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Weekly Edition 066: Saturday 1th June 2002

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Island Ecology
by José P Ribas

Bees - Part Four

Everything starts with a wedding dance, celebrated in the open air on a pleasant and warm spring day when the sun is out.

The new-born queen comes out of the hive into the sunlight for the first and perhaps the last time in her life.

She wins her crown in a mortal duel with at least one of her sisters and then eats her rival, sucking the insides of the dead body (nothing is wasted in the bee society).

The newly crowned virgin queen flies in circles up and down, high and away.

Soon she starts to be followed by an indeterminate number of drones, who have the biggest and most perfect eyes of the bee-family, with at least 13,000 facets in each one of them (about 4.900 for the queen, in her smaller head, 6,500 for the eye of the common bee, on average). 

They also have larger wings, slightly longer then their own body. According to most biologist and beekeepers, the reason is exclusively for the purpose of spotting and reaching the queen in her wedding ceremony - the sooner the better, before other drones do.

After all, this is the only work that they will ever do in their entire life, and apparently the only reason for their existence is because drones don’t have any of the special organs that the common labour-bees possess to collect pollen, nectar and water, or to produce honey and wax, and they are either warriors, as his sister are, because they haven’t got the jaws or the sting for it.

The drones are completely useless to the hive society once the queen has been fecundated (some modern scientists say that the drones in the hive stimulate the labour-bees in their work and make them more active, with pheromones and body heat).

The ones that haven’t succeeded in their love affairs remain in the hive doing nothing apart from eating, just going out a short while trying to spot another queen flying by. At the end of the honey-harvest season - by the end of autumn - as each one of the drones eats daily the honey of about the production of six labour-bees, exclusively for saving reasons before the hibernation, they will all be killed or expelled from the hive by the bee-community and another generation of them will be created by the queen for next spring.      

The drone that has been able to reach and conquer the queen in her wedding flight, like an opera hero, will drop dead after showing her all his passionate love.

This is so because his sexual organ breaks off and remains inside of hers with the copulation, leaving about a million spermatozoids that she will keep in a special organ to be used later, one by one, to fecundate her eggs. This means his instant death, just the same as a common bee using and losing her sting.

The queen will return to be pampered by her court inside of the hive, with part of his sperm as a small white filament hanging from the end of her abdomen. This is the best proof for the beekeeper that everything went OK. The ceremony has been successfully completed, the queen is fecundated and the ritual is over.

Once the new fecundated queen returns to the hive, as only one queen can reign in it, normally the old queen, her mother, gets ready to leave it with about half of the population of the colony. The ones that want to stay with the old queen all walk out of the hive, forming a crowded group by its entrance waiting for her to be ready. Then they all fly away together to create a new colony elsewhere. This is when the new swarms are formed. The other alternative is another mortal duel between mother and daughter. On very few occasions - when the queen mother is rather old, more than three years - she is allowed to stay and die in her own primitive hive.

Now we have a new and only queen in the hive, everything goes back to “normal”, life recovers its routine.

For the first two or three days nothing happens, then the queen’s abdomen starts growing, she shows beautiful colours and all her splendour as a young mother, she goes around the panel nest, inspecting the good conditions of the cells.

When she makes sure everything is in good condition, she goes to the middle of the panel nest and starts laying her eggs. This is always in the central cells and around them in circles, always only one egg per cell.

When she reaches a larger cell (this is a cell for a drone) then she lays - at her own will - an egg without using the drones’ spermatozoids, so the egg is not fecundated. That means only a drone can come out of it; the rest of the cells will be filled with an egg each, the same eggs for the labour-bees or for queens, though the queen’s cells are also bigger.    

A fecundated egg of 1.5mm is put inside a standard cell three days after a larva will be born. It starts to be fed straight away by her particular nurse with a pre-digested very rich jelly that young bees, up to three weeks, produce in special glands in their heads.

It is a very especial aliment. It is what makes the difference between a normal bee and a queen. The difference is not in the egg, but in what the larva eats. This very special jelly: the queen will eat it all her life and she can live for five years. A normal bee just lives six to seven weeks when they are active and just will eat it for the first days of her life, therefore, this jelly is known as the queen’s jelly or “Royal jelly”.

For two or three days, the larva eats constantly this especial jelly and grows very fast. After the third day, the larva will eat pollen and nectar; in five days its weight will go from 0.1mg to 157mg, changing several times its jacket, and the larva will began to make a thin cocoon. Then, her nurse will cover the cell with a porous lid made of pollen and wax and a nymph will develop in it.  

Twenty-one days after laying the egg, a complete newborn bee gnaws the cell cover and comes out to life, after passing through a complete metamorphosis.

The first day she is moving around the hive, meeting the rest of the family.  Twenty-four hours later, the task of the labour-bee has begun. She starts cleaning the new empty cells and on the fourth day she becomes a nurse and will feed the large larva with her own royal jelly. On the sixth she will feed the younger larva.

From the 8th till the 10th, she will be working inside the hive doing specific jobs. She can work stoking the pollen and nectar collected by her older sisters, or she will be a ventilator by beating her wings non-stop. This is a very important job that young bees do. Two rows of bees, one in front of the other, all beating their wings at the same time to renew the air inside the hive and to dry the extra humidity of the pollen or nectar harvest; otherwise it could be wasted by fermentation. Also when it is very hot, they ventilate the just-made new wax cells or else they could melt and lose their shape.

During this time, she can also work as cleaner, removing the dead bodies or the rubbish and other insects from the hive. Another job they do is to repair the hive and the panels with propoleos, a kind of resin produce by bees from the new buds of some plants and trees mixed up with its wax. They use this to fix the panels to the hive and to glue all the cracks and holes. This is also the age that she learns how to orient herself and the situation of the hive in the neighbourhood. 

About the 18th day of her existence, the bee starts to produce wax from special glands situated below her abdomen, in between the lasts four rings of it. The wax appears as diminutive scales (1,250,000 of them in a kilogram) deep inside the joints of those rings. She collects them by rubbing the legs up and down her abdomen, fixing them with leg hairs and takes them up to her mouth, chewing them to mix with saliva. To make new panels and cells, bees of the same age work as a team, using specific techniques for it.

Then, for a few days, she will be a worrier as a guard of the hive. By then, she knows everybody in her own colony and only they will be allowed inside the hive, any other stranger of any kind, big or small, will be attacked with ferocity.

When she is three weeks old, for about twenty-five days, till she dies, is when she starts her job as a pollen, nectar and water collector. She visits the flowers and licks the nectar with her long tongue, accumulating it inside a bag in her digestive tube before it is regurgitated again, experimenting in this process the first step for its transformation into honey.

She gets deep inside the flower, covering herself with pollen, and as she normally visits just one type of flower at a time, it is when her priceless job pollinating other plants is done.

To collect her pollen, they brush the stamen with their jaws. Bees also possess special organs in their back legs, like special hairy brushes. They put the pollen in a special bag and form a couple of small pollen balls, big enough to be seen, hanging from them when they fly around collecting it. When she returns to the hive, she stocks her own harvest or gives it to one of the youngsters to do this job. She tells the rest of the collectors, by performing a special dance, from where she has collected her harvest. The new honey is put inside the cell and closed as soon as it is full, to be eaten in the winter or to be collected by the beekeeper. 

A Cross Section of a Bee-Society

A New-Born Queen Bee

A Queen Bee Surrounded by Worker Bees

(To be continued)

José P Ribas

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