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Facts about honeybees

Honeybees are responsible for pollinating around 80% of the flowering crops we consume, but unfortunately, the number of these insects is in decline, which is causing concern from various environmental and agricultural groups. Without pollination, plants will not bear the fruits or vegetables usually harvested from them, and therefore will not 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 medicinal and cosmetic purposes, 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 1,500-2000 eggs a day, as well as releasing a pheromone (called queen substance) which gives the colony an individual identity and regulates worker bee behaviour. When the queen stops producing this pheromone (due to old age), worker bees will prepare queen cells (where potential queens are laid) so that new larvae can eventually replace her.

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 die immediately afterwards. Their only function is to fertilise the queen.

How is the queen created?
When the current queen stops producing the queen substance pheromone, worker bees will begin to make 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 fertilised egg in each one.

Only eggs that are under three days old can be turned into new queens by a process of feeding them royal jelly – a rich, creamy, milky substance produced by worker bees. This jelly, produced by a gland on the top of a worker bee's head, 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 begin to emerge from their cells, they will either choose to kill their sister queens by stinging them while they are still in their cells and remain in the colony, or take a small swarm and settle elsewhere to begin a new colony. Eventually, one of the new queens will decide to stay in the hive in which she was born, and the colony will be complete again.

How are worker and drone bees created?
Worker bees are females produced from fertilised eggs and are the same as the queen bee at 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 unfertilised eggs. Their sole purpose is to fertilise 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 food 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 – an antimicrobial sticky substance made from plant resins, which has many medicinal uses and 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.