 beats per second / 12,000 beats per minute;
  • Flight speed: Approximately 15 mph;
  • Life span: Queens can live three to five years; workers (depending on what time of year they are born) can live from six weeks to six months, and drones (depending on whether they mate and what time of year they are born) can live for just a few weeks to four months.

Impressive facts about the honeybee

  • Honeybees can carry about 10 mg of pollen or plant resin in each pollen sack on their legs;
  • Bees have five eyes – three simple eyes (ocelli) that discern light intensity, and two larger compound eyes for detecting movement. The compound eyes are comprised of about 6,900 facets, allowing the insect to perceive movements that are separated by 1/300th of a second (humans can see movements at 1/50th). This means that, whereas humans see one smooth motion when watching a film at the cinema, bees would be able to see every individual frame separately. Research has also found that bees are red-blind and mainly see the world in yellows and blues. In addition, they can also see ultraviolet light;
  • They are cold-blooded;
  • Bees are the only insect in the world that can make a foodstuff suitable for human consumption;
  • Bees communicate with one another using pheromones and dances. When they dance they waggle their bodies in certain directions and at different speeds to convey information such as the location of a food source;
  • They produce propolis which has been used by human beings since at least 3000BC;
  • Research led by entomology professor and Institute for Genomic Biology director, Gene Robinson, has shown that these insects have their own personalities. Some are hard workers and others try to avoid their tasks. In addition, traits such as being a thrill-seeker, timid, and pessimistic, have also been observed.

Bees are complex creatures. This page contains just a selection of remarkable facts about these insects. To learn more about bees, please browse the rest of the website.

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