Why do bees buzz? How can they help us fight dementia? Ask Science explores the surprisingly complex world of the bristly, buzzing, black-and-yellow bee.
A bee produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. That may not sound like much, but that bee will travel the length of several trips around the world and visit 3,500 flowers in order to do it. Multiply that number by the 80,000 or so bees that populate an average hive in the summer, and beekeepers can expect to harvest around 100 pounds of extra honey beyond what the hive needs for itself.
1. Bees live in the ultimate matriarchal society
Many animal species structure their division of labor so that females stay home to produce and raise the children while males venture out to collect resources. Bees take this concept to the extreme. Only one female bee, called the Queen, remains in the hive to lay as many as 1,500 eggs per day.
The worker bees, those sustaining the hive in all ways other than reproduction, are all female. They either work at home (cleaning, feeding the babies, taking care of the Queen, building and repairing the honeycomb, and even guarding the hive) or out in the field (collecting nectar and pollen from flowers). Male bees, called drones, spend their time looking for other queens to mate with.
A bee’s brain chemistry determines the type of job that bee will have. In other words, they are hardwired to be security guards versus explorers versus homemakers. In fact, some species of bee like the honeybee change jobs throughout their lifetimes and so have to change their entire brain chemistry in order to do it.
2. Honey never spoils
Worker bees gather a sweet, watery substance called nectar from flowers and bring it back to the hive in a spare stomach. They then regurgitate the nectar into the honeycomb cells and fan it to remove its water and create honey.
Honey is able to last forever due to its combination of a lack of water and its acidity. This creates an inhospitable environment for potential invading microorganisms. Another key factor is the glucose oxidase enzyme added to the nectar from the interior of the bee’s stomach. This enzyme, once mixed with the nectar, breaks down into hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. The hydrogen peroxide further prevents the growth of any bacteria.
Honey may be the only everlasting food that you can eat right out of the jar. Pots of honey, over thousands of years old, have been found perfectly preserved in the ancient tombs of Egypt!
3. Bees don’t just make honey
Hives also produce beeswax, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. The beeswax is secreted by special glands on the bees’ stomachs. A worker bee will chew the wax and shape it to form the honeycombs in the hive.
Propolis, also called bee glue, is a sticky resin collected from trees that bees use to fill in cracks in their honeycomb. They use it as a cover to seal the hive against rain as well as predators or other uninvited guests. Bees are known to use propolis to mummify any interlopers, like a small lizard, for example, that crawl into the hive and die, but are too heavy to be carried out. Propolis is also used in traditional medicine for treating problems like cold sores, although with differing opinions on its effectiveness.
Pollen is an important part of a bee’s diet and provides the bee with protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. In the process of collecting pollen, bees also provide an important service: they pollinate plants (spread pollen from one plant to another or sometimes from one part of a plant to another) so that fertilization can occur and the plant can ultimately produce seeds.
The milky substance called royal jelly that is produced in glands in the heads of worker bees helps them determine who will be their new Queen. Although all bees dine on royal jelly, a few larvae picked as future potential queens are fed much larger amounts once the current Queen begins to age or dies. The special diet produces both the brain chemistry and the reproductive organs needed to reign as Queen.