One of the facts about bees that have always
been attractive to humans is the way that the bee-society
Every individual of the hive seems to be
programmed to do exactly its own role, always for the benefit
of the community, always ready to defend it - even at the
cost of their sting, which will condemn the individual to
its own death.
Bees know what to do in the different stages
of their life, collaborating with the society as if it was
just an only body, without interfering with the task of the
rest of the hive-society, accepting its destiny and never
acting for a selfish or ambitious purpose.
It is the dream of any human government.
We all know, more or less, what a hive is:
a swarm, a living mass of thirty to eighty thousand individuals
(far more in some bee-races in the proper circumstances).
Once it is established in a definite place that will be its
habitat, where they will develop their productive industry
within a very effective and sophisticated social system, reproducing
themselves maybe for many centuries, generation after generation,
until the natural conditions and the local environment change
drastically or they are removed by man for his own benefit.
In its natural environment, the hive will
be formed by a new swarm somewhere that can offer the right
conditions for it, best in quiet and lonely open areas with
plenty of vegetation and water near by, protected from extreme
temperatures, winds and humidity, also sheltered from the
invasion of other insects or the attack of any other animal,
such as small cavities in rocky walls, or even better in the
cavity of a big and old tree trunk, though a swarm can decide
to stop in the most unwanted places, even inside a house or
a car downtown, as happens in Eivissa, especially at this
time of the year. The fire brigade have to act in several
cases to remove some swarms that come to town, invading houses
and public gardens, becoming a danger for the people and the
traffic. But those hives, for obvious reasons, don't normally
remain for too long.
It was probably the preference of the bees
for empty tree trunks that gave the idea to primitive man
to form and control his own hives. All they had to do was
to take the trunk with the bees in it and place it somewhere
nearby, so the honey was always under control and available,
or cut the trunk smaller and take it with him.
This is something that we still can see
here, in our Islands.
Our ancestral hives, displaced in the forest
or near by it, are normally made of a trunk that has been
previously emptied by the ants and fungus. They mostly use
almond or carob trees, because of the resistance of its bark
to rot, of about four feet long and fifteen to twenty inches
diameter at most (1.25 metre x 0.45 metre, more or less),
resting sideways on the ground, covered afterwards all over
with clay and flat stones to shelter them even better and
make them more insulated to the exterior temperatures, leaving
just a very small entrance in one of its ends, always looking
for the sunny side. (Those bee-houses were confused and taken
as old tombs by some of our first tourist visitors. They discovered,
painfully, their mistake when they tried to open them looking
for archaeological treasures. The real treasure for them was
to discover how fast they could really run; I bet some haven't
stop running yet).
Also in some parts of mainland Spain there
are still beekeepers that move the hives up and down the mountains
according to the seasons, like nomads with the bees as they
did with sheep or any other cattle from immemorial times.
Nowadays, even some of the old hives are
still active and there are demands for keeping them for anthropological
interest. Most local beekeepers use the modern "Langstroth"
hive, invented by the American Lawrence Larrain Langstroth
in 1851, considered to be the most significant pioneer of
the modern Apiculture.
This bee-house is the most used at present,
with very few changes, all over the world. The revolutionary
fact about this bee-house is that the honey panels can be
removed from the hive just by lifting its cover, without having
to destroy them, not bothering the nesting and the rest of
the hive. The panels can be fixed in it again, once the honey
has been extracted from them.
In 1857, Mehing, a Bavarian beekeeper, invented
a way to make artificial wax panels, by pressing natural wax
in a mould with the cells already printed on it.
These two inventions together increased
the harvest of honey - up to twenty times more then before
- because of the amount of saving time and work, without having
to destroy practically the entire hive and also leaving a
lot of dead bodies just to collect the honey, with far less
stress that this means to the bees. All this seems maybe a
little thing to us nowadays, but this type of hive was already
wanted and it was for a long time studied by beekeepers throughout
history, at least by the Greeks, who could see the advantages
of this system. But it was impossible for them to succeed.
(Bees only allow certain measures for them to operate inside
the hive; if those measures are not respected, the honey panels
get cemented with propoleos made by the bees to the side walls
of the hive and the entire system fails. This is another of
the secrets that Langstroth discovered in the eighty years
of his long life working with bees).
Bee Busy Collecting Pollen
The Langstroth hive consists basically of a cube with
different departments. First, a box or deposit, resting
on a platform a few centimetres from the floor, with
a capacity of a minimum of forty litres for the nesting
of the larva, where the queen lays its eggs and where
the rest of the bees will spend the inactive winter
month. Then comes, by the side or on top - depending
on the model of bee-house (vertical or horizontal) -
another deposit of about the same size for the honey
panels hanging separately one by one; some more boxes
with more panels can be put on top in case of a large
production, all well sheltered by a removable top.
Inside the hive, in the middle, we
have the cell-wax-panels, the old nest. The queen always
starts laying her eggs in the cells in the middle of
it, larger cells for the non fecundated eggs that will
turn into drones, special cells for the future queens,
which will also be filled up with the queen's jelly.
The panels to stock the honey are normally apart if
there is enough room for it, and its cells are smaller.
All this, together with a non stop frenetic activity,
making new cells, stoking the pollen and honey, producing
propoleos to fix the panels, cleaning the hive of the
bee drops and the dead bodies, ventilating and drying
the habitat with their wings, looking after the new
born babies, etc, etc.
Stone Bee Hive
The Bee Family
Whatever the habitat, the bee family
hasn't changed since we've known them, most probably
since before the human race appeared on Earth. The structure
of its society has proved to be so efficient along the
times and it is a real model of labour, discipline,
order and generous collaboration - a good lesson for
the human kind.
The bees of a hive are basically a
big physiological family, with a father, the drone (there
are about a hundred and fifty to two hundred, or more,
drones in the hive) that the sons will never meet, the
mother, the real Queen, only one (she gets fecundated
at least once, then she will lay about two thousands
eggs every twenty four hours for two, three or more
years). They provide all her sons with her own personal
perfume, which they will always recognise and distinguish
from any other clan, the sons, or should I say daughters?
For practical terms, the common bee is asexual: only
the drones are diffidently males and the queen is the
only bee that will develop and use its sex and lay eggs.
(There are from thirty to eighty thousand labour-bees
in a normal hive, though this number can be reduced
to half for the winter month, relying on the food reserves,
the old drones will also be sacrificed then). Within
the family we also have the eggs, larva, and the newborn
bees. In the next article we will follow all the life
processes of one of them, so we can see all the amassing
activities that they can do in such a short amount of
time as their life is.
Society of Bees
José P Ribas