Friday, January 29, 2010

Honey on my Spoon

If you're curious like me you've probably wondered how honey gets from the bees to your kitchen and then to your waiting spoon.

Beekeepers keep their bees inside hollow boxes. The boxes have wooden frames that look like window panes (see the photo at left where I'm holding a frame). Instead of glass the frame is filled with honey combs built by the bees.

The bees will store their food (pollen and honey) inside the combs. Once the summer flowers bloom there is lots of nectar available for the bees to collect. They'll quickly fill all their frames with the nectar and they'll need more room.

The beekeeper keeps a close eye on the bees and will add another hollow box with frames so they have more room to store their food.
This photo at left shows a typical beehive. The white box is the bees' home where the babies are. The pink and purple boxes are filled with just honey.

Honey bees are well known for being obsessive about collecting nectar. They never know when to stop. A honey bee will not look at all their honeycombs full of honey and say, "We don't need any more." As long as flowers are offering nectar, the field bees will bring it home, collecting much more than they can eat.
This is a great blessing to us. Can you guess why? Yes, it means there will be extra honey for you and me.

Because the bees collect so much, the beekeeper will need to keep giving them more hollow boxes of frames to keep up with how much they're collecting.

Once fall comes and the flowers are finished blooming, the beekeeper can collect his share of the honey. The beekeeper only takes the extra honey from the bees that they won't need, leaving the rest of the honey for the bees to eat all winter long while they're on vacation inside their hive.

Next time, we'll take a look at how the beekeeper gets the honey out of the honey combs.

In a summer with good weather, one hive can make as much as 100 pounds of extra honey. That's the honey you and I get to eat.

So, get your spoon out and get ready to taste that honey! Yum.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bees are Born Twice

I guess you could say they get born and then they get born again.

How on earth do they do that? It's simple really. First the queen lays an egg in the bottom of a honey comb cell. After three days the egg hatches and a teeny tiny larva is born. So that's the first birth.

The larva is really small for a few days but nurse bees will come along many times each day and add a white pudding-like food to the bottom of their cell. That food is called royal jelly and it makes the larva grow very big very quickly.

Soon the little white larvae will grow quite chubby and the nurse bees will feed it honey and pollen. At first the larvae will curl up in the bottom of their cells but soon they'll get so big that there's no more room to grow.

After about 9 days the worker larvae will know it's time for a big metamorphosis--a big change. The bees will come and put a cap on the larva's cell and then the larva will spin a cocoon. After it spins the cocoon it will pupate.

Then a few more days will go by. On the 21st day after being born the first time the pupae bee will be born the second time when it chews the cap off its cell and hatches as a baby bee.
(Click on the picture at left to see a closeup of the baby larva bees).

The baby bee will have a nice big meal of honey and then it'll be time to get to work, cleaning her cell and then helping out in the hive.

If she's lucky she might live for about a month. During her lifetime she'll care for her brothers and sisters, help take care of the queen and then one day work outside the hive gathering. In her whole life she'll produce about 1/12th a teaspoon of honey.

Can you picture how much honey is a 1/12th of a teaspoon?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Queen

Her Royal Highness, the Queen.

She's actually not the boss of the hive and she doesn't tell everyone what to do... at least not in words (as far as we know).

The male drone is the biggest bee in the hive but the queen has the longest abdomen. It's often a golden colour and she'll have a brown or black back.

To keep the hive healthy and working well the queen gives off her own personal perfume called pheromones. Her children smell this pheromone and it makes them happy and helps keep them organized and working.

The queen's young daughters do all the work of taking care of the baby larva bees when they're just hatched. They also do a job called being an attendant to the queen. Another term for it would be a lady-in-waiting.

The queen is very similar to a human queen. She has a court of attendants and their job is to take care of her. They keep the queen always looking nice and well groomed.

It's the attendant's job to make sure that their mother gets a bath. Yes that's right. The baby daughter bees make sure their Mom gets a bath!

They lick their mother's body, her face and her fur to keep her clean. They even have a little hairs on their legs that act like brushes that they groom her with.

They feed their mother too. The queen will never stop to feed herself because she's so busy laying eggs. Her daughters bring the food to her.

The queen is incredibly busy and hard working. She can lay between 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day.
Can you see the queen in the photo? Her back is marked with yellow paint. Look for her golden abdomen.
The queen is so busy that she doesn't even leave her hive to go to the bathroom. Yes, it's true.

That's another job for her attendants. They have to collect and carry her poop out of the hive. (The hive must always be really clean so the bees won't just let the poop stay in the hive).

They feed their mother and she eats a lot. She eats about three times her own body weight every day. Do you know why? It's because she needs to be active and healthy so she can lay lots and lots of eggs. The queen eats only one kind food her whole life long and it's called royal jelly. This white pudding-like food is made by a special gland inside the worker bees' head.

All baby larva bees are fed royal jelly too but they only get it for a few days after they hatch from their tiny eggs. See the picture of the larva in the cells. Can you see the white pudding-like substance that the larva is laying in? It's a pool of food, royal jelly and the bees are feeding it to them.

Later on we'll find out how a queen is made.

Next time your mother tells you that you have to take a bath you can ask her if she knows who gives the queen a bath.

It's Such a Hard Life.... Being a Boy

The male drone.

He's the biggest bee.

He's got the biggest wings, the biggest
eyes and the most fur. He's also the noisiest bee in the hive.

He needs to have larger wings to go with his bigger body so he can fly and that's why he's the noisiest. Listen carefully to the video below and watch for the bee with the long back legs--that's the drone flying in front of the hive.

He has the biggest eyes because vision is very important. He needs to be able to see the queen.

Take a look at the bee photo across the top of this blog page. There's lots of workers there who are smaller, there's even a queen with a yellow dot on her back.

Look carefully at the largest bees. Can you see the drone? Look for the biggest bee with the big goggle eyes.

Drones don't do any chores for the hive. They even need the workers to feed them. The workers don't mind feeding their brothers because it's part of their hive life.

The drones do have one very important task that they need to do and that's to mate with a queen. It's sad but true that after a drone mates with a queen he will die.

Every afternoon the drones leave the hive and go to a boys' hang-out called a drone congregation area. They wait there for queens to come so they can mate with them. That's where their big eyes help so they can see her.

Because drones don't do tasks such as guarding the hive, they have no need for a stinger. That's right. Drones don't have stingers.

They're big and loud and scary sounding but they're the gentlest bee in the hive. You won't see this bee in the flower garden since he doesn't collect pollen or feed himself.

Listen to the video. Can you tell the sound of the drone from the other bees?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Who Does the Work?

Is it the boys or the girls who do all the work for the hive?

Here's a HUGE hint: The Bee Movie is totally wrong!!!

It's not the boys that do the work and run the hive, it's the girls.

Bees are social creatures with a Queen, who is their mother, and her sons and daughters. They're very similar to ants in that it's the females that do the hunting and gathering for the family.

The female bee, called a worker won't ever grow up into a queen. She'll always be a worker until the day she dies because that's the way she was born.

Workers have two main things that they do to support their family. The first is chores inside the hive as a house bee and the other is chores outside the hive as a field bee.

In this photo the house bees are feeding their brothers and sisters who are chubby white larva laying curled up in their honeycomb cells.

Do you have chores that you have to do at home? So do the bees. And guess what? Their chores aren't much different than yours.

Inside the hive workers will: Feed and babysit their baby brothers and sisters, keep them warm by clustering, clean the hive, remove any garbage, feed and care for the queen, store and pack honeycombs, fan the honey and protect the hive.

Can you guess what's the first chore of a newly hatched baby bee? It's to clean her room. She has to clean the cell she hatched from so that it's all ready for the queen to come and lay another egg in it.

When a worker is older she'll work outside the hive as a field bee. Outside the hive she'll gather nectar and pollen from plants. She'll also collect water to drink or cool the hive and she collect a sticky substance called propolis.

A worker bee can live up to a month but often she won't live quite that long and she'll wear herself out and die from all her hard work. In winter, the bees mostly have a vacation and a worker can live for several months inside the hive.

This family structure is also the same for wasps, hornets and bumble bees. With the big list of chores you can see why people say often say "as busy as a bee".

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bees Have Pockets

What? Yes, it's true.

A worker bee has 8 pockets on her abdomen. You may be wondering why a honey bee has pockets.

There's a very good reason.

[Photo -can you see that bee's stomach and the little bits of white sticking out of her pockets? Those are wax scales.]

During part of a worker bee's life she will help her hive by building and repairing honeycombs. She'll use beeswax to build these combs.

Have you ever wondered where the wax comes from? It comes from the bees.
Her body will produce the wax and it will secrete from glands on her abdomen into these 8 little pockets.

It comes out as a clear liquid but once it cools the wax looks like tiny clear fish scales.

The worker will then use her foot to grab a wax scale and put it to her mouth. Then she chews it up to make it soft and then she shapes it into honeycombs.
She makes it all look so very easy. The combs are very delicate but strong as well and make the perfect container for nature's sweetest gift.

Honeycombs are used by the bees to store their pollen and nectar as well as to raise their babies.

Honeycombs filled with honey can be eaten right off the spoon. The wax can be eaten too. The beeswax is also used to make sweet smelling candles, furniture polish, lip balms, and foot balms.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What are Killer Bees?

Killer Bee is a term that has been given to African honey bees that are now living in North America.

You are probably wondering how African honey bees ended up in North America.

(picture from Discovery Channel blog at Where will the killer bee go?)

Here's how it all happened:

Many years ago a scientist in South America wanted to do experimental breeding with African and South American honey bees. So he flew to Africa and brought some African honey bees back with him.

African honey bees are well known for being fantastic honey producers. The only problem is that they are also very enthusastic about protecting their honey--they're aggressive and don't hesitate to sting.

The scientist was trying to breed African honey bees with South American bees to try to take advantage of the honey producing genetics of the African bees, but create calmer and more placid bees by crossing them with the gentle South American bees.

But the scientist took a day off and a person who was taking care of the bee yard saw these little entrances on the front of the scientist's hives. These entrances were specially designed to prevent the African queen bees from leaving the hive to breed in the wild. But the person didn't know and removed the special entrances.

The African queens did leave the hive and breed with wild bees in South America.

Very quickly this bee species spread through South America and because the land is connected between South and North America, the bee was able to keep moving north. Next the bees were in Mexico and from there they travelled to North America into the southern parts of the USA.

So far this bee has not been seen in the northern and more colder parts of North America.

There probably aren't any more pure African bees because they've bred with our bees. The term now used to describe these hybrid bees (bees who have bred with domestic and wild North American bees) is "Africanized Bees". They look very much like regular honey bees, except that they are smaller.

We don't have Africanized bees in Canada because it's too cold.

One thing hasn't changed. They're good honey producers and they still REALLY like to protect their honey.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Honey is Bee Barf

Yep. It's true.

Honey is actually made by the bees barfing.

And this barf tastes so gooood. Yum!!!

Let's back up a bit and find out why the bee barfs.

In summer, the worker bee forages out in the field, looking for flowers that are blooming and offering nectar.

Nectar is what the bees collect and turn into honey.

The worker has pollen baskets on her back legs--that's where she puts the yellow pollen powder to take back to her hive, but where do you think she stores the nectar? She must take it back to her hive to share with her family.

She stores the nectar inside her body in a special stomach called a honey stomach. That means that bees actually have two stomachs.

When the worker finds a flower she dips her long tongue, called a proboscis, into the flower and she sucks up the nectar into her stomach in the same way that you would drink a soft drink at your favourite restaurant.

(This photo is of honeycombs filled with honey which the bees have capped with beeswax).

Then she returns to her hive and she climbs up the honey combs. Then she leans down inside a cell and regurgitates (barfs) all the nectar from her honey stomach into the honey comb cell.

(This photo is honeycombs made by the bees. See how they look like pancakes hanging from a

Nectar is a sugary tasting water, so it's not really honey yet. In the next step fanning bees will come along and fan the honeycombs. The wind from fanning blows off the extra water in the nectar, leaving behind a thicker liquid.

I bet you can guess what that thicker liquid is.... Yes, it's honey!

So, pass me the bee barf please so I can put it on my toast. How do you like to eat your bee barf?

Bee Poop

Do you have rules in your house? I'm willing to bet that you do.

You probably have a rule that says you have to eat all your vegetables and that you have to wash your hands before eating. Those are pretty good rules.

Bees have rules too. One of their very important rules is that their hive, which is their home, must be kept very clean.

The workers in the hive all have to do chores and several of the chores involve cleaning house.

Some workers will be given the job of an undertaker. Their job is to carry the dead bees out of the hive. The worker will drag the heavy dead bee down through the hive and out the front door. They she'll struggle to get it to the edge of the entrance and there she'll drop the body onto the ground.

In this photo and the video below, two female workers are working very hard to drag a dead drone bee away.

Another job is to wash the floors. Bees will use their tongues like brooms to lick everything clean. Often beekeepers will observe bees outside on the front porch of their hive, licking the floor to clean it. They call that 'washboarding'.

How often do you have to take a bath? Bees like to be clean and they keep their bodies clean similar to how a cat does. They lick the tiny hairs on their legs and then reach up with those legs to comb and cleanse their body fur.

Bees have fur just about everywhere, even in their eyes!

When it comes time to poop, they have a really big rule. No one is allowed to poop in the hive. It's a no-no. Bees take what's called a cleansing flight to poop. They fly outside the hive and once they are about 3 or 4 feet away they'll poop in mid-air.

Their pooh is liquid and it's gold in colour. Can you guess what gives it the golden colour? Of course, it's the food they eat--honey. In the photo there's a large male drone bee on my hand - can you see the golden poop on my finger? Yes, he pooped on me (click to make the photo bigger so you can see).

In winter, pooping can be difficult and a bit of a problem. Bees don't hibernate through winter. Instead, they stay awake and shiver their wing muscles to stay warm. They share their body heat with each other in a cluster, just like penguins.

bee poop on snowIsn't it funny that bees do the same thing as penguins even though they've never met?

In winter it can be pretty super cold outside and too cold to fly. In that case, the bees must hold their poop until a warmer day. Once a warmer winter day comes along, the bees will all fly out and defecate (which is another fancy word that just means poop) outside the hive.

In winter in Canada you can see the golden bee poop streak marks in the snow. That saying remains true, "Don't eat yellow snow."

Cool Honey Bee Facts

  • There are three kinds of bees in a hive: Queen, Worker and Drone.

  • Only the Queen in the hive lays eggs. She communicates with her hive with her own special scent called pheromones. The queen will lay around 1,500 eggs per day.

  • The worker bees are all female and they do all the work for the hive. Workers perform the following tasks inside the hive as a House Bee: Cleaning, feeding the baby bees, feeding and taking care of the queen, packing pollen and nectar into cells, capping cells, building and repairing honeycombs, fanning to cool the hive and guarding the hive.

  • Workers perform the following tasks outside the hive as Field Bees: Gathering nectar and pollen from flowers, collecting water and a collecting a sticky substance called propolis.

  • Bees have two stomachs - one stomach for eating and the other special stomach is for storing nectar collected from flowers or water so that they can carry it back to their hive.

  • The male bees in the hive are called drones. Their job in the hive is to find a queen to mate with. Male bees fly out and meet in special drone congregation areas where they hope to meet a queen. Male drone bees don't have a stinger.

  • If a worker bee uses her stinger, she will die.

  • Bees are classified as insects and they have six legs.

  • Bees have five eyes - two compound eyes and three tiny ocelli eyes.

  • Bees go through four stages of development: Egg, Larvae, Pupae and Adult Bee.

  • The bees use their honeycomb cells to raise their babies in, and to store nectar, honey, pollen and water.

  • Nectar is a sweet watery substance that the bees gather. After they process the nectar in their stomach they regurgitate it into the honeycomb cells. Then they fan with their wings to remove excess moisture. The final result is honey.

  • Bees are the only insect in the world that make food for humans.

  • Honey has natural preservatives and bacteria can't grow in it.

  • Honey was found in the tombs in Egypt and it was still edible! Bees have been here around 30 million years.

  • A honeybee can fly 24 km in an hour at a speed of 15 mph. Its wings beat 200 times per second or 12,000 beats per minute.

  • Bees have straw-like tongues called a proboscis so they can suck up liquids and also mandibles so they can chew.

  • Bees carry pollen on their hind legs called a pollen basket. Pollen is a source of protein for the hive and is needed to feed to the baby bees to help them grow.

  • A beehive in summer can have as many as 50,000 to 80,000 bees. A bee must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey. It requires 556 worker bees to gather a pound of honey. Bees fly more than once around the world to gather a pound of honey.

  • The average worker bee makes about 1/12 th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

  • Bees have 2 pairs of wings. The wings have tiny teeth so they can lock together when the bee is flying. Bees communicate through chemical scents called pheromones and through special bee dances.

  • Every 3rd mouthful of food is produced by bees pollinating crops. Flowering plants rely on bees for pollination so that they can produce fruit and seeds. Without bees pollinating these plants, there would not be very many fruits or vegetables to eat.

  • A single beehive can make more than 100 pounds (45 kg) of extra honey. The beekeeper only harvests the extra honey made by the bees.

  • The average life of a honey bee during the working season is about three to six weeks. There are five products that come from the hive: Honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly.

  • Beeswax is produced by the bees. Bees have special glands on their stomach that secrete the wax into little wax pockets on their stomach. The bee takes the wax and chews it with her mandibles and shapes it to make honeycomb.

  • Propolis is a sticky substance that bees collect from the buds of trees. Bees use propolis to weatherproof their hive against drafts or in spots where rain might leak in.

  • People have discovered the anti-bacterial properties of propolis for use in the medical field.

  • Royal Jelly is a milky substance produced in a special gland in the worker bee's head. For her whole life the Queen is fed Royal Jelly by the workers.

  • Although bears do like honey, they prefer to eat the bee larvae.

  • Honey comes in different colours and flavours. The flower where the nectar was gathered from determines the flavour and colour of the honey.