Bits about bees: The Basics

With this post, I will begin the educational posts I mentioned before, these posts will be called “Bits about bees.” We’ll start with the basics, the information has been gathered from the various bee books I have. DISCLAIMER: for the beekeepers who have read LOTS and LOTS of information, this may not be for you. I am keeping this purposely simple but educational. As we all know, bees are incredibly fascinating and complex. I have attempted to distill what the general population might like to know and would likely find most intriguing and interesting.

There are lots of bees in this world, and quite a few make honey. Honey bees are the only ones that make surplus honey, others such as bumble bees make just enough to feed their young.

The honey bee species is Apis mellifera, with several subspecies including lingustica (Italian), this is the most commonly kept bee in the US because it is gentle. Mind you, this is completely relative. All worker honeybees sting but the level of provocation can vary.

There are 3 castes of bees: the queen, the worker and the drone. The queen and workers are female and the workers can number from 60,000 to 80,000 (I’ve seen 60K to 100K reported) at the height of the summer. The drones are the males and they number in the several hundreds during peak season.

The difference between the 3 castes is purpose and function: the queen lays the eggs, the workers take care of the queen, the larvae, they build the comb, defend the hive, make the honey and forage for pollen and nectar. The drones mate. Don’t think the queen has it made either. She can lay up to 2000-3000 eggs a day (this number also varies in the books) and that is her purpose. But if she is not up to snuff, if they don’t like her for any reason…she’s OUT. They will raise a new queen in her place, using one of her eggs. Isn’t that nice?

Workers and queens are made from fertilized eggs, the drones come from eggs that are unfertilized. The factors that affect what an egg develops into is fertilization, cell size and the food it receives as larva. This will be expanded upon at another time.

All larvae is cared for by the nurse bees which are young honey bees. Nurse bees make the food that is fed to the brood (called brood food) via glands in their head. Brood food is a milky liquid and it is secreted by the workers and placed in the cell with the larva. Queens are fed a specific brood food called royal jelly, this makes the queen. Nurse bees will adjust the composition of the brood food based on the larva they are visiting and the age of that larva, isn’t that clever?

If you look through my previous posts, you’ll see lovely pictures of larvae and even eggs. Once the larva has reached a certain age, say 9 days for a worker, it will be capped with wax by the adult workers. At which point the larva will begin to spin a cocoon and will then pupate into an adult bee which will emerge approximately 12 days later at 21 days after the egg was laid. Just so you know, new bees are fuzzy 🙂 I’ll try to get a picture next time.

When I show pictures of “brood” it is usually of open brood and capped brood. Open brood consists of the eggs and larvae that are visible, capped brood is larvae that has been capped by wax to allow pupation.


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