Today bees live all over the world and there are approximately 20,000 species. They range from the giant leaf eating bee to the tiny dwarf bee which is just 2mm long.
As well as crop pollination, scientists believe that bees are responsible for the rich flower diversity we enjoy today. Most flowering plants cannot self-pollinate. Pollination that relies on the wind to carry a flower's seed is not very efficient, so flowers evolved with bright colours and markings to attract bees. The bees are rewarded for their pollination service with a nutritious nectar.
The bees drink the nectar and transport it in a special stomach, back to the hive, to share with the Queen. They also feed the hive bees and larvae which will become the new bees.
A typical bee will make 3,000 visits to flowers in a day and will keep visiting the same area until all the nectar is gone.
Honeybees are the best collectors of nectar and have very little competition from other insects.
The Queen - 1 Per Colony
The Queen's main purpose in life is to reproduce. A good Queen will lay around 2,000 eggs per day (which a chicken would take over six years to produce!) The Queen relies on the female worker bees to raise her young. She controls the workers' behaviour by producing pheromones.
The Workers - 10,000 - 50,000 Per Colony
The worker is the smallest bee and is about half the weight of the Queen and drone. The abdomen is pointed and the wings are short. They provide food for grubs, drones and the Queen bee, and they also build the wax honeycomb that forms the hive's integral structure.
In fact, the workers are model bees! They clean, ventilate, defend and repair the hive, and most ingeniously of all, worker bees are experts in air conditioning. They keep the hive at a constant temperature of around 34°C. If the colony is too hot, they douse their bodies in water and bring it into the hive. They then work together to fan the air with their wings. This then brings the temperature down by causing evaporation. In cooler times, they huddle together around the brood of eggs to keep them warm. Workers live for around 36 days in the summer and six months in the winter.
The Drones - 1000 Per Colony
A drone is a male bee. It is about the same size as the Queen but is much more squarely built. His wings completely cover his abdomen and his large round head is distinctive for its two eyes which meet at the top. He has no sting. Male bees appear to have a very easy life. They do not work in the hive, do not forage for food, cannot defend the hive (as they have no sting) and are looked after by the workers who feed them honey. Their one purpose is to mate with the queen, after which they die. They do not survive over winter and any that are left in the hive in the autumn will be escorted out by the workers. Drone bees live for around 22 days in the summer and 59 days in the winter.
The role of the beekeeper is to provide a comfortable home for a bee colony and to nurture it. It's good to think of bees as being wild even though you can keep them in your garden. It's impossible to stop them leaving if they want to.
To be a successful beekeeper, you must understand the natural instincts of the bee and the organisation of the hive.
The activities of beekeepers today are increasingly important as the numbers of truly wild, unmanaged colonies has declined due to pollution and the destruction of habitats in the wild.
Your mission as a beekeeper would be to help the colony to grow strong and healthy. If successful, the colony would produce more honey than it requires and you would be able to harvest the excess.
Did You Know?
- Bees perform a dance - There is a small number of 'scout bees' who spend their time looking for good sources of food. Once they have found a good source of quality nectar, they return to the hive and tell the other bees where to find it. They do this by performing a famous wiggle dance. The scout bee stands on the honeycomb and dances. It's quite dark in the beehive so the other bees feel the dance with their antennae. The scout also shares some of the nectar, to let the other bees know the quality of nectar they have found.
- The best plants for bees - Lavender, Buddleia, Dahlia, Bee Balm, Sunflowers and Foxglove.
- Honeybees have five hairy eyes.
- Honeybees brains are the size of a grain of sugar.
- Bees are found on all continents except Antarctica.
- Bees cannot see the colour red, but they can see the ultraviolet patterns in flowers so do visit red flowers.
- Bees have four wings.
- Bees use their scent to work out if they have already visited a flower.
- If the Queen honeybee dies the worker bees can create a new Queen. They select a young larva and feed it 'royal jelly'. This will then develop into a fertile Queen.
- Swarming is a natural process of a hive. It means the bees are splitting the colony up and finding a new home to start a new colony.
- A Queen bee can live for three to four years.
- 22,700 trips are required to fill a single jar of honey.
What Can We Do?
Bees are an essential part of nature. We need to protect them and ensure their population remains strong.
Plant for pollinators
Grow more nectar-rich flowers, shrubs and trees to provide for pollinators throughout the year.
Let your garden grow
Leaving patches of land unmown allows wildflowers to grow and makes great nesting and feeding sites.
Put away the pesticide
Pesticides can harm pollinators and many other beneficial invertebrates. Consider alternatives and only use pesticides as a last resort.
Leave the lawnmower
Cut your grass less often and remove cuttings to let plants flower.
Build a bee hotel
Build a wooden home for bees to use. Fill it with flowers or plants and they can use the nectar too.
Help a struggling bee
If you find a bumblebee which appears to be struggling, it may be that it is resting. If you think the bee is struggling, gently put the bee onto a bee-friendly flower. If you have no flowers around, mix 50/50 white sugar and water and put in front of the bee to give them an energy boost.