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Bees: The Ultimate Workers

Beekeeping, or apiculture, is the cultivation of colonies of honeybees. Commercial beekeeping includes the production of honey and beeswax, the breeding of bees for sale, and the rental of bees for pollenating crops. Beekeeping in most of the world means cultivating the western honeybee, Apis mellifera. The infamous killer bee, a relative of the African honeybee, is too aggressive for commercial beekeeping. Modern beekeeping is based on the ancient Greek technique of creating a bee space. In those days, the hive consisted of a basket of containing a series of parallel wooden bars separated by a distance equal to that between the honeycombs when they are naturally built by bees. The distance is 6.350 millimeters, or about one quarter of an inch. Any variation from this distance results in the space being filled with comb or propolis. A honeycomb is a mass of hexagonal cells in the nest that contain eggs, young bees, and honey.

Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in 1851 brought beekeeping to the United States. The typical beehive today comprises a bottom board with several boxes containing movable frames and a cover. Each frame is furnished with a beeswax foundation imprinted with the hexagonal shapes of cell bottoms. The bees are guided by the imprinted cells in building their honeycombs.

Today, fruit and seed growers contract with beekeepers to move honeybee colonies onto the farms. This "bee herding" ensures income to the beekeeper during the years when honey production drops off.

Bees belong to the same order as wasps. Like wasps, bees have mouth parts with a tongue longer than the wasps better suited for gathering nectar from a greater variety of flowers. Bees have feathery body hairs, also known as plumose. Females have brushes on their legs, and they use them to remove pollen that sticks to these body hairs. The pollen is then stored under the abdomen or on the hind legs. Bees are subdivided into several families on the basis of how their wings are veined, and other criteria. There are many unique species of bees, with some living below ground, and a few that even eat wood. One of the most fascinating bees, the giant Indian bee (Apis dorsata) builds a single comb as large as 5' by 3' attached to rocks, trees or buildings.

Bees are very hard working creatures with a very rigid social order. The entire efforts of the worker (infertile females) and drones (males) bees are all geared toward serving the needs of the queen bee, who is the pivotal point for the survival of the hive. Drones are extremely disposable in the bee hive, with the exception of fertilizing the eggs for the queen bee at certain times of the year. Drones develop from infertilized eggs that the queen produces by withholding sperm from the eggs in large drone cells. Drones lack stingers and the structures needed for pollen collection. In the autumn they are ejected to starve, unless the colony is queenless. New drones are produced in the spring for mating.

Female larve also may be evicted from the hive to control the population. When the female workers lay eggs, the queen may chase workers away and eat the eggs; but if the queen dies or is removed, one of the larger workers will take her place within four hours or less. The difference in size among workers is dependent the amount of food they have avialable to eat when they are larve.

Both queens and workers are produced from fertilized eggs. Queen larve are reared in special peanut shaped cells and fed more of the royal bee jelly. When a new queen is needed for the hive, the first queen to emerge stings the other queens before they have a chance to mature. Within a few days, the virgin queen will fly to where the drones will assemble, and mate with 6 to 12 drones. The sperm from these drones is stored in a sac and used during her egg laying life of from 2 to 9 years. When queens fly to mate, a pheromone (scent) attracts the drones.

Colonies kept in hives yield an average of 50 pounds of honey for the beekeeper. Unlike other bees, honeybees do not hibernate during cold weather. Bees are world-class navigators. Honeybees communicate direction and distance from the hive to nectar sources through a sophisticated dance "language". In 1973, Karl von Frisch received a Nobel Prize for deciphering this bee language, which consists of a circle dance and a tail wagging dance. It accurately tells other bees the angle from the sun and the distance to the nectar. Bees use the sun as a compass. Even when the sun is obscured by clouds, bees can detect it's posistion from the light in brighter patches of the sky.

Bees also can see ultraviolet designs in flowers like an airplane circling an airport sees the landing lights on a runway. Honeybees also have a built-in clock that appears to be synchronized with the secretion of nectar from flowers. Thus, hineybees making the rounds of flowers in search of nectar always seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Wonderful Bee Honey

Honey is the sweet liquid produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. The color and flavor of the honey will be determined by the source of the nectar. Most of the honey produced in the United States is from clover or alfalfa, which produces light colored and delicately flavored honeys. Much of the commercial honey is a blend of several honeys.


Honey is harvested in the form of comb honey, which may be cut into squares and sold. Most often, the honey is strained out of the comb, pasteurized (cooked), and then bottled as a clear liquid. The whitish, opaque, creamed honey is actually honey that has been crystalized. Because honey has the ability to absorb moisture, it is often used in the baking industry to keep baked goods moist and fresh. It's high sugar content and it's acidity make it an excellent food preservative.

Royal Bee Jelly

There is a fascinating caste system in bee hives. While worker bees only live about 6 weeks, queen bees can live up to 9 years. Worker bees are female bees that are not allowed to hatch eggs. Worker bees gather a unique collection of pollen, nectar, and plant resins to create royal bee jelly, which is fed only to the queen bee for fertility and long life. This nutrient-rich substance contains all of the essential amino acids, special fatty acids, B vitamins with special emphasis on pantothenic acid; as well as the minerals iron, potassium, calcium, silicon, and sulfer. Royal jelly reportedly helps to treat fatigue, insomnia, ulcers, digestive disorders, and cardiovascular ailments.

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Wayne Scott - Owner
128 Gleason Ave.
Vallejo, CA 94590