Honey Bees

 Honey Bees

©Darlene B. Durham 2014


TGO Nature Center, TGO, Nature, Honey Bees, Insects, Honey, Bee


Honey bees are a vital part of our ecological system.  They produce honey and pollinate plants.  You can see honey bees here at TGO on some of our beautiful flowers like the photo above of a honey bee on a passionflower (click on the photo to enlarge and then zoom in for a closer look). Unfortunately, the honey bee population has declined dramatically and we need to do our part to protect them.

The honey bee is approximately 5/8” long with a rotund body.  The body of a honey bee has three major parts – the head, thorax and abdomen.  The head contains most of the sensory organs including the eyes and antennae in addition to the mouth parts.  The thorax, or middle part of the body, is hairy and contains the legs, wings and the muscles to move them.  The digestion and reproduction organs are located in the abdomen which is banded black and golden.

Honey bees live in colonies.  There can be upward of 10,000 to 100,000 bees to a colony.  The honey bee has a complex social system in which there are three types of honey bee members in each colony.  They include the female queen, the female workers and the males which are often referred to as drones.

The primary role of the queen honey bee is to reproduce.  She is the largest member of the colony and the only female to mate.  Any female egg can become a female worker bee or a queen bee.  If a decision is made by the colony that it will produce queens, nurse bees will choose one or more female larvae and feed them “royal jelly” which is a special glandular secretion.  This “royal jelly” must be provided within a few hours of the hatching and must not be interrupted for the new potential queen(s) to become fully developed queen(s).  These new virgin queens will kill each other until there is one remaining dominant queen.

A new queen will mate with up to twenty drones.  This mating process takes place in flight.  She has the capability of storing millions of sperm from the multiple drones in her spermatheca. This will be the only time in her life that she will mate.  She will remain fertile for the rest of her life (3 to 5 years).   The mated queen can release sperm at will.  As an egg passes through her median oviduct, the queen can fertilize it for a female or not fertilize it which produces a male.  The queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day.

The sterile female workers are the most numerous member of the bee colony.  Some workers will surround the queen honey bee tending to her every need including feeding her and removing her waste.  Workers also forage and process food, make wax, build honeycomb, store pollen, make honey, tend to the young bees, clean and defend the nest which is also called a hive and maintain the temperature of the colony.  When the hive becomes hot, the worker bees will beat their wings to cool the hive.

It is the worker bees, not the queen, who decides if and when the colony reproduces.  Female worker bees can lay eggs but they cannot mate.  In a normal colony with a queen, not many eggs will be laid by female worker bees.  In a colony without a queen, worker female bees may lay many more eggs but since they cannot mate, these eggs contain only half of the normal chromosomes; therefore, only male bees are created.  A hive cannot survive with only worker bees laying unfertilized eggs.

The worker bees have a sharp barbed stinger attached to a venom gland.   Even though the honey bee normally will not bother humans, they will defend themselves and the hive.  Due to the barbed (like a fish hook) stinger, when a worker bee stings, the stinger is pulled out of the bee and the bee dies.  Occasionally honey bees may approach people if they are attracted to the perfume, soap and/or hairspray used.  Once the bee realizes there is no nectar to be found, they will usually leave without incident.

Male or drone honey bees’ primary mission in life is to mate with a queen.  When drones reach maturity, they take daily afternoon flights along with drones from other colonies.  When a queen appears at one of the drone congregation areas, she incites a frenzy causing drones to chase her.   As mentioned previously, she will mate with a number of these drones in flight.  After mating with a queen, the drone will die.  It has been referred to as sexual suicide.

The female worker honey bees produce honey.  The honey is stored to be consumed during the winter months when there is no other food source.  Drones who survive the summer will be driven away from a hive as winter approaches as the honey is too precious of a commodity to feed drones during the winter months.

Not only do honey bees produce sweet delicious honey, they are vital pollinators of many types of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  To pollinate plants, pollen must be transferred from the stamen (the male part of a flower) to the stigma (the female part of the flower).  (Click here to see a diagram and description of flower parts). As the worker honey bee collects nectar and pollen, some pollen will stick to the bee’s hairy body.  The pollen contains male sperm (gametes).  The pollen on the body of the bee collected from the stamen of one flower is transferred to another flower’s stigma as the honey bee moves from flower to flower. Below is a photo by Sandy Juba of a honey bee covered in pollen.


TGO Nature Center, Nature, Honey, Bee, Pollen, Education, Series

Pollen Covered Honey Bee


The population of honey bees has been declining at an alarming rate primarily due to the use of pesticides, loss of genetic diversity, the infestation of mites along with other factors such as weather.  According to CNN, as reported on June 23, 2014, President Obama has assembled a multi-agency task force to address the declining numbers of honey bees and other pollinators.

According to the White House as reported by CNN, “Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America.  Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops evaluated are dependent on animal pollinators.”   Honey bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy “through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets” according to the White House.  Honey bees cannot survive without plants and many plants cannot survive without honey bees.

To learn more about a couple of Honey Bee rescues at TGO, click on the links below:

Honey Bees Rescue

Another Honey Bee Rescue



TGO Nature Center – “Living in Harmony with Nature

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