The Not-So-Secret Life of Bees

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photo by David Luttrell

The honey bee is essential for pollinating more than $100 million worth of fruits and vegetables in Tennessee annually, and $14.6 billion nationally. Some of the behaviors and life cycle of the bee play into its ability to pollinate, and also determine how receptive it is to certain diseases and ways it can and can’t be treated to prevent deaths:

• A colony is made up of one queen, 500-1,000 drones and about 50,000 workers.

• The queen mates with the drones in flight, outside the hive, which means other local bees may inseminate the queen—she’ll have anywhere from 12-18 partners, and store millions of sperm that last her entire life span, usually two years, but may be as many as five.

• She lays about 1,000 to 1,500 eggs per day in the summer, maybe as many as 3,000 at her peak, but will reduce laying when there’s not as much nectar available or when she gets some other environmental cue.

• The eggs usually take about 21 days to hatch, and then are nursed for another 10.

• The female bees “work” the colony, cleaning the hive, feeding the larvae, making wax and collecting nectar.

• Bees can feed in a 3-5 mile radius of the hive, and will feed on just one type of flower at a time.

• Honey bees visit 50-100 flowers per flight to suck sweet nectar through their mouths and then save it in a special stomach called the honey sac, simultaneously transferring pollen from the anthers of one flower to the stigma of that or another flower, necessary to “set” fruit or cucurbit. Then they fly back to the hive and transfer the nectar through their mouths, changing it to honey, which is stored in wax cells—the honey comb—and sealed with a wax cap.

• Beekeepers take honey from the honeycomb after breaking the wax caps; ideally, they’ll leave enough behind for the bees to survive the winter by forming a tight cluster in the hive, keeping themselves and the queen warm. If bees don’t have enough reserve honey, they’ll die of malnutrition or may freeze because they don’t have enough fuel to beat their wings to keep the hive warm.

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