Western Honey Bees

Photo from: http://beneficialbugs.org/Honeybee/honey_bee.htm

This article is the result of an ADI reader request from Tucson bee-keeper Francis Saitta. I have written two previous “bee” articles:

Desert Bees and Carpenter Bees – black and gold and smelling like roses.

Most bees in the Tucson region are solitary and live in burrows. Socialized bees in our region include the introduced honey bee, Africanized bees, and the native black and yellow bumblebees. For all bees, only the females sting. The stinger is an adaptation of the ovipositor, or egg laying structure. If the barbed stinger is left in the victim, the act usually rips the abdomen of the bee and causes it to die.

In this article, I will give general information about the honey bee, discuss its difference from the bumblebee, and comment on the over-hyped “colony collapse disorder.” Mr. Saitta is invited to add to the information (and correct anything I get wrong) in the comment section.

Western Honey bee:

The western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa and was introduced to North America during the 1600s.

Each colony has a Queen that is usually the only fertile female. Drone bees are the males whose primary job is to fertilize the Queen. Worker bees are females that are usually infertile.

According to Wikipedia:

“In the temperate zone honey bees survive winter as a colony, and the queen begins egg-laying in mid- to late winter in preparation for spring (probably triggered by day length). The only fertile female, she lays the eggs from which all the other bees are produced. Except for a brief period (when she may fly to mate with drones or leave in later life with a swarm to establish a new colony), the queen rarely leaves the hive after the larvae have become bees. She deposits each egg in a cell prepared by worker bees. The egg hatches into a small larva fed by “nurse” bees (worker bees who maintain the interior of the colony). After about a week, the larva is sealed in its cell by the nurse bees and begins its pupal stage. After another week, it emerges as an adult bee.

“For the first ten days of their lives, female worker bees clean the hive and feed the larvae. After this, they begin building comb cells. On days 16 through 20, workers receive nectar and pollen from older workers and store it. After the 20th day, a worker leaves the hive and spends the remainder of its life as a forager. The average population of a healthy hive in midsummer may be as high as 40,000 to 80,000 bees. The larvae and pupae in a frame of honeycomb are known as “frames of brood”, and are sold (with adhering bees) to start new beehives.

“Workers and queens are fed royal jelly during the first three days of their larval stage. Workers are then switched to a diet of pollen and nectar (or diluted honey), while queens will continue to receive royal jelly (which helps large, sexually developed larvae reach the pupal stage more quickly). Queen breeders consider good nutrition during the larval stage critically important for queen quality, with good genetics and sufficient mating contributing factors. During the larval and pupal stages, parasites may damage (or destroy) the pupa or larva.

“Drones are the colony’s male bees. Since they do not have ovipositors, they do not have stingers. Drone honey bees do not forage for nectar or pollen. The primary purpose of a drone is to fertilize a new queen. Many drones will mate with a given queen in flight; each will die immediately after mating, since the process of insemination requires a lethally convulsive effort.”

Is it a honey bee or a bumblebee?:

Here is how to distinguish honey bees from bumblebees. Honey bees are slender; bumblebees are bigger, more rounded and very hairy. Honey bees have many stripes while bumblebees usually have more blocky coloration. See photos and a chart from Alex Wild here.

Honey bees live in large colonies with as many as 50,000 workers. Bumblebee colonies generally contain 100 to 400 individuals. Bumblebees are in the genus Bombus and there are more than 250 known species. Both Honey bees and bumblebees feed on nectar and are important agricultural pollinators.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

From the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), June 5, 2015:

“You’ve probably heard by now that bees are mysteriously dying. In 2006, commercial beekeepers began to witness unusually high rates of honeybee die-offs over the winter — increasing from an average of 15 percent to more than 30 percent. Everything from genetically modified crops to pesticides (even cell phones) has been blamed. The phenomenon was soon given a name: colony collapse disorder.

“Ever since, the media has warned us of a “beemaggedon” or “beepocalypse” posing a “threat to our food supply.” By 2013, NPR declared that bee declines may cause “a crisis point for crops,” and the cover of Time magazine foretold of a “world without bees.” This spring, there was more bad news. Beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies over the last year, prompting more worrisome headlines.

“Based on such reports, you might believe that honeybees are nearly gone by now. And because honeybees are such an important pollinator — they reportedly add $15 billion in value to crops and are responsible for pollinating a third of what we eat — the economic consequences must be significant.

“But here’s something you probably haven’t heard: There are more honeybee colonies in the United States today than there were when colony collapse disorder began in 2006. In fact, according to data released in March by the Department of Agriculture, U.S. honeybee-colony numbers are now at a 20-year high. And those colonies are producing plenty of honey. U.S. honey production is also at a 10-year high.” Read entire article (with links to other articles).

Mr. Saitta adds: “It occurs mainly in ‘managed colonies’ and the cause is not known. Historically, it has happened before the advent of modern pesticides and the use of microwave towers. My guess it that is a navigational disorder caused by some pathogen(s) which disrupts the worker bees ability to find the way back to her colony. This is aberrant behavior since healthy workers would never abandon their colony leaving behind brood and a queen.”

A review of CCD published in PubMed from the National Center for Biotechnology Information concurs: “There is a growing consensus that colony mortality is the product of multiple factors, both known and unknown, acting singly or in combination.” And that, folks, is the definitive answer from government sources.

See other ADI articles on insects and arachnids:

Black Widow Spiders

Carpenter Bees – black and gold and smelling like roses

Desert Bees

Giant Mesquite Bugs

Green lynx spider

It’s time for scorpions

Mist of the Sharpshooters

Palo verde root borers are emerging

Pepsis wasps have the most painful sting

Praying Mantis

The Cochineal, a little bug with a valuable product

The Gentle Desert Tarantula

The Sex Life of Bruchid Beetles

Venomous Centipedes and Cyanide-Oozing Millipedes

Vinegaroons and Sun Spiders