The honey bee is solely responsible for pollinating crops and flowers. They also exist in a highly social community all their own.
Honey bees belong to the order Hymenoptera and are of great economic importance, though few realize it. Honey bees are directly responsible for the pollination of many of our nation's crops and wild plants each year and continue to live both in the wild and as domesticated honey producers.
Bees have been producing honey for at least 150 million years. A native to Asia and the Middle East, the common honey bee was introduced to North America by early European colonists. At the time of their arrival, these insects were known only as the European bees. Europeans who were interested in beginning new lives as farmers in the United States brought bees with them to help pollinate crops.
By the early 1800s, honey bees were widespread in the United States. The European honey bee, the Indian, and the dwarf honey bee had all been introduced to the States and were successfully adapting to a new climate. It was around this same time that Europeans and curious Americans began using bees in the commercial honey making process.
Honey bees are a social insect incapable of surviving outside their own colony. Communities of bees build a nest in which all the members of the colony live, work, and play.
Field honey bees work daily, collecting flower nectar, which the bees then regurgitate into the mouths of young workers inside the nest. Young workers, in turn, take the nectar and deposit it in cells within the hive. From there, these same bees perform the duties necessary to turn nectar into honey. Once the honey has ripened, the cell is sealed with an air-tight wax capping. The primary purpose that bees store honey is to ensure they will have ample food supplies come winter.
Honey bees go to great lengths to share news with other members of their community through a series of highly involved communication skills. Verbalizing themselves entirely through sophisticated dance steps, bees are able to direct others to sources of food and warn them of impending danger.
The familiar buzzing noise associated with bees comes from the bee's wings. A honey bee's wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, creating their distinctive buzz.
The queen bee begins her life as an 11-day-old insect. She immediately takes flight after emerging from her cell and mates in flight with as many as 18 different drone (male) bees. Internal fertilization takes place inside the female's body. The male has a penis that delivers sperm into the female bee's reproductive tract. During the mating process, the queen receives several million sperm cells, which will last her her entire life span.
The queen bee deposits the fertilized eggs into compartments inside the honeycomb. These areas are then supplied with food resources the young bees will use as they begin to develop. The queen begins to lay eggs 10 days after mating and often lays as many as 3,000 eggs in a single day.
Honey bees are social insects. Various types of bees, categorized by a division of labor, exist in each individual bee colony. A colony of bees includes a queen, drones, and workers.
Workers are the smallest bees in the colony and are made up of sexually underdeveloped females. A typical colony contains 50,000-60,000 workers. The workers feed the queen and larvae and are responsible for guarding the hive's entrance. Worker bees also help to keep the hive cool by fanning their wings. In addition, workers collect nectar daily, which is then used to make honey. The life expectancy of a worker bee is 28-35 days.
The only sexually developed female in the hive is the queen. She is also the largest bee in the colony. Her body is long and has a much larger abdomen than those of the worker bees. Her jaws also contain sharp cutting teeth, as opposed to her offspring, which have no teeth. The queen has a curved, smooth stinger that she can use repeatedly without endangering herself. By contrast, the worker bees are armed with straight, barbed stingers, which cause immediate death to the bee after stinging. A two-day-old larva is selected by workers to be reared as the queen. The lifespan of a queen bee is 1-3 years.
Male bees without stingers are drones. Drones do not collect food or pollen. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. When bee colonies are short on food, drones are often killed or kicked out of hives.
Honey bees are subject to a variety of diseases and parasites. Contagious bacterial diseases that attack bee larvae can wipe out an entire community. Nosema is a virus that can cause dysentery and paralysis in adult bees and is common in the United States. Likewise, two species of blood sucking parasitic mites are troublesome in nature to beekeepers and have recently begun affecting bees in the wild.
Animals have also been known to prey on bees. Cane toads and bee eating birds forage colony entrances, and flies, hornets, and wasps often enter nests to steal larvae. Bears have an insatiable appetite for honey, as well, and can destroy many nests in a single raid.
Today, the common honey bee exists on every continent except Antarctica. Easily adapting to many climates, the honey bee continues to live a complex social life and is still among the most studied and best known insects.