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The Western Honey Bee

The Western Honey Bee is the most widespread of nine honey bee species in the world. Though originally feral, it has long been domesticated by humans to facilitate honey collection and is now predominantly managed as a honey producer and crop pollinator. Originally common across Europe, Western Asia and Africa, it is now found across the globe.

Colony structure

Honey bee colonies are super-organisms:

The bees live in colonies with a clear division of tasks among its inhabitants regarding labor and reproduction.

A colony normally contains a female queen, male drones (only at certain times of the year) and female worker bees.

  • Queens have the reproduction task, live up to 4 years and lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.
  • Workers are short-lived and numerous (up to 60,000 per colony) and care for the offspring and all other kinds of work.
  • The only role of the drones is to mate with young queens, usually from other colonies.

The whole purpose of the caste system is to assure the common good – colony survival. Strictly seen, single honey bees are not individuals, the colony is the actual individual (a meta-organism).

Development in the honey bee colony

A year in the life of the Western Honey Bee in the Northern Hemisphere

SPRING

The worker bees end their overwintering phase and swarm out in search of food for themselves, the queen and her new developing brood. The queen will begin laying progressively more and more eggs, reaching a maximum of around 2,000 eggs per day sometime around May. After mating season, the worker bees drive the males out of the hive. This is also referred to as ‘drone eviction’.

SUMMER

At this time of year, Western Honey Bees begin to stock up for harsh weather and the upcoming winter. They preserve the nectar they collect from flowers by turning it into honey, which provides food during the cold season when flowers are no longer available. To produce one jar of honey (500 grams), worker bees between them need to cover a distance of up to 120,000 kilometres while foraging – that’s almost three times around the globe! A bee colony needs about 20 kilograms of honey for the winter – so imagine the distance bees cover to collect this.

FALL

From late summer to fall, as food sources become scarce, honey bees may start to steal the winter food stocks of weaker colonies. During this period, the longer-lived winter worker bees will hatch and begin to replace the summer worker bees in the hive. These bees can live for up to seven months. From late summer until fall, beekeepers need to help their bee colonies to stay healthy to survive the cold season, for example, by controlling pests and diseases and providing food for nutrition after honey harvest as flowers become less abundant.

WINTER

To survive the cold winter months, around 10,000 longer-lived winter worker bees huddle together around the queen in the hive, forming a large ball called a winter cluster. They keep each other warm by shivering their flight muscles to maintain a stable temperature of around 20 - 23 °C. In a ball, they lose much less heat than they would in other configurations.

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