Many people fear bees and want to get rid of them, even helpful species such as honey bees and bumble bees. Before you take steps to eliminate bees, keep in mind that they play an important role in producing our food. Indeed, bees pollinate approximately one-third of the food we eat. Understanding common bee behavior and characteristics can help you co-exist peacefully.
Honey bee characteristics:
Live in colonies. Honey bee colonies can accommodate up to 60,000 worker bees. Bumble bee colonies are much smaller, usually containing 120 to 200 workers. Are social and cooperative. Bees work together to collect and store food to be used later by other bees. Three castes of bees perform specific jobs in the colony:
Workers (infertile females)
Worker bees are the only bees most people see. Worker bees perform different jobs depending on their age. Sometimes called nurse bees, young worker bees feed the bee larvae with pollen and nectar. As they get older, worker bees perform other tasks. They secrete wax to build the honeycomb (creating the hive), and they defend the hive against predators. Later in life, they become foragers, collecting nectar and pollen from flowers and bringing it back to the hive. Worker bees also fan the hive to regulate the temperature, clean the hive and carry water back to the hive.
WORKER BEE INFORMATION
Throughout history, the work ethic of the bee has been admired. The ancient Egyptians venerated them, and were the first documented civilization to domesticate bees. The Minoans of ancient Greece revered them because of the teamwork a beehive represented. Two bees entwined around a honeycomb served as a symbol for the ancient Cretan city of Gortys, and the same symbol has been found on pendants and earrings in other locations on Crete.
This teamwork is perhaps most evident in the life of the worker bee. As their name implies, workers are the laborers of a beehive or colony. They are responsible for gathering food, protecting the hive and caring for the young bees.
These bees are found in social bee colonies, especially species like the honey bee. In solitary bee species, such as the carpenter or digger bee, females double as both queen and worker, doing the job of both.
Social bee species are organized by a caste system. The queen bee runs the hive. She also lays the eggs for the colony. Drones are next: These male bees exist to mate with the queen and are usually present from late spring to early summer. All worker bees are females and are the smallest bees in the hive. They are the largest group found in the hive, and are responsible for keeping it running smoothly.
A MAJORITY VOICE
Worker bees are found in some bumble bee hives and in the hives of honey bees. Bumble bee hives are small, and may have anywhere between 12 to a few hundred of this type of bee. Honey bee hives, on the other hand, are quite large. Colonies range from 20,000 to 80,000 bees in total, with 98 percent being workers.
In bumble bee hives, the first group of workers are raised by the queen bee, and subsequent groups are raised by the worker group before them.
In honey bee hives, other worker bees raise the younger ones, new queens and drones.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
This type of bee has a long tongue for nectar-gathering, strong jaws and wax glands to help build honeycombs and the ability to produce enzymes needed for honey production. They also have legs built for carrying pollen and a barbed stinger for hive defense. The queen bee also has a stinger, but it is smooth and only used to attack rival queens.
Worker bees function in several roles within the hive. They act as nurse bees taking care of the young bees and the queen, as housekeepers who work to clean and expand the hive and as foragers and scouts who bring back food and seek out new hive locations.
As a worker ages, it takes on different roles inside and outside of the hive. Typically, an adult that is less than 1 week old will clean and polish the cells for both food production and egg-laying by the queen. It will also feed the older larvae in the colony. Workers up to 2 weeks old make the royal jelly used to feed the queen and the larvae and also secrete wax to build honeycomb. Beginning at 2-3 weeks old, the bees will leave the hive and collect pollen. Once a bee turns 21 days old, it begins to collect nectar instead of pollen. They are sometimes referred to as house bees and field bees, to differentiate when a worker is inside or outside of a hive.
This division of labor also ensures a higher survival rate for young bees, as they remain protected inside the hive away from predators and the elements until they are stronger.
All worker bees contribute to climate control, especially in the winter when the hive must be kept warm, and in the ongoing production of honey. Depending on the hive’s needs, a worker can fulfill any of these roles at any time during its life.
Despite the fact that all worker bees are female, most of the time they are sterile. The queen lays the eggs, which hatch after three days. The worker larvae are fed royal jelly for two and a half days, followed by a mix of pollen and honey for two and a half days. Afterward they are sealed into their cells for 12 days, during which they spin a cocoon and develop into an adult. The entire process takes 20 days total.
Worker bees take five days longer to mature than queen bees, but have a shorter life span. On average, adults of this type of bee live for five to six weeks in the summer. During the winter months, a worker may live up to six months in order to help sustain the hive through the cold weather, and raise new workers for the spring and summer.
All worker bee larvae can develop into queen bees within the first 48 hours of their life if the conditions were right, and the larvae were fed royal jelly during the entire five-day growth period, instead of making the switch to honey and pollen.
In certain situations, such as the queen bee’s unexpected death or absence from the hive, workers can develop reproductive organs to lay emergency queens. These queens are typically weaker, and smaller than those laid by the queen bee in preparation for her death. Workers can also produce eggs in situations where more drones are needed, though the drone bees will not be as strong as those laid by the queen. In that instance, they are referred to as laying workers.
WORKED INTO THE GROUND
A colony will not survive without an adequate number of worker bees, but the hours of effort take their toll. A worker typically dies from exhaustion or burnout, and its body stops functioning from all the hard work. For example, their wing muscles will give out at about 500 miles of flight distance.
A FATAL STING
Worker bees are the only bees that can sting because the stinger is a result of an evolutionary quirk. Drones have no stinger, and queen bees will only sting other queens.
Workers in a honey bee hive are the only type of bees with barbed stingers. This means the bee can only sting once. The stinger will lodge itself in the flesh of the victim, but doing so means it tears away from the bee itself.
Because of this trauma, the bee will die after it has stung, giving its life to protect the hive. These bees are more likely to sting if a person is near their hive, but can also sting if they feel threatened or are handled.
While they only live for a short time, worker bees are necessary for the hive’s existence and for honey production. Often overlooked, they play a big role in the life and survival of a colony.
Queens (fertile females)
The queen bee’s job is primarily to mate with the drone and lay thousands of eggs—about 1,000 per day. If she doesn’t lay enough eggs, the worker bees replace her with a new queen. There is usually only one queen in a hive. When the queen dies, the workers turn one of the infertile worker bees into a fertile queen. They do this by feeding the worker bee a substance called royal jelly. The queen forms a new colony by swarming. She and some of the worker bees leave to start a new colony, and a newly created queen takes over the original colony.
QUEEN BEE INFORMATION
There are many species of bees, but they do not all live and behave in the same way. Bees are either social or solitary, depending on their species. Solitary bees live independently of each other, except for when they breed. Social bees nest in colonies that may consist of just a few members or several thousand bees, all living and working together to maintain their colony under the direction of one bee, the queen bee. Whether social or solitary, everything bees do is to fulfill one purpose: produce more bees to ensure the survival of the colony and their species.
DIVISION OF LABOR
The queen bee is the female reproductive “leader” of the colony among the social bee species. Bees are in the insect order Hymenoptera, along with the many species of wasps and ants. Those species with social colonies are structured in a caste system. There is a division of labor among members of the colony to make sure all the critical colony needs are met.
The queen honey bee is responsible for laying all of the eggs needed to produce new bees and develop the colony. She is the only egg laying member of the colony. She also directs the behavior, the work assignments and the balance of the colony population to make sure it is structurally sound. She communicates her directives with various pheromones, which are chemicals that dictate the behavior of specific bees, and cause some colony members to become workers, some to become drones and others, potential queens.
Worker bees are all female, but they are not sexually mature, and most never will be. They collect and produce food or serve as nurse bees, tending to the eggs, larvae and pupae stage bees as they develop. Some of the worker bees serve the queen, providing her with royal jelly, which is a nutrient required for her effective reign.
The males are called drones, and their only function is to provide sperm for fertilization of the eggs. It may sound like they are the lazy members of the colony that are of little benefit, but the colony could not survive without them. The life of a drone is not quite the “good life” that it may seem to be. Drones die immediately after mating with the queen, and those that do not mate are no longer needed by the colony, so they are dragged from the nest by the workers, where they quickly starve to death.
LIFE SPAN AND SPECIES OF QUEEN BEES
A queen honey bee lives two to three years, on average, with a few living up to five years. There are seven subspecies of honey bees. Most of the honey bees used by beekeepers are Apis mellifera, and there are several subspecies or strains of these, each with unique characteristics, temperaments and other qualities that make their colonies and hives unique. The size of the colony, amount of honey produced, disease resistance and aggressiveness of worker bees are a few of the things that vary among species.
Knowledgeable beekeepers sometimes use queens of different subspecies to develop optimal honey production and other desirable qualities in the hives they maintain. They can also develop colonies with worker bees that are easier to work around, and are disease and parasite resistant. Italian (Apis mellifera lingustica), German (A.m. mellifera), Carniolan (A.m. carnica), Caucasian (A.m. caucasica), Buckfast (hybrid) and Russian (hybrid) honey bees are some of the common subspecies and hybrids that beekeepers utilize.
When a queen bee of a different subspecies replaces a queen in a hive, the colony will change over the next few weeks as the new bees born from the new queen’s eggs mature, and the older bees in the colony reach the end of their natural lives. Worker bees only live a few weeks to a few months depending on the time of year, so the hive can change to a completely new set of bees within that time frame.
Most species of bees can sting, but they are considered docile and are not likely to be a threat to people unless disturbed. Some species of honey bees, such as the Africanized honey bee (A.m. scutellata) are very aggressive, and can be very dangerous to those that get too close to their nests.
Honey bees sting for one reason: they feel threatened, and they are either defending themselves or their nest. When bees feel threatened and respond by stinging, they also release a pheromone that tells other bees in the area that a threat is in progress, bringing them to the fight. In most cases of European bees that become upset, two or three out of 10 will actually sting the threatening offender. Africanized honey bees will respond much more aggressively with eight or nine out of 10 bees joining the action. Even though Africanized honey bee hives are generally smaller than European bee hives, there is a considerable difference in the overall number of stings inflicted.
Africanized honey bees have spread throughout much of the southwestern United States as the aggressive African honey bee queens have overtaken European bee hives, both feral and domesticated, by displacing the docile European queens. Within a few weeks of the overthrow, the hive becomes a fully Africanized honey bee colony as the new queen’s eggs hatch and develop quickly to adulthood. Older European bees begin dying as they reach the end of their life span, completing the conversion.
The queen bee really does control the honey bee colony and her subjects are loyal to the end.
These bees' job is to mate with the queen. They die after mating.
Bees pollinate flowers and plants
As bees collect pollen and nectar to take back to their hives, they transfer pollen from one flower to another, allowing fertilization and reproduction. For this reason, honey bees are widely used in agriculture to produce a good crop yield. Bumble bees also pollinate flowers and plants, so gardeners welcome them.
Worker bees dance to communicate
Bees do a waggle dance to tell the other bees where to find food. The waggle dance is very specific, indicating which direction and how far to fly. Bees also do a tremble dance to signal the receiver bees to collect nectar from returning foragers.
Worker bees defend their colonies by stinging intruders
They produce pheromones (chemical signals) that trigger other bees to attack. Most bees rarely sting if they aren’t provoked and don’t feel threatened. Therefore, to avoid getting stung, leave their nest alone.
Honey bees form winter clusters
Bees stop flying when the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The worker bees gather around the queen in the center of the hive. The worker bees shiver to keep the temperature near the queen very warm (81 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit). Honey bees eat stored honey to produce body heat.
A large bee swarm has just landed in a tree in your backyard. The kids are playing on the swing set within a few yards of the bees, but haven’t noticed them yet. Why has this swarm chosen this tree, in your yard, and what can you do to avoid a severe bee attack on your children?
First, be calm. It really does matter, not so much to the bees, but you do not want to startle the kids. More importantly, you do not want to stir their curiosity about the large swarm of bees in the tree. Simply call your kids into the house for lemonade, or use some other “bait” to get your kids to come inside. That is one of the safer ways to defuse the situation and the best chance that nobody will be stung. The bees are not paying attention to the kids, but are completely focused on the queen bee, who is in the center of the swarm. As long as the kids do not notice the bees and start disturbing them, the bees will stay where they are and leave peacefully, usually within an hour or so.
A SWARM OF BEES IN THE YARD
Stinging pests are not welcome in the yard, especially not a swarm containing thousands of bees. What is going on? Are they lost? Are they sick? Well, they are not sick and they are not lost. These bees have “absconded” from their nest, a common bee behavior that occurs whenever honey bees outgrow their hive or feel an ongoing threat to their home. They have simply left the old hive at the direction of their queen, and are looking for a place to build a new home. They have landed in your tree to rest while scout bees continue looking for the perfect place.
THE THREAT OF A BEE STING, OR THOUSANDS OF THEM
Honey bees are docile and even though they are a stinging pest, they do not sting unless provoked. Bees only sting to protect themselves or their nest, and without a nest, they have one less thing to worry about. If you have ever been stung by a bee, you were perceived as a threat, either to the nest and honey, or to the bee itself. There is neither honey, nor any developing bees in a swarm that has absconded, so the only thing for them to protect is the queen. She is in the middle of the swarm cluster, and all of the worker bees try to stay as close to her as possible. Would the bees react should a rock or a basketball suddenly strike the bee swarm? Yes, they would respond quickly, but if left alone they are not concerned about anything outside of their world.
DETERMINED TO PROTECT THE QUEEN
The queen bees is essential to the hive. Without her, the other bees will have no leader. Queen bees are also necessary to mating and growing a hive. While worker bees have some ways to produce a new queen, if they are not successful at doing so, the entire colony of bees could die.
THE ROLE OF BEE SCOUTS
If you see a few bees flying in and out of the swarm, they are probably scout bees. The job of a scout bee is to find a potential nest, so they are coming and going to report in occasionally as they search for the new home. They are interested in nothing else, only the mission they are on. Otherwise, other bees in the swarm will stay put until the queen decides to move away.
REASONS FOR BEES BEING ON THE PROWL
Bees do not like to build their nests in populated areas. They learned a long time ago that their honey is a highly desirable commodity to many predators. These predators steal their honey and disrupt, or even destroy their home and precious brood. This could be the reason they are moving in the first place. Something disturbing or disruptive has moved into the area, too close to the hive, and they have chosen to leave rather than fight for the location.
More commonly, the colony has simply gotten too large for the hive and it is time for a bigger home. The old hive probably served them well, but with all the new hive mates coming along, the old homestead has gotten crowded. The time has come to pack up and move to a larger space, so they can spread their furnishings out and continue to build and grow their colony.
RESISTING THE URGE TO KILL OR TRAP BEES
Honey bees are beneficial insects and should not be destroyed unless there is imminent danger to humans. In most cases, if the bees are simply left alone, they will leave on their own accord, usually within a few hours at most. It is also dangerous to risk disturbing a bee swarm by trying to trap them yourself. This could definitely prompt an attack. Attacks by large numbers of bees can be lethal. If the bees have not left after a few hours, consider calling a beekeeper or a pest control professional.
CONCERN ABOUT YOUR HOME AS THEIR NEW LIVING QUARTERS
Bees do occasionally decide to build their nests in homes, but it is the exception, not the rule. There is too much activity around a typical home to provide the peace and quiet they desire.
If you have a bee swarm in your yard, it’s best to just leave it alone. But if the bees have moved into the walls or eaves of your house, you should call Terminix®. A Service Technician will evaluate the situation to determine whether treatment or removal by a beekeeper would be more appropriate. Honey bee treatment is a multistage process that should be handled by professionals. Improper treatment of bees can result in multiple stings and even cause damage to the home from the honey that is left behind.