The fascinating life of the honey bee

WHEN you’re feeling that the world around you is chaotic and unpredictable, it can help to think about the highly organised and efficient world of the honey bee.

Honeybees are social insects, living in colonies of up to 70,000 bees, and each bee has its purpose — the hive runs very smoothly.

Within a beehive you have three types of honeybees, the queen, the worker and the drone.

During the first couple of weeks of life, the worker bee, an infertile female, is involved in the making and maintenance of the hive.

The youngest worker bees tend to the ‘baby bees’ or larvae. When about four weeks old the worker bees begin to fly out of the hive and it is this older worker bee you see in the garden as it gathers nectar, pollen and water.

However, the success of a beehive depends largely on the queen bee, the only fertile female. There is only one queen and she is the heart and soul of the colony.

As a beekeeper, on every visit to the hive you will need to determine: “Do I have a queen?” and “Is she healthy?”

It can be difficult to find the Queen among 70,000 or so bees, so we tend to mark the queen on her thorax with a coloured paint or little plastic cap so that she readily stands out from the crowd. April or beginning of May is the time to mark a queen before the colony reaches its peak number of bees when she may be impossible to find.

The queen is capable of producing more than 1,500 eggs a day at 30-second intervals but her egg-laying capability slows down as she ages.

Beekeepers therefore routinely replace their queens to ensure that the hive has a new energetic young queen each season.

The bees themselves may replace an old queen, which is called supersedure, and they will also be stimulated to produce more queens if the hive becomes overcrowded.

If there is more than one queen in the hive, the queen bees may fight until death or a queen may leave or ‘swarm’ from the hive with other workers to establish a new colony.

A swarm is seldom welcomed by a beekeeper as it depletes the hive of worker bees who are the honey makers.

Therefore, beekeepers tend to prevent the hive from making unplanned queens and as a safeguard the beekeeper will also clip one wing of the queen using a fine pair of scissors.

When a queen whose wing is clipped leaves the hive, because another queen is about to be born, she cannot fly, falls quickly to the ground outside the hive, and she can be lost.

All the workers who were leaving with her will panic and then return to the safety of their original hive where a new queen is emerging. Thus no worker bees are lost to the hive.

After a few days the newly established queen bee flies out of the hive and will mate with several “drones.” Most likely, these mating events will allow her to lay eggs for the rest of her life.

If you are interested in opening up a hive, see www.irishbeekeeping.ie 


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