Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bees have Mummies Part I

Did you know that bees hives are a lot like Pharoah and his tomb?

We know that bees like to keep their home warm and dry. Pretty well all creatures that live outside must find some kind of home that is comfortable.

In winter the bees don't hibernate. Instead they're awake and active inside their hive all winter. That's why they need to store so much honey. It's their food to last them all winter long until the spring flowers bloom. I mentioned in the last post how the bees keep each other warm in a cluster.

Often other animals that are outside are looking for a warm place to live. They'll often see the nice bee hive. Then they'll go inside and find it nice and dry and they'll decide to stay and live there. Mice really like to live inside bee hives and can sometimes build nests inside them. But the mouse might have forgotten that bees can sting and the bees can sting the mouse until it dies.

Sometimes the mouse will die inside the hive. This is not acceptable at all to the bees who must keep their hive clean. The mouse isn't very clean to begin with and soon it will begin to smell and rot. Ewwww! The bees have a big problem. The mouse is much too big for the bees to carry out of the hive. Because they can't carry it out they will leave it there and instead they will cover the mouse completely.

[This is a sticky glob of propolis that I scraped from a hive].

They'll take their sticky waterproof propolis and they will coat if over and over the mouse until the body is completely covered. This creates a seal over the mouse kind of like a plastic ziplock lunch bag. Now the hive will stay clean from the dirty mouse.

[Because I haven't had a mouse inside my hives I don't have a photo of it to show you. Now that should be a good thing. See the propolis marks on the wood? The bees have used it to glue the frames of the hive into place.]

And the mouse? Its body is now inside a very dry propolis tomb just like a pharoah in Egypt. Over time the mouse's body will dry up just like an Egyptian mummy.

Now you can see that the bee hive isn't much different than a Pharoah's tomb. It's filled with a treasure of golden honey and sometimes even a mummy in a tomb.

Next I'll tell you about another kind of small mummy in a bee hive.


Soon winter will come or it might be spring with many cold and rainy wet days. If you're a bee living inside a hive with your brothers and sisters you snuggle with each other on cold days to keep warm.

[See the reddish brown coloured stuff on the edge of the frame at left - that's propolis]

Beekeepers call snuggling "clustering". The bees gather together in a clump and they shiver their wing muscles. This creates heat to keep each other warm. Their beeswax also absorbs the heat from the bees and this warms the hive too.

Have you ever put your hand on a rock at night after a sunny day or the bricks of your house? Often you'll find the rock or the bricks are still warm. They've absorbed the heat. Beeswax works like that too.

[This is a peanut butter coloured clump of propolis I collected from a hive]

Sometimes the wind or rain will come inside the hive through the cracks between the wooden boxes. Or if they are wild bees living in a hollow tree there might be a crack in the hollow that lets the rain and snow in. We know that bees are pretty smart and they do have a way to solve this problem of rain or cold drafts coming in.

How do they do it? They fill in the cracks in their home. People do that too to keep their heat inside. Often they'll use that pink insulation or a white stuff called caulking. They'll squeeze it from a tube into the area around windows and doors. It helps to keep the house waterproof and warm.

Bees use caulking too. Theirs is made by nature. It's called propolis. You say it like this: pro-pol-lis.

Propolis is a sticky sap that the bees collect from the buds of trees. The bee scrapes it off with her mandibles and then attaches it to her pollen baskets. Once she has a load she'll return to her hive and go to the construction area of the hive.

The construction bees will take the propolis and mix it with their spit and a bit of beeswax. Then they'll take it and stuff it into the cracks and holes in their hive. It works like a glue to hold things together and it's also waterproof so it'll keep the rain outside.

[See the propolis mixed with wax pictured on the left side of this frame of honeycomb]

Bees really love to use propolis to glue down the frames of honeycomb in their hive. I suppose they'd prefer if the beekeeper didn't remove the frames ever but the beekeeper will need to take the frames out on occasion to check on the health of the bees and to gather honey. The bees will re-glue things back down again once the frames are put back in.

If you know bees are smart then you'll really want to learn one other really cool thing they can do with propolis. They can make Mummies.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Parts of the Bee: The Tongue (Proboscis)

This closeup photo shows a worker bee. She's quite happy to be sitting on my metal hive tool.

Do you know why? Because there's honey on it. She has her tongue out and she's licking it off.

The bee doesn't have lips like you and I. Instead she has mandibles. They're like to hinged gates that open and close at the middle. The bee uses her mandibles when she needs to chew something such as beeswax when making honeycombs. She'll also use her mandibles the same as we use our hands. She'll pick something a piece of garbage that she'll then carry out of the hive to throw away.

Her tongue, called a proboscis is long and pointy--so is yours if you stick it out as far as you can--her tongue is soft like yours too.

Bees need long tongues so that they can reach into flowers to where the nectar is.

The bees' tongue works like a straw. The bee unrolls her tongue and dips it into a flower. Then she sucks up the nectar like you would drink from a straw.

Bees will also use their tongues like a cat to lick their fur to keep themselves clean. They'll also lick and clean each other and their mother the queen.

Their tongues are also used like brooms to lick the inside of their hive to keep it clean. At least we don't have to lick our bodies to keep them clean.

Parts of the Bee: The body

Here's a painting I did of a worker honey bee. Let's look at the different parts of her body.

Starting at the head you'll see she actually has five eyes and not just two.

Her compound eyes are for seeing in the day time. Her three small ocelli eyes are to see in the dark - like when the sun is setting and she's flying home loaded with nectar or pollen. Or she could be inside the hive where it's always dark and they help her see.

She has two antennae that are attached in the middle of her face. These are super sensitive and the bees use them for many things like smelling. They twitch and twirl their antennae a lot and it's interesting to watch them touching each other and their honeycombs with their antennae. When I watch them twitching their antennae it looks like they are talking with them.

A bee's mouth is really interesting. Bees have mandibles which are like two gates on hinges that come together in the middle. Her tongue is really long and soft. It's called a proboscis (say it like this: Pro-bow-sis). I'll cover the tongue in detail in another post but I want to clarify that bees can't really bite you. I mean they can bite, but their mouth is so small that they really wouldn't be able to get enough skin for you to feel it. Their stinger though is another matter.

Of course the female worker bee has a stinger, but she'll die if she uses it. Because of that honey bees don't like to sting unless they feel really threatened and think it's necessary.

Bees can be a golden or lighter yellow colour with brown to black stripes. They also have four wings, two on each side and she has two stomachs - one is a regular stomach for food and the other is a honey stomach where she stores either nectar or water that she brings back to the hive.

The honey bee is furry all over. She has hair on her back, her stomach, her legs and even in her eyes. These hairs are useful for two reasons. They keep her warm on colder days so she can fly out earlier in the morning and she can stay out later in the day. But more important, her fur is will collect and hold all the pollen when she goes into a flower.

That's she'll use her legs--she has six of them. Six legs means you're an insect. She'll sweep over her body, gathering up the tiny grains of pollen using her legs. Then she'll add some nectar to it to the powdery pollen make a slightly sticky damp mixture.

On her back legs are her pollen baskets - they're made up of a collection of stiff hairs. The worker bee will take the damp pollen mixture and stick it onto the stiff hairs kind of like how your hairs get caught in a brush when you brush your hair. Have you ever seen a honey bee or bumble bee with the yellow lumps on their back legs? That's their collected pollen stuck like suitcases on their back legs.

Once her baskets are loaded with pollen it's time for her to fly home to unload the food for her brothers and sisters to eat.