Honeybee Facts - Amazing Bees | Melbourne Australia

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Amazing Honeybee Facts
For thousands of years humans have maintained a very special relationship with honeybees.

Those who have not been fascinated by the bees themselves have certainly been impressed by the honey produced by honeybees.

Apiarists around the world, including Australia, keep European Honeybees in boxes, so called Beehives.  Beehive in Wikipedia

Peak hour traffic at the hive entrance

Honeybee Facts
Honeybees are social animals, living in a complex society, with a queen, security guards, builders and repairers, cleaners, nurses, undertakers, heating and cooling technicians, scouts, honey makers, pollen stampers, store workers and collectors of nectar, pollen, water and resin.

During her lifetime each worker bee performs a number of these different tasks, and this with the uttermost dedication, never complaining and never going on strike (not as far as we know).

Honeybees build amazing nests, consisting of sheets of honeycomb made from beeswax, produced by themselves.

A sheet of honeycomb is a construction of adjacent cells of perfect hexagonal shape, which is the most material-efficient design for a light-weight construction of great strength.

The bee has a highly developed sense of smell, odorant chemoreceptors able to sense and distinguish flowers from a great distance.  [source]

The bee has two sets of wings, which can be hooked together in flight so they flap as one at 16,000 times a minute.

And no matter how she zigzags from flower to flower, she always beelines her way back to the home hive.

Bees navigate by utilising the light polarisation in the sky.

Bees communicate information in a symbolic language without match in the animal kingdom: the bee dance

The Bee's eyes
The honeybee has five eyes.
Three simple eyes that are arranged in a triangle on top of her head help the bee determine the amount of light present. Two compound eyes, i.e. thousands of single eyes arranged next to each other, each with its own lens and each looking in a different direction, help the bee to see objects and colour.

Although honey bees perceive a fairly broad colour range, they can only differentiate between six major categories of colour, including yellow, blue-green, blue, violet, ultraviolet, and also a colour known as "bee's purple," a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet.

Bees cannot see red.
Differentiation is not equally good throughout the range and is best in the blue-green, violet, and bee's purple colours. [The Honey Bee Body]

The Sound of Music - Sound of a Queen Bee
Yes, Queen Bees do make sounds on occasions, called Piping. When you spend time with your bees you might be lucky to hear her. An explanation can be found in Wikipedia

The piping of queen bees has been published as early as 1609 in a book by Charles Butler: The feminine monarchie

A fellow beekeeper (Tim Cousins) has captured the sound of a Queen Bee piping along with a lower frequency response from another queen - two in a duet - listen to this outstanding performance by two Queen Bees.

The Sound of Music - Sound of a King Bee
As we are unable to communicate with bees, our knowledge about them is sometimes wrong. In beekeeping history there was a time when it was thought that a King Bee was ruling the bee colony. And then there is this performance by a King Bee.

How Bees reproduce
One bee colony reproduces by splitting up in two. The natural way to do this is by swarming.

When this happens, approximately half of the colony (10,000 - 30,000 bees) with their old queen leaves the nest in a swarm looking for a new home, build a new nest and start a new life.

Before the bee colony swarms, preparations are made to ensure survival of the other half remaining in the nest, by raising a new queen. The colony builds a few queen cells and after the queen has laid one egg into each cell, the nurse bees raise a queen larva in each of these cells.

Seven days after the egg was laid the queen cell is capped and the queen larva inside starts its transformation into a pupa. Nine days later a new queen emerges from each of these cells. However, well before any of the new queens emerges from her cell, the old queen with approximately half of the colony leaves the nest in a swarm.

Left behind in the old nest, the emerging new queens fight it out with each other. Nature dictates that there can be only one queen in a hive, and in most cases it is the strongest queen surviving the contest. When environmental conditions are good, instead of killing all her sister queens, the first queen emerging, together with a few thousand bees leaves the hive in another swarm, a so called secondary swarm.

It does also occur that the next queen emerging leaves the hive as well in a swarm with another lot of bees. Most tiny swarms found are secondary swarms with a new unmated queen.

As a beekeeper you could rely on the natural way of bee colony reproduction by swarming - and some beekeepers do, in tune with nature. The tricky bit is, to be on the watch when the swarm moves out and capture it - it could disappear and might upset the neighbours.

Reproduction with Human intervention
To have better control over bee colonies and their urge to swarm, beekeepers have developed various methods of raising new queens and by intervention prevent swarming, or minimise the chance of swarming.

However, the most important reason for beekeepers raising queens by intervention is to promote favourable properties and qualities of bee colonies; i.e. selective breeding. To gain better control over the genetic properties of a bee queen's offspring, artificial insemination is being practised as well.

It remains doubtful though whether this intervention is for the good of the bees in the long term. As we are focusing only on certain favourable genetic properties, due to the lack of knowledge about nature's secrets, we might be missing some other genetic properties to create a healthy balance.

The most favourable criteria for selective breeding are:
  • Docile bees - friendly bees, not attacking anything that moves, especially neighbours.
  • Strong & healthy bees - happy bees, resistant to pests and diseases.
  • Prolific bees - bees eager to maintain a strong colony and produce plenty of honey.
  • Bee colonies with a low urge to swarm - to keep the neighbours happy.

Properties like "body grooming" and "nest cleaning" for example have tradionally not been part of the breeding selection criteria; until recently in an attempt to breed honeybees with a higher resistance to the Varroa mite. Other selection criteria remain out of focus, due to lack of understanding of the full spectrum nature uses in its natural or random selection.

The Queen bee is the mother of all bees in the colony - therefore, for raising a new queen, selecting a mother queen from good stock is an at least 50% chance for producing good new queens. The other 50% is in the selection of drones from good stock - and that is the trickier part of the match.

The queen mates with several (6-12) drones away from the hive, whilst in flight, therefore impossible to control. The best most queen breeders can do, is keeping hives from good stock with large quantities of drones nearby when raising new queens - and hoping that the mating queens fall for the best drones. Moving the breeding stock into isolated areas, away from feral bee colonies, does help to achieve the desired results.

Whatever you do as a beekeeper when raising a new queen bee, at least make sure that the egg it hatches from is from a queen of a colony you want to have - there is no benefit raising a new queen from a colony that has been chasing you and your neighbours through your backyard.

In essence, the breeding of queen bees by human intervention is guiding nature to select those bees we humans like to have in our neighbourhood.
Humans claiming superiority over Nature's selection?

Climate controlled beehives
An amazing fact about bees is that they control temperature and humidity in their hive - climate controlled beehives !

A bee colony needs to maintain a constant brood nest temperature between 34°C and 35°C, also in winter, otherwise the brood won't develop properly. Scientists have discovered that a subtle change of 1.2°C for the developing pupae determines what kind of honey bee it will become. Those kept at 35°C turn into forager bees that leave the nest searching for nectar and pollen. Those kept at 34°C emerge as "house keeper" bees that never leave the nest, conducting chores such as feeding the larvae and cleaning the nest.

A bee colony not only controls the temperature inside the brood nest but also the humidity, maintaining it between 40% and 60% - in other words a beehive is fully climate-controlled by the bees.

Bees cool their hive by fanning air through the hive with their wings and evaporating water.
Bee fanning at entrance

Graeme Lunt, a fellow beekeeper, has set up one of his beehives with temperature and humidity monitoring sensors and produces daily graphs as shown below:

Climate control

Heater Bees
Bees heat their brood comb in their hive by generating heat with their body, by so called "heater bees". Heater bees can generate a body temperature of over 43°C with their wing muscles whilst disengaging their wings. They heat the brood cells by pressing their body for up to 30 minutes into "heater cells", transferring their body heat onto the comb. Heater cells are empty cells strategically placed among the brood cells.

The knowledge about heater bees is fairly recent and was discovered by Professor Jürgen Tautz, at Würzburg University, Germany.

It has been published in the book The Buzz about Bees ; Book review by Rebecca Leaman

This book states that the body temperature of heater bees can be over 43°C (Book page 209)

Various articles have been published about Heater Bees, claiming that heater bees can heat their body up to a temperature of 44°C.

The Secret of Hive Temperature Control: Heater Bees - Central Beekeepers Alliance (March 2010)

The honey bees with built-in central heating - Daily Mail UK - (15th March 2010)

Another Bee Chore - Heater Bees - The Bee Journal (31st March 2010)

Infrared photo of a Heater Bee
Heater Bee
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